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Redfish in Tampa Bay

West coast anglers revive an old trick for attracting redfish.

Customized shiner-slinger makes it easy to pitch chummers far from the boat.

It ain't chopped liver.

In fact, a lot of anglers are learning that chopped baitfish is treated a lot more like caviar by redfish that might otherwise be tough to catch.

A trip I made with Capt. Chet Jennings on Tampa Bay recently proves the point.

Both of us regularly fish the flats south of the Little Manatee River, and on this day we joined forces to try to fool redfish that some anglers said were actually running away from live sardines on the hook, though they would eat wounded baits tossed out as chum.

We anchored up off a little mangrove point and Chet whacked up a half-dozen threadfins, tossing them as close to the point as possible with his "wiffle bat."

For a while, the only thing that ate our baits was pinfish. But then I saw a big boil and my line began to move off quickly. I cranked the circle hook home and was fast to a 30-inch red. A second later, two other rods went off, and we were soon doing that crazed dance that all anglers love to do, trying to keep the lines from making a string puzzle before we could sort things out. We caught two more fish on that spot, moved 300 yards down the shore and caught three more before the tide died, and with it the bite.

To be sure, most of the time you can pull up on any flat where reds are active, whale away with a weedless gold spoon, a topwater or a jerkbait and readily connect with some big spot-tails in a lot of places along the West coast. Add live sardines to the mix and it's no contest.

But anglers on Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor are discovering that the fish there sometimes become wise to the ways of hooks and lines, particularly on weekends when the pressure is most intense. And these days, some experts note, the weekend effect is a four-day deal, extending from Friday through Monday—it can be Tuesday before the fish calm down and go back to their normal feeding patterns.

By reviving a tactic that has been around for more than 40 years, however, some savvy anglers are starting to connect with even the most hard-fished reds. The trick is to take advantage of the redfish's well-developed sense of smell. Before sight-fishing arrived in force in Florida waters beginning about 20 years ago, reds were thought of in some quarters as bottom-grubbers just a cut above catfish because of their predilection to feed by scent as much as sight. And one of the favorite tactics, as taught to me years ago by my long-time mentor, Capt. Gene Lechler of Homosassa, was to cut up a couple fillets of mullet, broadcast them over a rocky point on a strong tide flow, and sit there until the redfish came to you. The reds could then be caught on the same bait you used for chum, typically a slab of mullet about two inches square, with the skin left on so that it stuck to the hook better.

The new breed of chum-choppers are mostly castnetters, and the baits they use tend to be scaled sardines, threadfins or menhaden, all of them at least as effective as mullet. Of course, in cooler months it can sometimes be a little tricky to find nettable bait, but those who use heavy nets and find the schools on their depthfinders can usually dredge up threads from channel edges and under larger pass bridges.

The basic tactic is as simple as it gets; all you need is a cutting board and a sharp knife. Whack up the baits into 1-inch chunks and heave them over the side in areas where you have seen or caught reds on recent trips. Some of the better areas for chumming are likely to be outside points and oyster bars, as well as white sandholes in grassflats that get a lot of tidal flow. Sometimes you can also find them right along a channel edge, in areas that most people would never fish for reds. The only areas where chumming is unlikely to work are in protected backwater bays where the current just oozes in and out—without a good flow, the scent of the chum doesn't travel far and your odds of attracting fish decline.

You'll probably want to vary your chum presentation based on tide direction. On an outgoing tide, a good bet would be to chum a main runout or slough through the outside bar. Areas like the mouth of Bishop's Harbor, Double Branch Creek or the winding cut into Cockroach Bay are good bets on Tampa Bay, while at Charlotte Harbor, check out the cuts into Bull and Turtle bays, among many others. The scent will be carried hundreds of yards down the sloughs, and is very likely to lure in all sorts of fish. (Don't be surprised if a few of them have lines down their sides; though most snook fans might hate to admit it, snook are avid scavengers at times, and readily gulp down dead bait.)

The big bull reds of fall respond to the tactic as aggressively as the small resident fish.

On rising water, a deep mangrove or limerock shore is likely to be a good bet, especially if the water flows hard against that shore and then diverts down it one way or the other as it heads into the tidal creeks and bays beyond. Look not just at the spot you are planning to fish, but at the likely holding areas downcurrent when you choose a spot to try chumming.

