Wedged neatly against Florida’s central west coast,
St. Joseph’s Sound offers South Florida Sport Fishermen some of the Sunshine State’s finest fishing.
When South Florida Sport Fishing Magazine approached me about this story idea, I said, "Sure, I’d love to do it. Uh, where is St. Joseph’s Sound?"
All kidding aside, I’ve lived in Florida for more than 30 years and have been fishing the pristine waters of this sportsman’s paradise since I was old enough to walk, but I had never once heard of St. Joseph’s Sound. Then, I thought to myself … maybe that’s a good thing.
Unacquainted with the area, my first step was to find a local guide.
One that new the waters well. But, who would I call? Research on the web produced very little pertinent information about this seemingly clandestine fishing destination. I tried asking a few buddies if they’d ever heard of St. Joseph’s Sound, but they all looked at me like it was a trick question or like I had the place confused with some distant locale in the Pacific Northwest. But I hadn’t. I soon learned that St. Joseph’s Sound is right there … nestled between Clearwater’s beautiful white sand beaches and Tarpon Spring’s most beautiful coastal communities.
Now that I finally knew where it was, I still had no guide. How would I find my way around? I could buy a chart and do it myself. Nah! How then would I locate fish? I could take my own boat and rely on my instincts. I’m sure I’ll find a few fish willing to pose for the camera. Nope. Who, if anyone, in the bustling metropolitan area of Tampa would be willing to push-pole me around for an entire day just so I could make a few casts to whatever fish might live in this increasingly mysterious saline environment. To say the least, I felt like a fish out of water.
I knew there were snook that far north, but I didn’t really know if they could be caught in the shallows. I also knew that redfish were a favorite target of local inshore anglers from the few articles and photographs of the area I had encountered in my research, though I wasn’t sure how or where they were most commonly targeted. What was I to do?
Finally, after a few phone calls to some of my connections in the industry, I found just the guy I was looking for… Captain Wayne Simmons. We spent a little time talking on the phone. I asked a few silly questions about fishing the area. We had a few laughs, talked about his fishing experiences and got to know one another pretty well in just a short time. We seemed to share the same love for fishing and the peace it brings those who do truly understand it.
It was soon decided that we would meet at a little marina called Palm Harbor Resort near Dunedin.
"Don’t let the name fool you," joked Capt. Wayne as he gave me directions to the ramp. "It’s just an old mobile home park on the side of a narrow little road somewhere outside Tampa."
Nevertheless, the anticipation was building steadily as I steered my SUV north to Palm Harbor on I-75. After a couple of missed turns somewhere on Bayside Bridge Road, I arrived just after our scheduled 7:00 AM departure time. As I climbed out of the truck and stretched, I spotted Wayne’s trademark yellow Hell’s Bay Marquesa moored to an old floating dock at the back of a shallow creek lined with beautiful Florida Cracker homes … old and new. It was a truly nostalgic setting. I unsheathed my fly rod, strung it up hastily, grabbed a spinning rod and my camera case and headed to the dock to shake hands with my new friend and day’s guide.
"Good morning," Wayne said cheerfully as he finished tying a Borski’s Shrimp on his 8-weight. "Mornin’" I replied. "All ready to go," he asked. "You bet," I said while trying to disguise my boyish excitement. As we idled out the creek and chatted about the area, I took a minute to rig my spinning rod with a soft jerkbait as a backup. "This is pretty cool," I said. Capt. Wayne replied "Dunedin is definitely old Florida at its finest."
As we rounded the corner and quickly got on plane, Wayne mentioned we were headed for a shallow grass flat on the west side of the Sound. Much to my delight, the grass flat, lush and full of life, lay almost completely within the confines of a No Motor Zone. "Wow," I muttered. Actually, Wayne indicated this particular flat runs at least a mile north and south and is totally protected from motorized boat traffic. The results were evident as the first redfish tail of the day popped up just a short distance away.
The flat was teeming with life … pinfish flashed along the edges of every pothole. Mullet skittered across the surface. And redfish tipped their tails skyward like Bahamian bonefish as they slurped shrimp and crabs off the muddy bottom. It was truly a beautiful sight. It wasn’t long before a recognizable loud pop resounded across the flat. I noticed my long-time fishing buddy Rick Paolillo, who joined us on the trip, bent double over under the weight of a nice red. "You got ‘em," Wayne blurted from the platform. Rick reeled down, fought the fish and I leaned over the side to land it. I was happy to save Capt. Wayne a trip to the bow from his perch at the back of the boat. We snapped a few photos, then released the red unharmed.
Then I said jestfully, "Okay, we can go home now. I’ve seen all I need to see." The truth is we’d only scratched the surface of what this incredibly diverse fishery has to offer. We were fishing St. Joe’s in the late fall and were just on the tail end of what Capt. Wayne described as an incredible summer season of snook, redfish and tarpon fishing. Along with miles and miles of idyllic grass flats that stretch almost without break from the south end of St. Joseph’s Sound to Cedar Key, the area offers quite a bit of excellent snook habitat, as well as some incredible settings for sight fishing tarpon along the coast.
"Redfish and trout are definitely a year round fishery here," Simmons said. But, the tarpon fishing just seems to get better here every year, especially for fly fishermen." Simmons explained that tarpon season usually begins in mid May and supplies him with all the finned fanaticism he can handle through the end of August, when the elusive lagomorphs head south again for the winter.
Simmons described poling his skiff and sight fishing for 100-pound plus fish along miles of white sand shoals near the entrances of any of the several major passes that serve the areas varied boating interests. "Usually, by the time they get here they've worked up a pretty good appetite," said Simmons. "And, believe it or not, they usually eat flies better than anything, even live baits."
At that point, I decided that I'd definitely have to make another trip to St. Joe's next summer.
