Anglers know quite well that every trip doesn’t produce. There are always unforeseen circumstances and unexpected misadventures, interspersed with epic days that keep us coming back for more. While it’s great when a plan comes together, it’s equally rewarding when unexpected species make their presence known and ultimately save the day. I offer Exhibit One; the Atlantic croaker.
Like all members of the drum family, croaker are aptly named for the drumming sound they make by vibrating their swim bladder to attract mates. Some of the smallest members of the Sciaenidae family, Atlantic croaker are greatly overshadowed by their more glamorous cousins, beautifully bronzed redfish. Croaker are even lower on the list than black drum. In fact, most are more familiar with using croaker for snook bait rather than targeting them for sport. Talk about lack of respect! Despite their unglamorous name and lack of admiration, croaker are a treat on the dinner table and impressive opponents on the appropriate light tackle outfits.
In northeast Florida eating size croaker are common catches along the St. Johns River, but it is important to focus your efforts during periods of moving water.
Many of us may remember croaker fishing from our youth—that is if we’re old enough. If you’re not familiar, this was a popular fish in its time known to gather in vast numbers. Found throughout many regions of the state, easy to catch from shore, perfect for kids and tasty to eat, croaker fed generations of families. Opting not to display their fish on stringers, anglers once filled burlap bags often enough to change the name of the product itself. It is here where the term croaker sack was actually developed. At any rate, years ago croaker could be caught with a variety of offerings back when coolers and fresh bait weren’t so common.
I was reminded of all of this during a recent day while targeting redfish along the Suwannee River’s delta creeks. It had been an uneventful morning and we tried a handful of my most consistent honey holes, but it was no dice. Finally, I got a bite on my light spinning outfit and to my amazement, here was this big, feisty croaker that fought with more determination than a red of equal size. I soon hooked another, and croakers became our catch of the day. More than just trip savers, the bigger croaker give a good account of themselves, in fact they were the only action we found during that entire day.
Catching big croaker on light tackle was a blast from the past, going back to the days before their numbers were decimated by shrimp boat nets, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico—where approximately one billion were discarded annually. Big croaker runs that fed so many sputtered and died out. Today most people don’t even know what a big croaker looks like, let alone a croaker sack for that matter.
While the exact timing and location of their offshore migrations for spawning aren’t completely known, it is believed they spawn offshore during the fall and winter. Florida has moderate winters compared to all other states and as a result not all croaker migrate offshore. In Steinhatchee, seasoned captains don’t recall ever catching big croaker offshore, but they’ve certainly encountered large aggregations in the marsh during the fall, winter and spring.
“We hit a school of big croakers in mid-January, back in the marsh just south of town,” remembers Steinhatchee local guide, Captain Walt Carlson.
“While fishing from my airboat at low tide we were looking for trout and redfish in the deep holes in Howard Creek just south of the river. We had the usual low tide, just right for checking out the deeper holes. At the first hole there was nothing happening, so off we went. We caught a couple of trout at the next spot, but then the croaker really took over. We were using live shrimp and getting bit on every cast. We caught a bunch until the tide started flowing in, which shut down the bite,” added Carlson.
Croaker reports and catches vary greatly along Florida’s Gulf Coast, with the best action generally occurring from shore-bound points north of Tampa Bay. Anglers in the Panhandle encounter croaker along beaches and backwaters, with these feisty drum also common along East Coast beaches and piers. Surf fishing near rocky outcroppings and distinct troughs, anglers encounter croaker when fishing peeled shrimp and clam, with one inch pieces enticing the most action. Some of the easiest fish to catch, croaker can be captured with a simple two-hook dropper rig (one hook should be directly above the sinker) with enough lead to keep your offerings anchored in the strike zone. Hook selection is the most important consideration, with circle-hook sizes from 2/0 and smaller covering most circumstances.
Croaker also don’t mind deeper inlets and channels. Last summer we caught a ponderous two-pounder that hit a large, silver spoon worked around deep pilings. Scented baits with jigs catch most of them here, along with live shrimp. In northeast Florida eating size croaker are common catches along the St. Johns River, but it is important to focus your efforts during periods of moving water. Since croaker are outfitted with barbels and feed heavily by scent, it’s crucial you keep your bait in contact with the bottom.
If you are lucky enough to run into a school of bigger croaker, or a rare two or three-pounder, don’t hesitate to carry the fillets home. Anyone who has fried up a bunch of croaker knows the sweet, white meat is as good as it gets. Doubters have never wrapped their lips around a piping hot, beer batter-soaked, cornmeal-fried croaker fillet.