Gulf Coast Survivors Reality television at it’s best
Void of colorful personalities, hidden cameras, and demanding audiences, southwest Florida’s near-shore wrecks provide light tackle enthusiasts with three thrilling episodes.
Gliding along aboard the Grand Slam on a 260-degree heading over barren miles of sandy, bare Gulf bottom, we were truly running the "flat fields" in search of an oasis. Below us rolled an underwater landscape devoid of any eyebrow raising topographical readings except for the occasional snapper covered limestone outcropping and small garden like plot of wispy sea fans and fiery orange coral. As we approached our mark, from nearly fifty yards away, we spotted eight to ten sickle shaped permit tails slicing through the glassy Gulf surface. It was a golden opportunity to shoot priceless footage. We were only hindered by a dense haze which muted an otherwise majestic sunrise above Florida’s pristine southwest coastline.
It was late spring, and it was prime time to film another episode of the famed local television show Tales of the Everglades Angler, and we had hopes of experiencing some of the finest light tackle action the West Coast has to offer. The action would come courtesy of the many shallow, near-shore wrecks shadowing the Naples and Marco Island coasts.
The surface activity left no doubt in the minds of show host Curtis Grant, cameraman Rob Murchison, and myself as to where I needed to position the boat for us to have a clear shot at these magnificent fish. A stealthy approach would be crucial for our success because just the slightest bit of noise could send these fish scurrying away from the wreck as fast as you could say “Don’t touch that remote!”
Curtis delicately cast his crab with pinpoint accuracy, leading the school by several feet. Only seconds passed before the largest lead fish broke ranks, slammed the crab and peeled line off the reel at a rapid pace. We we’re hooked up! It was an awesome start to an action packed morning of near-shore angling and filming.
“It’s not how far you go; it’s where you go," a veteran light tackle Marco Island skipper once told me some fifteen years ago. His advice still rings true for today’s West Coast anglers, as some of the hottest wreck action is just a short run from port. Although there were fewer boats fishing the near-shore wrecks back then, there are arguably more pieces of structure for today’s anglers to choose from, so an equal amount of possibilities still exist. Discarded concrete building materials, retired rock barges, and antiquated culvert pipes compose many of these coastal playgrounds. Many of these same near-shore reefs are the end result of an aggressive official and, dare I say, “unofficial” artificial reef program implemented over the past two decades. Just how some of these reefs got there can be questioned, but the results of their presence are perfectly clear.
Locally, the Gulf Coast’s many near-shore wrecks and reefs host a wide variety of pelagic and benthic fish offering great year-round angling opportunities for both novice and experienced anglers. However, it is in the later part of spring and early summer as the Gulf's surface temperature rises into the mid to upper seventies that these close-to-shore fish havens transform into blockbuster hits - where permit, cobia, and barracuda take center stage.
The exciting trio of Gulf of Mexico game fish always bring their A-game. To be successful in this premier light tackle league, anglers must always be on their toes. Near-shore wreck angling requires a stealthy approach, adequate tackle selection, correct fish fighting skills, and an often-overlooked critical part of the equation, wreck etiquette. These are popular fishing spots, and company is common.
Access to this reliable and extremely productive fishery is convenient to most boaters since many of the most popular fish producing wrecks dot the charts within twelve nautical miles from any of several area passes. Utilizing Big Marco Pass to the south, or Gordon and Wiggins Passes to the north, the close proximity of these hot spots to shore make them appealing fisheries, especially for local and visiting small boaters.
Success in this near shore arena begins with the angler possessing an accurate set of GPS numbers. Several locally produced “hot spot” charts and Collier County’s government website (www.CollierGov.net) are just some of the reliable sources anglers can tap into to obtain coordinates to many of the larger, most popular wrecks. Although widely scattered and in varying degrees of size and decay, most of these “published” wrecks do offer fish attracting relief.
Along this shallow stretch of coast situated just north of the Ten Thousand Islands, secret spots are NOT abundant, but some still do exist. However, highly guarded as their “bread & butter” spots, many of the area’s savviest light tackle skippers’ consistently guide their clients to double-digit catches over smaller, lesser-known wrecks, some no larger than the size of an average SUV.
Prior to leaving the pass, anglers who have a solid game plan in place will have already increased their chances for a rod-bending experience. Pre-programming a route of numbers into the plotter, armed with a variety of baits, and having all the necessary tackle rigged and ready for action are top tasks on a checklist that should be completed well before embarkation.
A stealthy approach is critically important when arriving upon a shallow water wreck. Locating the haven’s exact position with minimal disturbance will prove beneficial. Surface activity such as nervous bait, schools of patiently waiting barracuda and the occasional surfacing loggerhead turtle, combined with a quality fish-finding unit will help facilitate your wreck location process. After determining the direction of the current, it is time to accurately position the boat to allow the desired chum and baits to flow naturally into the strike zone. Some good advice: Do not get discouraged, as the anchoring process could take several attempts to get right and possibly years to master. Patience and persistency are important!
Wintering in the shallow waters of the middle and lower Florida Keys, mighty permit take up residence during the spring and summer on the many near-shore wrecks of southwest Florida, primarily for spawning purposes. Commonly observed in schools of up to 100 fish, the permit is highly regarded as one of the area's premier light tackle game fish. Targeting them on near-shore wreck requires a shallow water approach, similar to stalking these fish on the flats of the Florida Keys or sub-tropics. Permit posses superior eyesight and a keen ability to sense something is out of the ordinary, so tactics for this powerhouse member of the jack family need to be accompanied by some ingenious angling trickery.
