September 12, 2011
Ladyfish can drive you nuts, but they can also figure into your fishing strategy.
Originally published in February 2011 print edition
Cape Haze, in Charlotte Harbor, is the scene of this ladyfish feeding frenzy.
On the western shore of Charlotte Harbor, two or three acres of ladyfish churned the surface around Capt. Chris O'Neill's 24-foot bay boat. Amid their frenzied slashes in clear water, the yellow fins of small jacks were apparent.
It was a plug fisherman's nightmare.
“This is where the reds were the other day,” Chris insisted.
Sure, I thought, as I reeled yet another ladyfish across the surface. This one—number 19 or so—didn't throw the lure at first, which meant it probably had three points of a treble hook buried in it. It did.
I knew Chris wanted some ladyfish for bait, and I was beginning to wonder if he was using the redfish story to bait me into another cast. He'd shown no inclination to move his boat, which seemed to be caught in a tidal eddy. I threw my topwater toward a dead mangrove limb, twitched it a few times, and darned if a redfish didn't jump clear out of the water to smack the lure.
“Decent fish,” I said to Chris.
The red made a few zippy runs toward the trees, stopped each time, and zoomed on out past the boat, before being corralled in the captain's small-mesh release net.
I was sure it was a fluke, but two casts later, another spirited red shouldered aside the ladyfish and jacks to grab my lure, a Bomber Badonk-A-Donk in silver mullet pattern.
“That's the way they've been,” he said. “They've been moving down the shoreline with the outgoing tide, same way the last few days.”
Seen on a chart, the western side of Charlotte Harbor is basically one big point, terminating at Cape Haze. The few intercepting creeks drain out on the tide, pushing forage and predators down toward deeper, grassy water in the lower bay system.
Chris wasn't lazy—far from it. He knew what most good shoreline fishermen know, that when there's a pattern, you're as apt to run into fish while sitting in place as you are moving around. In fact, if you expect the fish will be moving, as reds tend to do, you'll often catch more by picking one spot and sticking with it.
Captain Chris O'Neill catches a redfish amid the flurry of ladyfish.
Another big thing we had going for us here (or against us, depending on how you look at it), was a concentration of very small baitfish—most likely anchovies—which had the interest of those ladyfish, and in turn the reds. In winter—when mullet and sardines thin out, and even pinfish get scarce—there's nothing better than finding a cloud of tiny minnows. Often as not, the ladyfish signal their arrival.
I noticed the same pattern a few weeks later, fishing out of Goodland, with Capt. Kevin Merritt.
“You can't fish the Everglades in winter without catching ladyfish,” Merritt noted as we doubled up on the high-flying ladies. We were throwing jigs along a current-swept mangrove shoreline, in water too dark to register much in the way of baitfish. No birds were around. The water temp was 60 degrees. We caught snook, redfish and seatrout, all around the ladyfish.
Ladyfish are an interesting species. At various intervals in your fishing life, they seem to be gamefish. Certainly a ladyfish of 3 or 4 pounds is a terrific battler on light tackle, stronger and faster than anything out there of comparable size. On a slow day, a school of ladyfish is a welcome consolation prize to satisfy yourself and friends.
And yet, they are problematic. Tell yourself, “They're just like tarpon,” and then say that for the eightieth time and see what it sounds like.
Point the wrong end of a ladyfish your way, and you'll be coated with a jet-propelled, ochre paste. Point it at your buddy, and he'll be coated with said paste. Either way, you'll have tiny, slimy scales on your hands, and likely more of that paste drying on your boat.
Publicists for the scenic town of Jupiter, on Florida's lower Atlantic coast, could make a case for Ladyfish Capital of the World. That is if sailfish, snook, swordfish, snapper, mackerel, cobia and permit suddenly disappeared.
Nowhere have I seen greater concentrations of large ladyfish than in this part of the state. They show up in winter, right along with bluefish, pompano and other migratory fish.
Captain Butch Constable, a Jupiter guide, notes that the ladyfish numbers—and sizes—aren't what they once were. Used to be, 8- and even 10-pounders were caught here, as well as in Lake Worth Lagoon. Constable suspects the big ladies were victims of bykill in the big mackerel gillnets that worked these waters in the 1980s and early ‘90s. As the mackerel recovered following the 1995 net ban, so have schools of 5-pound ladies, along with hordes of smaller ones. Just not the “ten-pounders” (which happens to be an old nickname for the species, a tribute to the fact that even little ones fight like 10-pound fish).
Surely, I figured, Constable had strategies for catching pompano and other fish amid the flurry—blizzard—of ladyfish that moves into town ‘round about December.
“Sure,” he said. “Move.”
In all seriousness, Constable notes that slowing down your presentation is one way to deal with the ladies.
“For pompano I've been using these little jigs, the Goofy Jigs—they're so effective. I'll start with the ¼-ounce jig, maybe go to a 3/8- or ½-ounce if it's windy. Bringing it in slow, very slow, twitching it on the bottom, reduces ladyfish and bluefish bites, and gets more pompano. Any speed in your retrieve, the ladyfish, jacks and bluefish get it.”
