an insider look at some of our best
bays to fish with some of the best
local captains from around the country
WORDS BY Captain SCOTT GOODWIN
STATE: FLORIDA/ EAST CENTRAL
KEY SPECIES: Redfish, Snook, Tarpon, Speckled Trout, Black Drum and more
CLASH II 2000 TO 3000/ ROD: BATTALION II INSHORE SPINNING BATINII815S70
Central Florida on the East coast is renowned for its inshore saltwater fishing. We have a variety of shallow, saltwater and brackish bays, lagoons and creeks that hold a wide variety of our most famous sportfish as well as serve as a nursery ground for many more. Anglers chase redfish, snook, speckled seatrout, black drum and tarpon to name some of the more famous ones, but the variety doesn’t end there. Jacks, ladyfish, mangrove snapper, flounder and others are also willing to put a bend in a rod for local and visiting anglers.
I typically fish the Indian River Lagoon around North Merritt Island where I live but the Indian River stretches for more than 150 miles along the East Coast of Florida from Daytona to Stuart, Florida. The habitat varies across this long stretch of shallow saltwater estuaries but mangroves and seagrass are some key features throughout. While I will focus on fishing, I must mention the current decline in water quality that is severely depleting the seagrass beds which are a base to the entire food chain and filtration of the system. Planktonic algae blooms triggered by a variety of long-time nutrient sources have shaded out the seagrass and caused widespread degradation of habitat.
Despite these issues, that are slowly being addressed, the fishing can still be outstanding, though the fish and the anglers chasing them have had to adapt.
I find myself fishing the shorelines more since the vast grass beds are totally gone in my area. Our main structures are mangrove roots and fallen trees along the shoreline. The prop roots of the red mangrove create a living labyrinth of roots where small creatures thrive and big creatures hunt them. Redfish will patrol the edges of the shoreline while snook will lay in pockets near submerged trees and docks waiting to ambush finger mullet, shrimp and your lure. Occasionally we use live bait, but for the last 7 years I’ve become obsessed with throwing the GULP Mantis Shrimp soft bait on a 3/16-ounce jighead. Using 20# to 30# fluorocarbon leader and 15# to 20# braided line, we probe the shorelines using a trolling motor and power pole as we sneak along the shoreline working the bank much like bass fishing. The similarity stops when a 6-pound snook crushes your jig and is already charging back towards the barnacle encrusted branch where he was hiding. If he makes it, its almost always game over, but if you can turn him and coax him out onto the flats, you can back off the drag a few clicks and enjoy the battle. Snook will also blast topwater lures, mid-water presentations and a variety of jerk and twitch baits.
Redfish do the same and always give a spirited bulldog fight but they are not quite so driven to get back in structure as a snook. But don’t let your guard down or you will find him buried in some roots just before your line parts. A redfish, or red drum are built to be bottom feeders with a down-turned mouth and small gripping teeth, but they are opportunistic and will chase a topwater lure, gold spoon, jerk bait or just about any presentation. Topwater attacks are sloppy as the red has to really tip his head up to eat, but nothing stops your heart or gets it racing like a sloppy topwater bite. Redfish will just as willingly pick up a natural bait off the bottom and many are taken on shrimp, cut mullet or ladyfish chunks. This is a very effective method though you will have to deal with more saltwater catfish when using bait compared to throwing lures. Redfish can swim in schools of similar sized fish or can be found as singles or pairs cruising the grass flats, channel edges or along submerged structure. Cuts where water is flowing or creek mouths are ideal spots to chase all inshore species because bait naturally congregates in these areas. Find the food and you will likely find the predators.
Another very popular Florida gamefish is the speckled sea trout. Another predator of the shallows, these shy fish are silly-willing when they are small and stacked up in schools, but nothing is more wary than a big “gator” trout when it’s laid up in 8 inches of water. Long casts and stealthy lures are required to consistently fool these snaggle toothed trout look-a-likes. Sea trout are actually in the drum family though the similarity to freshwater trout is striking. Again, topwater early and late is a fun way to catch them, but my GULP mantis takes its fair share of nice trout too. Trout have tender mouths and stick their heads up for some violent shaking when hooked, so we often use a lighter drag when targeting them. They are not as structure oriented either and will hold in potholes on the flats or edges of the grass when it is present. Trout are very frail and must be handled extremely carefully or not at all to ensure a living release if that’s your goal.
Next on my list and one of my favorite river fish to eat is the black drum. These fish are definitely “bottom” oriented and built to root in the mud or sand for crabs, shrimp and bits of mollusk or clams. All of these are excellent baits for black drum and can be presented in front of a school cruising or rooting the flats as well as on the bottom in deeper holes or cuts. Let the scent do the work for you. They are harder to catch on lures or flies, but it can happen. I find laying the GULP down in front of them and barely twitching it will get a sniff some of the time, but its your best shot if you don’t have bait. Black drum can get big too and often can be caught around bridge pilings where heavy tackle is a must. Occasionally black drum over 60-pounds are caught and get even bigger in the ocean along the coast. Most fish on the flats range from 3 to 20-pounds and are great fun.
Now let’s talk tarpon! Another one of my favorites and there are as many ways to catch them as there are ways to lose them when they take to the air in an acrobatic display like few others. If you catch 50% of what you hook; you’re on Fire! Our creeks, canals and mangrove estuaries are filled with juvenile tarpon from 1 to 20-pounds or better. They feed on tiny mosquito fish, finger mullet and any other small creature they can find. I use a light spinning rod that allows me to throw a 1/8-ounce jighead with a minnow imitation of any sort. Basically, a crappie jig will work great for small tarpon. 15# fluorocarbon leader with allow for some action on a small jig, yet resist the chafe of a tarpon’s mouth long enough most of the time. Step up your tackle and your lures as you target larger classes of tarpon.
While we may not call the Indian and Banana River a “Bay”, the fish and opportunities are a perfect match and the options for Florida inshore fishing are endless.
BERKLEY RIPPLE MULLET
PRO TEAM CONTRUTROR SCOTT GOODWIN