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 MIKE GORE
KEY SPECIES: Snook, Spotted Sea Trout, Red Drum, Sheepshead, Black Drum
Reel: Penn Fathom Low profile 200/ ROD: Carnage iii inshore CARINIII815C70
REEL: PENN LIve liner spinning 2500/ rod: battalion ii inshore BATINII612S76
Extending over 400 square miles, Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest estuary. Tampa Bay has four freshwater rivers flowing into it and is also connected to the Gulf of Mexico. With an average depth of 12-feet, the bay’s topography consists of sand, seagrass, oyster beds, and is surrounded by mangrove shorelines. There are hundreds of species of fish to target throughout the year, but the most popular would have to be the grand slam which consists of snook, redfish, spotted sea trout, and tarpon.
These fish can be targeted with a variety of presentations, and while fishing artificial lures is always fun, using live bait is key to consistent success in Tampa Bay. The bay is home to a variety of baitfish but the scaled sardine, which is often referred to as a “greenback”, is the bait of choice. Other options would be shrimp, pinfish, and threadfin herring. When the fish aren’t in the mood to chase down a live bait, a piece of cut bait, like ladyfish, mullet, pinfish, or threadfin herring, sitting on the bottom will do the job.
If you’re new to the fishery, be aware that most of the fish have an open and closed season, along with a slot size and bag limit. So, make sure to check your local regulations before fishing. If you haven’t been out in a while, be aware that the Fish and Game have been known to frequently modify regulations and closures.
Fishing new areas can be a challenge even for the best anglers, so there are several things to look for when you venture into new water. Before heading out, spend a little time researching it on Google Earth. Does the area have good tidal flow and deep pockets? Tidal flow keeps the water oxygenated and shuffles the bait around, all of which keeps the predators happy. The deep pockets create ambush points where fish will stage up and wait for the bait to be pushed around in the incoming or outgoing tides.
Once you arrive, be sure to look for eddies on an outgoing tide. Eddies are water flows that are created as the tide runs through the mangrove lines and over oyster beds. Drift a bait over these eddies all the way until it reaches the open areas. With this drifting presentation, the strike could happen at any time, but will most likely happen toward the end of an eddy. Finally, and probably the most important thing is to look for is signs of life on a flat. If you don’t see mullet, baitfish, or crustaceans, then you won’t see the predators you’re trying to catch.
Breaking it down by species, snook offers plenty of action from Spring through Fall before moving into the many rivers and canals surrounding Tampa Bay. The muddy bottom of these rivers will retain heat and help them survive the cooler water. Fishing with live shrimp this time of year will be a good option. As spring approaches, look for them to transition out onto the grass flats and mangrove estuaries. When this happens, catching 75 fish in one day is not uncommon if you are fishing with scaled sardines. The water is still fairly clear this time of year, so downsizing your fluorocarbon leader to 20 or 25lb may be necessary. Summertime can be some of your best options to catch your biggest Snook. The big females make their way to the beaches to spawn. If you are lucky enough to catch one, please handle it with care during this delicate time.
Redfish are one of the most popular fish to target in the bay as they offer a great fight on light tackle. During the spring and fall, the fish school up to spawn and it’s not uncommon to see fifty to one hundred redfish grouped together. Fishing for Redfish during these months can bring non-stop action. Look for them on grass flats with sandy holes in less than 4-feet of water. The key is to make as long of a cast as possible. Always throw your bait to the lead fish. Throwing your bait in the middle of a school will only spook them.
When fishing for Redfish, there are several bait options. Live scaled sardines will usually do the trick, but if that does not get their attention, switch to cut bait. Cut pinfish, ladyfish, mullet, or threadfins work great because they put off a strong scent. Redfish are mostly bottom feeders and they are always foraging in the sand and grass looking for food. The best lures for redfish are a 3-to-5-inch paddle tail with a 1/8- or 1/2-ounce red jig head or weedless gold spoon worked slowly near the bottom of the water column.
You will need to target different areas of Tampa Bay when fishing for trout throughout the year. The bigger trout, or “gator trout”, as some people call them, are usually caught in January or February when the water is cooler, and the fish move into shallow water. They will usually hold in the sand holes on a grass flat to stay warm. At these times, a jumbo shrimp fished under a cork will be hard for them to resist. In the warmer months, move to deeper grass flats in the 4-to-8-foot range. Fishing with shrimp in the warmer months can be a little frustrating for anglers as the pinfish will usually get them before a trout even has a chance. At those times of the year, a scaled sardine will be your best bet. If artificial is your bait of choice, then use a jig head heavy enough to bounce it across the bottom. Lighter patterns work best when targeting them on the flats.
Every May through August, we are blessed with the arrival of tarpon (aka the silver king). This is one fish that every fisherman should battle at least once in their life. The anticipation of hooking into one of these fish will put a smile on your face as they roll all around the boat. It is breathtaking to see such a beautiful fish jumping six feet in the air while you’re fighting it. The average Tarpon in the area is usually over 130-pounds. When they first arrive, the tarpon will travel up and down the beaches while feeding and can be targeted using live crabs or threadfin herring. The key to getting bit is to get out in front of the fish and let them come to you as they travel along the beach. As with Redfish, you want to present your bait in front of the lead fish.
As summer approaches, the tarpon will make its way into Tampa Bay. Look for them to be hanging around all of the major bridges. Tarpon will eat almost anything you throw at them, so make sure to have plenty of options. Suggestions include live threadfin herring, crab, or cut bait. The most important thing to remember when tarpon fishing is to bow the rod to the tarpon when they jump. Pointing the fishing rod at the tarpon will allow slack in the line and prevent the fish from breaking your line. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
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