Spooky by nature, permit must never be cast directly to or over while they are circling around shallow near shore structure. Remember to lead all targeted fish by several feet while allowing the offering to swim and settle as naturally as possible by minimizing rod tip movement. At times, anglers might have to tackle down using smaller hooks and lighter leader to entice solid strikes. Fishing in the Gulf, wreck anglers can expect epic battles from permit consisting of multiple reel screaming runs and rod bending surges toward the structure in their effort to gain freedom. Although applying a light tackle approach, adequate seven-foot medium/heavy rods matched with premium spinning or casting reels equipped with ultra smooth drags should be ready at all times. While many anglers still prefer monofilament line, I generally spool several of my designated permit wreck fishing outfits with PowerPro Hi-Vis Braid. Today’s advanced braided lines allow for greater distance while casting smaller sized baits. Reduced line twists from long drawn out battles, added line capacity, and an added level of abrasion resistance are all advantages to braided line.
Gulf permit are notorious for snubbing a well-presented offering. Long four to eight-foot lengths of Maxima fluorocarbon leader attached to a three-foot Bimini Twist with an Albright Special is the standard rig for pitching and free-lining frisky crabs and hand picked jumbo shrimp. Hook choice is crucial as a natural presentation is paramount. Depending upon bait size, Owner size 1 to 2/0 Mutu circle hooks are beneficial for solid hook ups and safe, healthy releases. Although crustaceans are the #1 choice, landing a wreck permit on an artificial is a rewarding angling accomplishment. Permit are often fooled by deep jigging a locally hand tied 3/8oz. Monte Bucktail in brown, yellow and/or white. Free lining a split shot weighted Rip Tide or Berkley Gulp Peeler soft plastic crab imitation in swift current will prove effective on wrecks lying in depths greater than thirty- feet.
Not far behind the wakes of schooling permit are cobia. A favorite target of saltwater anglers worldwide, cobia frequent the Naples and Marco Island wrecks on their northward migration to the upper Gulf region after spending a long winter in warm southern waters. Difficult at times to pattern locally due to their nomadic nature, cobia are frequently encountered throughout our region. Anglers should constantly be on the lookout for these tough tackle-testing pelagics which are often sighted cruising the tide line just outside the passes. They will also suspend underneath colorful crab trap buoys and regularly patrol the perimeter of many shallow water reefs and wrecks.
Capable of wearing out even the most seasoned angler, a large cobia landed on light tackle can prove to be an almost insurmountable angling challenge. With several 70 to 90 pound catches reported locally each season, an angler’s rod arsenal should be fully equipped for a variety of cobia catching scenarios. Turning a runaway cobia requires rods with plenty of backbone. Seven-foot medium/heavy St. Croix and Star Rods complimented with Shimano Baitrunners and TLD 20s loaded to capacity with Hi-Vis 30lb. PowerPro and 40lb. Momoi monofilament leaders handle all the cobia duties aboard the Grand Slam. Anglers can however, scale down their tackle somewhat especially when testing their angling skills with fish schooling on the surface.
If the conditions are favorable, sight fishing is perhaps the ultimate tactic for taming these brown beasts. Whether you are pitching frisky live bait or casting one of today’s innovative soft plastic swim baits, the awesome sight of a cobia smashing your offering will certainly make you weak in the knees. Along this shallow water coast, top soft plastics include Storm Wild-Eyed 4-inch Shads, DOA Bait Busters and Berkley Power Bait 10-inch eels. Large surface plugs outfitted with quality hooks such as Storm Saltwater Chug Bugs and High Roller surface poppers in a variety of color schemes are equally effective in drawing crushing top-water strikes when cobia are on the feed.
Go-to live baits locally for shallow wreck cobia are pinfish, thread herring and squirrel fish either free lined or dropped to the lower half of the water column using egg sinkers or large split-shots. Pinning your baits on quality Owner 3/0 to 7/0 Mutu Circle hooks will enable the angler to avoid possible hook straightening and missed hook-sets. Like permit, cobia will often ignore the entire contents of your tackle box. A sure-fire way to get the bite going will be to liberally broadcast handfuls of recently netted pilchards or chunks of frozen herring and shrimp around the structure. Increasingly popular with today’s anglers are scent-specific liquid chum products. Combining a steady stream of Cobia Mudd with a frozen block of menhaden chum will ensure the entire water column from top to bottom has been enhanced.
Throughout the spring and into early fall, aggressive barracuda will also patrol the surface of most near shore wrecks. Dazzling anglers with their lightning-fast runs and lofty aerial acrobatics, these Gulf speedsters never receive the credit they deserve. Often viewed as a pesky opportunist, barracuda will clobber a wide variety of offerings including wire-rigged blue runners, threadfin herring as well as brightly colored surgical tube rigs. While anglers are specifically prospecting near-shore wrecks for other game fish, barracuda will provide plenty of fill-in entertainment.
It is important to note that you will probably not be alone while fishing your near-shore game fish playground. Popular, local wrecks will often become crowded as divers, for-hire charters, and recreational anglers all enjoy the placid spring and summer Gulf conditions. Exercising common courtesy will help enhance the wreck experience for everyone. The Golden Rule applies on the water as well as land, “Don't do onto others what you wouldn't want done to you.”
After a full morning's "work" catching, releasing, and filming these hard to fool- hard to catch fish, we were ready to head in to port. The slightest bit of revival was needed as Curtis released the smallest permit of the morning, a feisty 12-pound warrior.
“That’s a wrap!” exclaimed Rob. We had successfully gone five for six on permit, broken off one hard-charging cobia and put several barracuda leaping into the air. We were truly satisfied with our accomplishments, and pleased with the relatively short run back to port.
There are obviously no guarantees while prospecting southwest Florida’s near-shore wrecks. Success requires anglers do their homework while always paying close attention to detail. This fishery can be humbling, while filled with surprises and even the occasional heartache. Some days the opportunities are like a mirage; so close, yet so far away.