The battered lure landed softly on the surface just inches from the overhanging mangrove branches—it was a perfect cast. My client twitched his rod tip, causing the plug to dive a foot below the water’s surface. A quick flash and boil later and line peeled off the reel as the fish made a run back to the safety of the mangroves. The angler put as much pressure as he dared and stopped the snook just short of its sanctuary. Minutes later we hoisted the healthy linesider for a quick photo op before releasing it to fight another day.
That snook completed an unconventional slam for my client. His goal was to catch and release a snook for sport, after bagging a few speckled trout and Spanish mackerel for the dinner table. Always looking to please my clients, I am fortunate that all three species are readily available along the fertile shallows of Sarasota Bay during the spring. Even better, a single approach with slight variations will produce not only these three fish, but just about everything else that swims in area waters.
The rich shallows provide a wide variety of habitat that harbors numerous species of highly desirable game fish.
Sarasota Bay is often overlooked due to the fact that it is nestled between the two world famous angling destinations of Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. This 56-mile long coastal lagoon is broken up by the barrier islands of Longboat Key, Lido Key, Siesta Key and Casey Key, and flushed with clean ocean water by way of the Venice Inlet, Big Sarasota Pass, New Pass and Longboat Pass.
The rich shallows provide a wide variety of habitat that harbors numerous species of highly desirable game fish. Snook, redfish, Spanish mackerel, cobia, tarpon, speckled trout, sheepshead, flounder, jack crevalle, black sea bass, gag grouper, mangrove snapper, black drum, bluefish, pompano and more frequent this region. While the availability of species is impressive, what makes this area so unique is the fact that truly world-class fishing exists in the shadow of such major metropolitan developments. Another aspect that makes fishing these waters so enjoyable is the fact that you don’t need an arsenal of tackle and gear. A basic 7-foot spinning outfit spooled with 20 lb. braid will cover the bases for most anything that swims in Sarasota Bay. Leader requirements may change slightly, but 30 lb. fluorocarbon is an all around good starting point.
Speckled trout are likely the most targeted species in Sarasota Bay, and for good reason. They are plentiful, cooperative, and will strike just about any lure or bait. The bay has many acres of grass flats in 3- to 8-feet of water that produce numerous trout. The west side of Sarasota Bay from New Pass north is basically one big grass flat. In addition, the flats adjacent to both New Pass and Big Sarasota Pass are excellent locales that offer consistent trout action. Casting a jighead grub combo is a very productive technique that allows anglers to cover a lot of water fairly quickly. Chartreuse, gold, olive, and root beer are some of the more popular and effective color patterns.
When fishing soft plastic jig combos the technique is rather straightforward; motor upwind of your chosen flat, cut the engine, and while drifting across the lush grass cast your jig and allow it to sink for several seconds. While holding the rod tip at the ten o’clock position, begin retrieving the jig with sharp hops. Most strikes occur as the jig falls, so holding the rod tip high and keeping the line taut will make it easier to detect a strike. Live bait will also catch plenty of trout, with shrimp suspended below a popping cork accounting for numerous quality catches.
Spanish mackerel are thick both inside Sarasota Bay and out along the beach during March and April. These underrated game fish provide terrific sport and provide great eating if handled properly. When conditions are right—on our coast that means east winds and clean water—catching mackerel is very easy. Anglers simply search the area for diving birds signaling the presence of game fish feeding below. If the school stays on the surface, jigs, spoons, plugs, and flies can be cast into the melee. If the fish head for deeper water, drifting the area while blind casting lures or free-lining live shrimp or whitebait usually elicits savage strikes. There are three artificial reefs just off Lido Key that offer great backups in the event that cooperative fish cannot be found boiling the surface. Success is virtually guaranteed at one if not all three of these fish magnets during the spring. Here, anglers can anchor, drift or troll around the reefs for encounters with Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, false albacore, sharks and cobia.
Snook are Florida’s premier inshore game fish and casting plugs along mangrove shorelines is a great way to get connected. Plugs enable anglers to cover a lot of water, the hook-up ratio is high, and they produce explosive strikes! Plugs are available in two general varieties—topwater and subsurface. Catching snook on topwater plugs is a great thrill as the visual factor is a big plus. From here topwater plugs can be divided into two separate categories—poppers and walk-the-dog baits. Rapala’s Skitter Pop is a prime example of a surface popper. These lures are very easy to use. Simply cast it out, let it sit for several seconds, then twitch the rod tip sharply, causing the bait to pop and chug on the surface. Strikes will often come as the bait rests motionless.
The venerable Zara Spook and MirrOlure Top Dog are walk-the-dog type baits that require more effort from the angler. Unlike poppers, these baits have no real built in action, rather the angler must do the work by keeping the rod tip low and gently jerking the tip back and forth, forcing the bait to zigzag across the surface. Whether you choose to fish a popper or walk-the-dog style bait it’s important you let the fish inhale the lure before rearing back and setting the hook. When game fish strike on the surface they create a pressure wave that often pushes the lure away from the fish’s mouth. Wait until weight is felt and then come tight to the fish. Topwater plugs are a good choice when fishing shallow water where diving plugs may hang in the grass.
While topwater plugs are exciting, I’ve also had excellent success with subsurface baits. Rapala’s X-Rap is my personal favorite and has accounted for many snook over the years. These baits float on the surface then dive down several feet when retrieved. Baits that work down 2- to 5-feet are most effective when worked around drop-offs or areas adjacent to channels with slightly deeper water. In general, an erratic retrieve with sharp jerks and brief pauses will elicit the most strikes, but as with any artificial lure you should vary the speed and retrieve until a productive pattern emerges.
No matter your favorite species, or personal slam, the waters of Sarasota Bay offer more than meets the eye. With a unique combination of flats, mangrove shorelines, creeks, canals and passes, not to mention less fishing pressure than nearby estuaries, Sarasota Bay really is one of the state’s most underrated habitats.