After catching and releasing another beautiful redfish, this one caught by yours truly on one of Simmons‘ very own brown and gold DuPree Spoon flies, we headed north, past the mouth of the Anclote River to an area Capt. Wayne referred to as Sand Bay. As we skirted the channel in front of the well-known river mouth I inquired about the snook fishing. "It can be excellent," Simmons replied. He then obliged with some tips about fishing the creek mouths, bars and channel edges near the Anclote River’s entrance during the winter and spring months.
"St. Joe’s is generally pretty shallow," Simmons said. "So, most of the best snook fishing happens during the last stages of the incoming tide and about half way through the falling." Simmons claims he targets the resident linesiders in the bends and mouths of the creeks with surface flies like gurglers and poppers during the spring and early summer months and with Clousers and streamer or small baitfish and shrimp patterns during the winter months. "Just like freshwater fly fishing," Simmons said confidently. "You need to match the hatch. You've gotta' get something in front of them that looks like what they are eating during that time of the day, month or season."
As Simmons poled Rick and I across the endless flat, we started talking about the tides in the Sound and how he has been able to adapt his particular style to fishing the area. Much like I would imagine Rob Fordyce, Rick Murphy or Flip Pallot might do when fishing Flamingo, which is most definitely divided into two distinctly different fishing environments (the flats and the backcountry), Simmons, after spending nearly 40 years fishing the Tampa area has figured out how to fish the same or two different tides in the same day with the same clients.
"It's really kinda’ neat," Simmons said. "I can fish nearly all of the rising tide in the Sound, load my boat up, grab a quick bite to eat on the way, and be in Old Tampa Bay in less than 15 minutes." Simmons explained that there is nearly a four hour difference between the tides in St. Joseph's Sound on the coast and Old Tampa Bay in the northernmost corner of the enormous body of water referred to as Tampa Bay.
"If the tide is too low or too high in the Sound during the morning hours," Simmons said. "I can put the boat in at Safety Harbor and fish the first or last four hours of whatever tide it is we have to work with that day." "It adds an entire dimension to the fishing here that doesn't exist in many places." Clearly, it didn't take Simmons 40 years to figure that out, but it did take him 22 years as the owner of an auto electric shop in Clearwater to figure out that he would rather be a professional fishing guide. So, he sold his business five years ago and decided it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labor - full time.
Ever since his dad tied a Zara Spook on his first rod and reel when he was only eight, Simmons has been hooked. His enthusiasm is evident no matter whether he's casting a shoreline with laser-like precision or poling his clients in a perfectly straight line down the same stretch of bank. Simmons says working with beginning and expert anglers alike and sharing his love for fishing this beautiful, if not almost overlooked area, is his reward for all the years of hard labor he has put in to get to this point today. Simmons added that while summer is probably his favorite time to fish, he looks forward to winter as much as any other time of the year.
"Winter is the prime time of the year for fly rods, both in the Sound and in Old Tampa Bay." Simmons said enthusiastically.
”Not only do we have an excellent primary fishery here during the winter months, we also catch lots of other species." In fact, Simmons added that St. Joseph's Sound is close enough to the Gulf that it’s not uncommon to catch a stray kingfish while trout fishing during the spring and fall months. Other commonly caught species include Bonito, Spanish mackerel, bluefish and others. However, being a sightfishing enthusiast, Simmons primarily targets redfish and snook in the shallows during the cooler months of December, January, and February.
"Don't get me wrong," Simmons said. "Summer is definitely a great time to fly fish in and around St. Joseph's Sound, but if you really want to find good concentrations of big fish in shallow water, winter is the time to do it." Simmons explained that cooler water temperatures draw snook and redfish into the shallows where they search the warm, muddy bottoms for a healthy supply of shrimp, crabs and small baitfish to nosh on in between the season's inevitable cold fronts.
No matter what your preference, sightfishing the flats, creeks and bays for snook and redfish, poling the sandy shoals along the beach for cruising tarpon or just drifting a grass flat for a mixed bag on a cool winter day, St. Joseph's Sound surely has what it takes to satisfy all your inshore fishing fascinations. I know I’m a believer!
Capt. Wayne Simmons practices photo and release fishing in St. Joseph's Sound and Old Tampa. Capt. Wayne can be reached at www.CaptainWayneSimmons.com or by calling
Additional recommended guides for the area include fly fishing specialist Capt. Neil Sigvartsen (727)-403-8653 and Capt. Jim Huddleston who specializes in light tackle spin and live bait fishing. Huddleston can be reached at (727) 439-9017.
Rules and Regulations:
Anglers visiting the St. Joseph's Sound area and planning to fish without instruction from a professional fishing guide should remember that the Anclote River is the line of designation between the Northwest and South Regions for take regulations on spotted sea trout.
FWC take regulations for trout in the South Region, which would includes the flats and bays south of the Anclote River to Florida Bay are four per person/per day; and five per person/per day in the Northwest Region, or north of the Anclote River.
Please remember these rules apply according to your port of call, not to where the fish were caught. Also, statewide size regulations for sea trout are not less than 15 inches and no more than one fish over 20 inches.
Snook slot limit regulations are applicable statewide and are not less than 26 inches and not more than 34 inches. Closed seasons are Dec. 15 - Jan. 31; June, July and August statewide; and May, June, July and August -- Gulf, Monroe County and Everglades National Park. Also, bag limits are two per person/per day -- Atlantic. One per person/per day -- Gulf, Monroe County and Everglades National Park.
Redfish slot limit is 18 to 27 inches statewide. One per person/per day.
Tarpon: Two fish possession limit. However, tarpon cannot be taken for any purpose with out the purchase of a Tag issued by the State at a cost of $50.00.
For more detailed information please visit www.MYFWC.com.
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