March 16, 2022
By Frank Sargeant
Most of us think of "hard bottom" as a term relevant only to those who chase reef species like grouper and red snapper far offshore. But along broad stretches of Florida's coast, fishing hard bottom is also an effective inshore strategy for trout, blues, Spanish mackerel, tarpon, black sea bass, sheepshead, mangrove snapper—and even, yes, the occasional keeper gag.
Inshore hard bottom occurs wherever the strata of sand that makes up the Florida peninsula is uncovered, revealing the limerock underlayment that's common in many areas. On this rock, an assortment of corals and shellfish make up the base of the food chain, drawing baitfish, crabs and other edibles, which in turn attract the gamefish.
Specifically, some of the areas I'm familiar with include the South Shore area of Tampa Bay, and numerous outcroppings running roughly from the north end of Anclote Key all the way around the Big Bend area into the Panhandle. (To get an idea of what this terrain looks like, visit St. Martin's Reef some time when you're in the waters north of Anclote—it's basically an outcrop that's pretty much fully exposed on big spring low tides.)
These locations are not all that obvious, and do not appear on all charts—it's necessary to find them by putting in the time, easing along at slow speed in 8 to 15 feet of water with an eye on the sonar. Any of the hard, thin lines that indicate hard bottom, or any squiggles, rises or drops are worth investigating with a few casts.
Often, when you get over a larger spot on a calm day, you can hear the "Rice Krispies" crackle of snapping shrimp and other denizens of the rock bottom—it's a dead giveaway. It's also sometimes possible to see the change in bottom terrain when the water is clear—and it seems to be getting clearer every year in some areas such as Tampa Bay. The hard bottom areas typically look pale green, compared to the darker green of those covered with grass.
In spring, summer and fall, the areas sometimes hold evident schools of bait, including threadfins and scaled sardines, pinfish and occasionally needlefish and balao. When the bait is there, you can almost be sure of action, but even when it's not, there are usually a few big eaters loafing below.
Standard operating procedure is to gear up with a lure that's adequate to hit bottom easily at the speed you happen to be drifting. A soft swimbait or plastic-tailed jig of 3/16 to 1/4 ounce will be best on most days, but on windy days you might do better with a 5/16- to ½-ounce head. Add a sliver of fresh-cut shrimp to the hook and you'll increase the number of bites, though if there are many pinfish around, they may drive you crazy. On calmer days, slow-sinkers including plastic shrimp are hard to beat. If macks and blues are around, a small chrome spoon or crankbait will connect when worked rapidly.
It doesn't hurt to keep a big topwater handy to lob over the area, particularly where you see bait on top. Big trout and sometimes tarpon will grab these lures, and occasionally species you don't expect to hit topwaters, including mangrove snapper and gag grouper, will come up to slam them. (Where there's a gag, there's an actual rock or ledge below, so you'll probably need some 50-pound-test braid to have much chance of getting these guys to the boat.)
Drop a GPS marker on each spot where you get a flurry of action, and soon you'll have a "milk route" to run on these inshore areas, just like offshore reef anglers do. One of the nicer things about these spots is that most are rarely or never fished, which means that the fish are big, dumb and hungry—just the way you want them. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine July 2016