Over on Charlotte Harbor, O'Neill's strategy for dealing with the ladyfish sounds retributive on some level, but it's actually quite practical: Turn ‘em into bait.
Drifting on Charlotte Harbor, looking for seatrout and other fish.
“Ladyfish won't eat each other,” he said. “I'll take a ladyfish, chunk it up into 1-inch steaks, and throw it into the schools on a 3/0 or 4/0 circle hook. Redfish and trout are often hanging down below, eating scraps.”
O'Neill is a big proponent of circle hooks when chunk fishing; in his experience, too many fish are gut-hooked with J-hooks.
The ladyfish chunk—sturdy, shiny, oily—is equally effective in mangrove overhangs, potholes and other feeding zones. Live ladyfish to 12 inches or so are deadly for big snook and tarpon when they're around; lip-hook ‘em on a big circle hook below a popping cork.
Unfortunately, in both circumstances the utility is short-lived: Live ones don't last long in a well, and chunks simply turn to mush, according to Chris, if you try to freeze them.
O'Neill said the ladyfish thin out of Charlotte Harbor by late December, and he misses them—not only as a source of bait, but as an indicator species.
“Ladyfish are synched with the ‘micro baits,' small glass minnow schools that come through in the spring and fall,” he said. “It's a chain reaction: In the fall, they're usually with bluefish and jacks; in spring, the tarpon will be with them.”
On the Indian River Lagoon, where I fish much of the year, ladyfish are often aligned with pompano: Find one, you'll often find the other. As Constable, in Jupiter, pointed out, it can be frustrating when you're trying hard to catch the good-eating pomps, and ladyfish are nabbing your jigs. At the same time, given the erratic local movement of pomps—scurrying from spoil bar to grassflat to bridge channel—I find it convenient that the fast-striking ladyfish are often in the area. They're kind of a barometer for what to expect.
Always check your leader after a few strikes: Ladyfish have very raspy jaws. One minute you're laughing with your pals as you jump off another ladyfish, and the next you're cursing your luck as a strong fish—likely a pompano—streaks off, only to pop your frayed leader. Retying knots is a good idea.
If you're plug fishing for trout, reds and others, pinch down the barbs of the treble hooks. This is a good idea at any time of year, but especially so when you're liable to contend with spastic ladyfish that could easily bury a barb in your hand.
On that trip with O'Neill, we experimented with a new Bomber plug, the Badonk-A-Donk SS. This 2½-inch suspending bait is a dead ringer for a large glass minnow or small pinfish. We had Spanish mackerel going nuts for the little SS plugs off Boca Grande Pass, but the ladyfish were a pest. Pinching the barbs flat made it much easier to release the undesirable fish, while we retained enough mackerel to make a day.
Single-hook jigs are fairly easy to manage when ladies are thick. Everglades guide Kevin Merritt ties up his own jigs, using 70-denier Fishair and multiple applications of Sally Hansen's Hard as Nails cement. Ladyfish will quickly erode the thread wraps on cheaply-tied jigs.
Often the fish simply throw a jig on the first jump, which is a good thing. If one happens to get firmly hooked, you can “dance” it next to the boat until the jig loosens. As already mentioned, these fish are prodigious poopers. Unless you're collecting them for bait, or perhaps documenting a big fish, best to turn ‘em loose outside the boat. Keep a towel handy.
Just what the ladyfish are up to is anyone's guess. There hasn't been a ton of research. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, and Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce have compiled species accounts for Elops saurus. These indicate ladyfish primarily spawn in the fall, offshore. Juveniles inhabit estuaries for 2 or 3 years, before joining the spawning stock. Finfish—presumably minnows and fry, based on what I've seen 'em cough up—make up anywhere from one-third to 94 percent of their diet. They're members of the Elopiformes, an ancient order that includes tarpon and bonefish. The larval stages of these fish are quite similar—eel-like, translucent leptocephali—but mature fish are easily distinguishable.
Prior to Florida's prohibition on large entangling nets in state waters, in 1990 commercial fishers took almost 6 million pounds of ladyfish on the Gulf of Mexico. In more recent years, the landings there have hovered around 1 million pounds. The ladyfish—far too bony for most Floridians' tastes—are shipped to far-away markets and sold as fish cakes.
Scientists say ladyfish feed heavily at night. Large eyes suggest low-light prowess, same as their cousin, tarpon.
At the same time, Constable says ladyfish seem to gravitate to clear water, which suggests another strategy for avoiding them: “Muddy, sandy patches of water—pompano are more likely in there, and bluefish, too,” he said.
What of simply targeting these fish for the pure enjoyment of it?
Many fishermen enjoy catching ladyfish. Fly fishing is a no-brainer—ladyfish are quick to pounce on just about any 2- to 3-inch pattern you throw. Kids have a blast catching ladyfish on any tackle you provide.
In any event, the studious angler will pay attention to what those ladyfish are up to, and what other fish are in the area. A cloud of tiny minnows or fry is not something to pass up lightly, especially in cold, clear winter water.
Luck be a lady! you might find yourself exclaiming. FS