Taming Tampa

Capt. Jason Stock March 18, 2011

After another chilly winter, it’s finally time to shed the layers and get back to boardshorts and flip-flops. Springtime is the right time here in Tampa Bay; the weather is perfect and the fishing is off the charts!

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Photo: Sam Root

Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest open-water estuary, covering more than 380 square miles. I’m a local guide specializing in light tackle. I have been fishing these waters for my entire life and know for a fact that during the months of March and April the angling possibilities in this vast arena are truly endless. Target species include trophy reds, gator trout, and monster snook. Rounding out the mix are bluefish, jack crevalle, bonito, Spanish mackerel, kingfish, cobia, and even tripletail. Feisty tarpon also make a strong showing during the spring, so there’s certainly great action to be had no matter what your forte. While I enjoy the serenity and stealth afforded by fishing from a kayak, you can find equally enthralling action and more with any relatively shallow drafting skiff or bay boat. You just need to know where to look and what to look for.

…you can find equally enthralling action and more with any relatively shallow drafting skiff or bay boat. You just need to know where to look and what to look for.

Starting with many shallow water anglers’ favorite, bull redfish gather in the bay in large schools during the spring. A healthy pack of mature reds can include anywhere from 50 to 500 fish. Such a big school is really an amazing sight to see—especially with many of the fish simultaneously tailing in crystal clear water. During an incoming tide you can expect to see reds pushing onto area flats. They can generally be found occupying knee-deep water as they scavenge the previously submerged shallows in search of protein rich offerings. During the spring whitebait starts to show up on the flats in increasing concentrations and after surviving the winter months on crustaceans and mollusks, redfish really crave baitfish.

When large schools of reds venture into ultra shallow grass flats, pay careful attention to their trailing wakes. Spend enough time on the water and you’ll soon have the experience to decipher exactly which direction the group of fish is headed in. The goal here is to cast your offering well in front of the pack so that you don’t spook one skittish fish and send the entire school off the flat. If you find the fish are acting super spooky rig with 20lb. fluorocarbon leader and always tie a loop knot to facilitate a natural presentation. Proven baits include Sebile’s Stick Shad, and a ¼ oz. Johnson Silver Minnow spoon.

Getting to know Tampa Bay’s gator trout is another great idea. The biggest trout typically reside in even shallower water and are generally more solitary than redfish. One of the reasons Tampa Bay trout are able to reach such impressive size is by remaining in ultra shallow water. This allows them to elude predation from porpoises and sharks, and many flats anglers. The most effective way to target these fish is to find a shallow flat with well-defined potholes within lush seagrass. Gator trout lie in ambush in the grass as they surprise unsuspecting prey mistakenly swimming in the open water. Once you’ve found what you’re looking for, get out of your kayak or skiff and wade to within casting range. This enables the stealthiest, most natural presentation.

The largest trout (5-pounds plus) spread out and make their way into shallower water as the tide starts flooding. Big trout can also be found alongside large mullet schools as they, too, progress onto the flats. To trick these finicky fish stick with 20lb. fluorocarbon and a tantalizing topwater like a Super Spook Jr. The silver/mullet pattern has served countless anglers extremely well over the years. Again, a loop knot provides the most irresistible action.

As the spring season progresses, hefty snook will be venturing out of their backcountry haunts in back bay rivers, bayous and warm water outflows associated with area power plants. Snook will be in transition, moving from the mouth of rivers and along residential docks as they start their journey toward the Gulf. Linesiders are structure oriented, often found hanging around points, mangrove spoil islands and oyster bars. The last couple of winters have taken a real toll on the local snook population with record cold water. Remember this is still a catch and release fishery as snook remain off dinner tables until September 1. When you do land one make sure you handle the fish with great care. Anglers who prefer to fish with live bait can’t go wrong with large threadfin or free-lined pinfish. When specifically targeting sharp-gilled snook it’s imperative you fish a minimum of 30lb. leader to prevent being cut off, and that’s on the light side. If you are throwing plastics, a local go to is a D.O.A. greenback shad tail rigged on a ¼ oz. jighead.

Once area waters hit the magical 70º mark, the beaches come to life. Migrating game fish follow schooling baitfish as they make their way into this vast estuary by way of the shipping channel that runs all the from Egmont Key to The Port of Tampa. This is a highway for huge freighters, but doubles as a thoroughfare for mackerel, bonito, kingfish and cobia, all hot on the tail of the migrating baitfish. The channel markers hold a variety of bait that you can always load up on with a properly presented sabiki rig. Be sure to keep an eye out for bird activity indicating both the presence of baitfish and predators.

When the sun, moon and stars align, king mackerel can be caught in the vicinity of Egmont Hole, which drops to 90-feet, and even all the way up to MacDill Air Force Base. This is why it’s always a good idea to have a rod rigged with a stinger when cruising the bay.

Hard fighting cobia are next on the list and can be found circling channel markers, so be ready to toss out a soft plastic or live crab on a 5/0 hook. You should also investigate crab trap and marker buoys, as tasty tripletail will be patiently waiting to ambush unsuspecting shrimp and baitfish drifting by with the current.

Just when you thought Tampa Bay was starting to sound too good to be true, tarpon also start to show up around area bridges. They are usually thick around the Skyway and Gandy Bridges. Approaching the new and full moon (hill tides), you can regularly jump huge ‘poon on pass crabs, pinfish and threadfin. Look for rolling fish or try anchoring and free-lining baits back towards the bridge pilings, but be aware of the current which is magnified around the bridges. This is why many guides rig a poly ball on their anchor line incase they need to chase an out of control fish. You can also target tarpon at night along the shadow lines of the same bridges. These fish are stronger than you think so stick with beefy rods and size 6000 spinning reels loaded with 65lb. braid finished off with 80lb. leaders. When your exhausted tarpon comes boatside be sure to fully revive the fish prior to release so Tampa Bay’s healthy shark population doesn’t enjoy an easy meal.

With so many options during the spring, resident and visiting anglers have many choices to make. Wherever you decide to fish, it’s a good idea to be ready for any possibility and as long as you’re properly prepared, you’ll never look back.

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