The basic rig is simply a couple feet of 30-pound-test leader and a hook of appropriate size. In water up to three feet deep, you probably won't need a weight. It's not a bad idea to use a float adjusted so that the bait just rests on bottom—this will be your strike indicator, putting you on notice when a fish takes.

To be sure, chumming presents a few problems. The one species that loves chum the most is catfish, and if you chum in an area where the scent will go over deeper water with muddy bottom, you may see your chum gulped down by the cats long before any redfish arrive. You'll also have to take a lot of them off your hook. Crabs and pinfish also work on it, but at least the gulls are less of a problem than when you try to chum with live bait.

And there's also the matter of catch-and-release issues with cut bait. Reds will gulp down a cut bait all the way into their stomach, so it's up to you to be quick on the trigger, ready to set the hook anytime you see the bait moving off. You can also improve the situation by using large circle hooks and big chunks of bait; both make it harder fo

r the fish to swallow the offering. As always with circles, when you see the line move off, you simply crank down fast; there's no need to set the hook by sweeping the rod back. In fact, the rod-set is more likely to cause the hook to jump out of the fish's jaw, while reeling it home works almost every time.

You'll probably want to carry some sort of hook-out device other than your pliers, since you sometimes have to reach down into the throat area to flip the hook free. Those made of a strong bent wire with a wood handle attached work great and are inexpensive. And of course all hooks come out a lot easier if you reduce the barb by flattening it slightly with pliers.

You don't necessarily have to have fresh chum to lure reds; frozen sardines, threads or other baitfish work just fine, and you can buy “flats” of these at many baithouses and fish markets. The frozen bait will work better if, after cutting it up, you put it in a bucket and add a dash of menhaden oil before tossing it over the side. It's a good idea to toughen the frozen minnows you plan to use on the hook by thawing them in a bucket of iced brine. Double hook these baits whole, through the eyes and then back through the side, and they'll stay on long enough for a red to eat them.

And if you don't like the idea of soaking dead bait on bottom, you can still use the chum to call reds to you and put them in a feeding mood. Then deliver a likely lure—a soft plastic shrimp or mullet will rarely be turned down, and you can also do some business by casting a topwater over the chum and just nodding it up and down until the fish below can't ignore it any longer. The chum also makes it easier for flyrodders to get their offerings in front of the fish at close range.

To be sure, chumming is a smelly, messy and time-consuming business, but on those days when the reds are playing hard to get, it can make things a whole lot easier.

Finding Chum Year-Round

It can be tough to find threadfins, the prevalent form of redfish chum, during the cooler months when they rarely feed on top as they do in summer. But the threads don't leave the deeper bays; they simply settle into deeper water and wait out the winter. You can readily find these fish with a good fishfinder—a color machine makes it particularly easy, because a wad of bait shows up as a big red ball with yellow edges, typically suspended about 10 feet down from the surface. If you can get a net on them, you're likely to get all the chum you need in short order.

The trick is to use a heavily weighted cast net with the largest mesh that won't gill the baits; the larger the mesh, the less resistance to sinking and the faster the net drops to trap the baits. You eye the depthfinder to locate the baits exactly, then make your throw off the back corner of the boat and give slack line to let it sink straight down. It's best to have a buddy operate the throttle and put the boat in reverse, so that there's no back-pressure on the brailles as the net drops over the bait. When you think the net has dropped deep enough to trap the bait, purse it hard and begin a rapid hand-over-hand retrieve.

One safety issue here in deep water: Never put the security loop of the net over your wrist. That way, should the net catch a hidden snag, you won't be pulled overboard after it. It's far better to lose a net than to be jerked into cold, deep water far from shore!

Batter Up: An Easy Way to Distribute Chum

Tossing out handfuls of chum is hard on the arm and very messy. There's an easier way, used by Capt. Chet Jennings of Ruskin, among others. Jennings cuts the end out of a toy “whiffle” bat, opening the hollow interior. He then puts his chum inside the bat, and whips it hard as though he were making a cast, stopping the forward motion at about 10 o'clock. The chum sails outward like it has been shot from a cannon, and leaves much less offal aboard than hand-slinging does.

A half-gallon bleach bottle can serve the same purpose; cut out the bottom end, turn it upside down and slide the pour-top over a 2-foot length of broomstick, then staple or wire it in place. Use it just like the bat described above. FS

First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, October, 2004.

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