Free chum abounds around the state. Learning how and where to take advantage of the fresh morsels will keep you connected. By Frank Sargeant
Nobody likes to carry chum, collect chum, or store chum. While great for fishing, it’s terrible for refrigerators, freezers and relationships. Fortunately, in many areas around Florida you can find fresh enticements that are just waiting to be turned into fish-attracting chum.
I first began to pay attention to "found" chum on East Bay and St. Vincent Sound, where sheepshead and redfish swarm down-current in the mud slicks stirred up by the oyster boats. The steady stream of oysters-on-the-half-shell that results from sorting the catch is all it took to turn on the bite. Anglers fishing these chum lines sometimes catch trout as well, because the oyster harvesters stir up mud minnows, shrimp and small crabs, too.
Captain James Wisner—now a noted inshore guide—started his fishing career as a teenage commercial hook-and-liner, supplying pompano to the famed Bern's Restaurant of Tampa. The only way Wisner could keep up with the demand was by making use of the natural chum on the many bridges spanning Tampa Bay. A hoe to knock loose the barnacles was all it took to inspire consistent action, and Wisner caught pompano 'till he tired. He still does, but now with light tackle outfits wielded by his clients. The Gandy Bridge is the top spot, but the Howard Frankland also produces, as does the Sunshine Skyway and the adjacent pier made from the old roadway.
I've used the same tactic for years on bridges in the Banana River and Indian River Lagoon, where knocking the barnacles free of the pilings really gets the sheepshead going. Occasionally, some of the area's lunker redfish and black drum join in. Any time the bite slows a few chops on the shellfish chow line turns them on again. Though the tool known as a spud is the most effective device for turning barnacles into chum, the Barnablade (barnapole.com) is a unique device that's specifically designed for scraping seawalls and pilings. The most common barnacles in Florida are acorn barnacles, of the balanus family. Native Florida barnacles get about as big around as an acorn and like nearly all shellfish, barnacles are filter feeders—they stick out gossamer "legs" to pull in detritus that passes over them with moving tides. They have a sliding "door" they can close at low tide to keep themselves hydrated, and also to escape predation. While sheepshead can crush small barnacles, the big ones are fairly well protected in their hard shells, which is why they are so prevalent on weathered pilings.
In more recent years, Asian green mussels, an invasive species brought into Tampa Bay in the holds of international ships, have taken over much of the hard structure in the bay. Game fish that enjoy dining on fresh shellfish have had no problem switching their diet to these much larger offerings. In fact, a chunk of mussel makes excellent bait, while the crushed shell and slimy leftovers create fantastic chum. Green mussels reach up to 4-inches and aggregate in amazing numbers, completely coating hard structures where they settle.
The invasive mussels even began to takeover some oyster reefs until the icy winter of 2009-2010, which seemed to displace many of the invaders. According to scientists at the Florida Fish & Wildlife Research Institute, their minimum water temperature survival range is about 50ºF. Local anglers report that green mussels began showing up in the Indian River Lagoon area no later than 2002, and are now widely established there, as well as in Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay.
"Don't feed the fish too much," advises Wisner. "When it comes to chum-chopping shellfish, knock off just enough to get a steady bite going, and don't chum again until the bite slows down. Otherwise they'll get full and quit biting."
Make the best use of what's available by crushing the shells a little at a time, rather than scraping off big chunks and letting them fall to the bottom unbroken. Otherwise, after a few visits to a piling, you're out of free chum. Of course, when you come back next season the supply will have renewed itself—"found" chum is self-restoring so long as you allow it a bit of time.
While redfish and sheepshead respond well to live shrimp, Wisner notes that for pompano and juvenile black drum, live fiddler crabs are much better bait than shrimp. Wisner catches fiddlers in mud creeks on low tide, though some bait shops occasionally stock them. He says that when available, sand fleas also work in the chum stream.
Based out of Tampa, Captain Jerry Williams guides his clients to buckets of sheepshead in the downtown harbors by fishing chilled oysters on a double hook. The soft oyster meat won't stay on a single hook, but the double holds it much better and the sheepshead can't get enough. It's also possible to harvest oysters in one location and transport them to where you want to create a chum line. Visit your favorite oyster bar and chum with the fresh enticements. By matching the hatch you'll certainly come out on top. Be sure to adhere to the rules and regulations when it comes to transporting oysters (visit floridaaquaculture.com for allowable harvest areas). You're allowed up to two 5-gallon buckets per person on board, but no possession is permitted July through September in most of the state, and June through August in Dixie, Levy and Wakulla counties. To keep oysters alive stow them on ice, not in water—placed under water they soon deplete the oxygen and die. Fish don't like spoiled oysters any better than humans.
Most anglers use a simple fish-finder rig when fishing natural chum lines, featuring a foot or two of 25lb. test monofilament or fluorocarbon leader with a hook sized to the bait—typically between a 1 and 2/0 short shank. A sliding egg sinker heavy enough to quickly take the bait down to where the fish are is added on the running line—this can be up to 3-ounces in the strong currents of Tampa Bay, or as little as ¼-ounce in the more sedate Indian River. The running line is then secured to the leader with a small barrel swivel, which acts as a stop for the sinker. Another rig that works well, particularly for sheepshead, is a ¼-ounce jighead tipped with a piece of fresh cut shrimp. This gives the sheepshead less of an opportunity to nip the bait off without you feeling the strike.
The use of braided line is also critical. You'll feel the bite better and set the hook with more authority. In addition, braided lines don't stretch, so you'll be able to muscle fish away from pilings and sharp edges of oysters or barnacles more effectively.
Most fish attracted to a line of "found" chum will bite anything edible when they first arrive, but after a few of their buddies get roped to the top, they'll generally become picky. When this is the case reel up your bait, make a few strokes with the chum chopper, and allow your bait to sink back with the debris—the bite comes on the drop most often.
There are a lot of opportunities to take advantage of naturally occurring chum around Florida, so keep your chum-gun handy and be on the lookout. And never take any of that messy stuff home.
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