February 01, 2005
Fish the Flip Side
We're almost there—another month and the Big Bend pelagics will be back! Even now, the robins can be seen along the roads, Mother Nature has said something that made the red maples blush and the wild flowers beautify the banks of the freshwater creeks.
Bluefish and jacks kept Kevin Webb and grandson Jacb Lovett occupied on this bluebird day.
There are a lot of ways to ignore the missing pelagics. One way is to fish for sheepshead. They are in their spawning mode, ready to eat barnacles, fiddler crabs, oyster crabs, shrimp live and frozen, tube worms, and I know a man who catches them with night crawlers. But they seldom strike jigs.
You can fish for trout, you can catch trout, but if you keep one the game warden will make your fishing trip expensive. Next month is a better trout month, anyway. Redfish, bless 'em, are always around.
This is a great month for sand trout and whiting. Scout around for relatively deep water, say 10 to 20 feet, over hard-packed sand. I've caught them from the pier at Cedar Key, from the fishing pier of Crystal River, and in the deep water just south of Derrick Key. The really good spots, however, are northwest from Suwannee's Alligator Pass Marker 5, and south of Steinhatchee Marker 1.
Sand trout will hit almost anything that moves. Don't get so busy catching fish that you overlook other lures. The standard rigging: a sinker, 15-inch leader and a live shrimp. A small jig with either synthetic bait or pieces of shrimp does very well; just slowly drag the jig along bottom. The tiny spoon that looks like a hot dog sliced on the bias, with a treble hook, catches sandies, whiting and anything else that is down there. Best of all, however, is to slice one of the sandies into small chunks and put the bait on a jighead. I targeted sand trout with Alan Baxler one time, and he proved to me that fresh and real baits catch bigger fish.
People ask what tide is the best for fishing; only one fish can make a sage out of me: sand trout. Fish when the tide is barreling in.
When the weatherman permits you to go offshore, reef fish can really make your day: red grouper, gag grouper, grunts, black seabass, triggerfish, porgies, remoras, wrasses, morays and if you're unlucky, you may hook a 60-pound nurse shark. They're sluggish, but if there is a muscle-bound athlete on your boat, give him the rod.
I learned something from Vic Dunaway; we were fishing with Wiley and Doris Horton and John Patrick. We anchored over the rubble of an artificial reef, about 35 feet deep. Most of us cast as far out as possible. Vic fished straight down. He was using a spinning rod with 12-pound mono, and never once had a grouper “rock” him—that is, have a grouper dash into a hole and refuse to come out. The rest of us hooked fish way out there and had to drag our groupers over the rubble that had innumerable hideyholes, with no way to drag them out.
Most anglers who fish for grouper catch grunts, lots of grunts. However, a fillet of grunt is almost as good a bait as a live pinfish. Go ahead and fish with your favorite rigs. Meanwhile, with your strongest rod and reel, put a fillet of grunt down there just over the bottom and put the rod in a holder. It's amazing how a grouper can bend a heavy rod.
In fresh water, largemouth bass are in a spawning mode. Papa fans out the nest, mama drops her eggs on it and papa fertilizes it. Mama leaves; papa stays there and drives away all the bream and salamanders (sirens) that just love bass eggs. Papa is not very smart. When an angler drags a plastic salamander over the nest he doesn't see that sharp hook and suddenly he's hooked and jumps clear of the water to shake it off.
Newnans Lake is proving a point in freshwater fisheries' management. In March, a few years back, a friend and I caught 60 slab crappies (speckled perch) in one morning. By the following winter, for some strange reason, crappies disappeared. Crappies that were stocked were never seen again. Finally, Gary Simpson and the Bassmasters of Gator Country persuaded the Fish and Game Commission to cease stocking sunshine bass. Gradually, with no further stocking, the sunshine bass in Newnans Lake got “caught out.” With the drought, they have disappeared, and, once again, the lake has small crappies! Newnans may regain its fame as a mecca for crappie fishers.
With warming waters, bream in the rivers are good targets. Get out your fly rod, drift along near the banks and lay your Woolly Bugger or popper within a couple feet of the bank. Everyone hopes for redbellies and shellcrackers; what they get most of the time are pugnacious little stumpknockers. Farther down the rivers, just before they join the salt, bluegills are the bream of choice.
BEST BET: BIG BEND
Redfish! You can fish for them when it's warm or cold, calm or windy. A cold snap may drive them into the rivers and creeks; a warm spell may see them around the oyster bars and rocky points.
You know the routine: live shrimp under a popping cork. Early in the morning, try a surface plug. Gold spoons always work. My buddy Glenn fishes two small jigs sweetened with pieces of shrimp under a cigar-shape bobber that barely keeps the jigs off the bottom. Yes, now and then he catches two at the same time.
Redfish are a triumph for fisheries regulations: No sale; slot limit that preserves the spawners; bag limit of one; and a growing catch-and-release ethic among anglers.