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By Mike Stephens
Mid-winter Florida sun and warm northern currents from the Caribbean signals the start of the Tampa Bay sport fishing season. These conditions offer anglers early opportunities for speckled trout, sheepshead, ladyfish, and sight casting for redfish.
Flats’ fishing is absolutely serene interrupted with moments of intense, heart pounding, drag screaming chaos. My trip starts with a cool morning breeze. The sun is cresting to the east above a cluster of distant mangroves bringing life to the dark water in front of me. I ready myself on the forward platform on the bow of the boat. There isn’t a single sound to be heard except for the occasional gurgle of the fluttering chop on the water. It’s just me, the water, and the fish. Captain Jamie Goodwin stands behind me high above the water on his command post as he poles his vessel silently across the Tampa Bay flat. Several minutes go by before Captain Jamie breaks the silence with a loud and excited whisper, “Look, over there!” He points his push pole over my shoulder and to the left. I look and look over the water. I scan the water with an elevated intensity and sense of excitement. My heart is pounding, but I can’t see them. Captain Jamie senses this and points again with his push pole off to the left, “Right over there.” I look again just in time to see the tiny tip of a tail disappear into water about 30 yards out in front of me, “I got ‘em!” Casting the rod with the flick of my wrist, I send the shrimp on the end of my line out to the tailing red. It lands in the water 10 feet in front of my target. I see the dark figure of a nice sized redfish slide over to my bait. He takes a sniff at it, but keeps on going about his day. I want this fish bad! After the red passes I reel in fast, cock the bail, and deploy my shrimp back in front of the redfish. Again, nothing happens, but this time the fish spooks and he’s gone.
I’d love to tell you that it wasn’t long before we hooked into our first redfish. The fishing was perfect two weeks before my arrival, but an uncharacteristic cold front that sat on the Tampa Bay area for a week before my arrival crashed the water temperatures and the fishing faster than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Despite being optimistic about a 3 day warming trend and coming off of a good lunar cycle, water temperatures remained in the mid to upper 50’s. Our fish where still in shock and not eating on a regular basis. The fishing is going to be tough, but fortunately for me, I’m with Captain Jamie Goodwin and nobody knows these waters and these fish better than Captain Jamie.
The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly:
Good fishing guides are a dime a dozen. In a perfect world we would take our boat to the flats, pole around until we found a big school of hungry fish, and spend the rest of the day with bent rods reeling in fish after fish and going home with big smiles and a camera full of nice pictures.
When the fish are turned off and weather conditions are not in your favor, you are in for a rough time. A lot of guides will write off days like these, doing whatever to get you to book another trip when conditions are better. A top ranked world class guide like Jamie Goodwin will stay calm, cool, step it up, and get really intense about finding fish. This doesn’t mean telling you stories about how they normally catch fish and showing you a couple places where they normally catch fish. This means working extra hard. Showing you all of their angling techniques and experiences as well as keying you into all of their geographic knowledge of the area and their expert knowledge of the biology of the fish you are seeking. Your guide is giving you everything that they have. The real treat here is that you’re about to turn your fishing trip into a true learning experience. To turn your expected catching trip into a bona fide fishing trip, you as the angler, have to get intense too. To do this, your level of intensity has to match the level of intensity that your guide is giving to you. If your guide sees you getting intense about catching fish, they will get even more intense because they know that you’re willing to work as hard as they do.
You have to quickly learn and absorb the knowledge that your guide gives you. And it means you have to know your basics, be prepared, limit your down time, and have better casts and better presentations.
Know your basics:
Your guide is going to be standing on the back of the boat on top of a poling platform. They are there for you and to help you, but their primary goal is to put you on fish. If they have to come down from their platform or if you are handing them tackle to rig for you up on their platform … you will miss opportunities on fish. Learn and know the rods, reels, and rigging that you’re using on your trip. Know the knots, the hooks, and precisely how to rig your baits or lures. You will learn some of this on the water, but you can learn a lot about these things from your guide before the trip.
Be in good physical shape and able to stand on the forward bow of a boat or a forward casting platform for hours at a time. Stay in a “ready” position as much as possible. This means standing “on deck” with the rod in one hand, eyes actively scanning the water, bail open on the spinning reel, index finger holding the line in a casting position, and ready to cast in a moments notice. Be able to precisely cast bait in front of a moving target. On the water is not the time to practice your casting ability.
Train your eyes:
This can only be done with on the water experience. If this is your first time out, you have to learn how to do this and learn quickly. You can’t effectively sight cast to fish if you can’t see them. Listen to your guide and quiz your guide about what they are seeing. A good pair of quality polarized sun glasses such as Maui Jim’s is absolutely essential to find fish. Know the anatomy of the fish you are seeking. Redfish are almost chameleon like in the water. Their natural coloring allows them to blend in perfectly with their environment. With a bright sun shining over your shoulder, you may be able to spot the gold flash that is characteristic to reds feeding, but on overcast days you will need more than that. On white sand flats, redfish appear almost holographic, slightly pink, or even white. Bigger reds will show you a dark shadow. In turtle grass they take on a dark color that camouflages them against predators and their prey. The ability to recognize these fish may rely on your ability to only see and pick out the dark spot on their tail, the outline of their head, or even the outline of their lips. At times you may only see a slight shadow move in the water.
Don’t focus all of your attention in the water. You have to scan across the top of the water at the same time you are scanning in the water. If you’re lucky and the conditions are right, you will be able to spot reds sticking their tails out of the water as they dredge the bottom of the bay for food. Tailing reds are the “cats meow”, but you might only see a ripple in the water. Reeds of grass sticking out of the water or floating debris can draw your attention, but keep an open eye both on the water and in the water. Regardless of how you spot them it’s important to keep your eye on the fish. Do not take your eye off them. Note the direction of travel, and speed. If you’re in your “ready” position, you’ve got a shot at that fish.
Limit Your Down Time:
Down time means missed fish opportunities. More time “on deck” and in a “ready” position will account for more fish. Apply a liberal amount of sunscreen to exposed skin before you leave the dock. Wear appropriate clothing that will protect you to limit the amount of exposed skin. Wear shirts, jackets, or pants that can hold drinks or snacks while you’re “on deck” and pack snacks or sandwiches that you can open and eat with one hand. You won’t be happy if your guide calls out a school of giant fish while you’re busy smearing sun screen on your legs or trying to open the wrapper of the foot-long sub you brought along for lunch.
Casting Techniques & Presentations:
Seeing the fish and getting your boat within casting distance to these fish is only half the battle. You need to send your bait into the water without the splash of your bait or your line scaring the fish. Fluorocarbon leaders are an excellent way to mask your presentation. When picking your target be mindful of other fish around your target fish. A good cast to your target fish can scare other fish around your target. If this happens, you’re busted, and your fish will high tail it for new waters.
Live shrimp on a #2 hook or a similar sized weighted jig head is a very effective way to catch reds. A regular hook provides a more natural presentation, but a weighted jig head may be needed to accommodate your casting style or be used to get your shrimp onto the bottom as fast as possible. When threatened by predators, shrimp will curl up into a ball in an effort to hide and blend into their environment. Reds will use their eyes and sense of smell to key into the shrimp. There are two general methods for getting your shrimp in front of fish.
Direct cast: Cast the shrimp in front of the targeted fish far enough away that the splash of the shrimp hitting the water does not scare the fish, but close enough that the fish sees the bait and so the bait has enough time to naturally fall the bottom and settle to give your bait a natural look. 10 feet is a general rule of thumb. This type of cast is effective for slow moving, calm fish that are not prone to directional change. A direct cast requires precise casting by the angler, but is a very rewarding and natural type of presentation.
Indirect Cast: For sporadic, spooky, faster moving fish, or for fish that are more prone to directional changes an indirect cast proves to be a more effective casting technique than a direct cast. This cast allows the angler to quickly adjust to the fish’s movements or allows an angler with reduced casting ability to adjust the placement of the bait. Depending on the targeted fish’s speed cast past the direction the fish is headed and lead your fish 15 or 20 feet in the general direction that the fish is traveling. Quickly reel the shrimp into the direct path that the fish is traveling. Let the bait sit and wait for the fish to move on the shrimp. If the fish doesn’t see the bait or doesn’t seem interested, lightly twitch the shrimp. If the fish passes, reel in quickly and set up again.
Cut Mullet: When reds are disturbed or seem generally distracted by other activities the oily aroma of cut mullet can draw them away from the crowd and attract them to your hook. Using an unweighted hook, cast your line in the general direction of the fish. Let the mullet sit. Do not move it. Do not reel. The fish will find it.
Plastic jerk baits & flukes: Hungry reds are attracted to easy prey. Soft plastic jerk baits or flukes can be thrown blind during early morning low light conditions when you can’t see the fish or sightcasted to hungry reds. 4-inch plastic jerk baits make a fairly quiet entry into the water and are excellent for covering a lot of water fast. Keep the bait moving at all times. Twitch your rod up and down or side to side for added action and lead the fish far enough away to avoid scaring them away from your bait.
Flies: Chartreuse & yellow, chartreuse & white, or pink & brown Clouser Minnows as well as crab & shrimp imitations are extremely effective flies for catching reds on the flats. Limit your false casts to avoid weary reds from spotting you on your boat. Lead the fish as you would with shrimp or soft plastics and keep the fly moving in the water.
Where to Stay:
Among other things, but most recently etched in history as the official host to Super Bowl XLIII, the Tampa area has an excessive abundance and variety of hotels, motels, beach houses, condominiums, and camp sites to fit a variety of budgets and needs. The gulf coast barrier islands from Clearwater Beach to St. Pete Beach offer many resort amenities for traveling anglers and their families with beach side gulf views, tiki bars, jet skies, and kayaking. Rent a boat for the day at Dolphin Marine in Treasure Island and head out into the water to tour the Gulf of Mexico, the Intracoastal Waterway, and see Tom Selleck’s vacation home. For an extra level of piece and quite while on the water, take a lunch and spend some time on Shell Key. This 2.5 mile long, uninhabited barrier island and wildlife sanctuary offers ample opportunities to take in a tan, hunt for sand dollars, bird watching, or snorkeling but the only way to get there is by boat.
St. Petersburg & Tampa offer a taste of fine southern city life while the northwestern areas of Tampa in Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs offer more of a Tampa suburb feeling with excellent Greek food, Japanese Hibachi’s, and of course local seafood.
Tampa Bay fishing guides move their launch locations and fishing depending on the water conditions and fish movements. Most launch locations will be 20 to 30 minutes or closer from most area accommodations. Talk to your guide for recommendations. Regardless of where you stay, don’t forget to swing by Dockside Dave’s in Madeira Beach for the world’s best grouper sandwich. I recommend this hot, juicy grouper steak in a bun to be lightly blackened and topped with lettuce, tomato, and onions. It’s definitely part of the experience.
Tampa Bay Guides:
Captain James Goodwin
Go Florida Fishing
495 Palm Avenue
Palm Harbor, FL 34683
Captain Jeff Hagaman
P.O. Box 259
Odessa, FL 33556
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