It finally happened! After thousands of dollars invested in a vessel, a garage full of tackle and what feels like a lifetime spent on the water, you found the motherload, the golden chalice, pay dirt…whatever you want to call it. The fish appeared out of nowhere like an armada of enemy ships emerging from the dense fog in an Alexander Kent novel. A sight so beautiful it has been known to bring anglers to tears. Rolling…tipping…tailing… a massive congregation of aggressive redfish actively searching out forage on a crystal clear flat! After the initial reaction of rubbing your eyes and wiping your lenses in disbelief, the next thought that crosses your mind is – how do I capitalize on this sensational opportunity?
Let’s start by analyzing why many inshore game fish school. Intelligent species gather in large packs because they know safety is in numbers. If a curious predator approaches a perfect synchronization of schooling game fish, the mesmerizing and confusing flashes reflected from the mass’s abrupt changes in movement make it difficult to single out one particular individual.
Fish school for several reasons: this behavior increases the probability of finding food (i.e. more eyes, noses, and lateral lines to detect prey), improves the opportunity for reproduction, and reduces the risk of predation. - Michael Larkin, University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine Science
While predator avoidance is no doubt important, fish also school because on long migrations, schooling behaviors offer beneficial drag reducing properties, somewhat similar to a flock of geese flying in a V-like formation. Similar to how NASCAR drivers draft behind the car in front of them, fish, too, can draft in the wake of their schoolmates.
When targeting schooling game fish the first thing you must remember is that the group can be extremely unpredictable. Keeping this thought in the back of your mind helps in two ways. First off, it prepares you to adapt and react to what the school may do once you reach casting distance. Secondly, it keeps you from falling off your poling platform if the school spooks and you experience the dreaded blowout.
Bonefish are, without a doubt, one of South Florida’s most highly sought after inshore game fish. A 2008 census performed by the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine Science estimated that there were over 300,000 bonefish residing from the Marquesas to Miami. Even more remarkable is the fact that bonefish generate annual revenues of close to $1 billion to the state of Florida.
Bonefish move nervously around shallow water arenas and can be identified by their silver tails extending above the waters surface as they root around the substrate in search of crunchy crustaceans. While bonefish schools in Florida don’t rival the massive congregations of gray ghosts in the nearby bonefish-rich Bahamian archipelago where schools in the hundreds are not uncommon, Florida bonefish do gather in small hunting packs and they are big! In fact, the Sunshine State holds the crown with 11 out of 16 IGFA line class records. These lighting fast game fish have earned the highly regarded nickname gray ghosts and much as their alias suggests, with one quick move or errant cast they will vanish in the blink of an eye.
Down in Key Largo, Captain Lain Goodwin of Dirty Waters Charters (www.dirtywatercharters.com) is a bonefish aficionado and knows that stealth is of the utmost importance when approaching schooling bonefish. In the Middle and Upper Florida Keys where trophy bones reign supreme, many of the flats feature hard coral bottoms which emit a crunching sound that will spook wary packs if you pole too aggressively. Something this subtle can trigger the entire pack to spook. Moving extremely slow will keep you under the radar and also allow for additional time to scan the surrounding surface for signs of life. When the time comes to fire off a cast, Captain Goodwin recommends landing the offering of choice about 4-feet off the lead fish, and increase the distance up to 10-feet if the fish appear extra skittish. Bonefish feed into the current using their keen sense of smell, so when working a school it’s best to cast up current of the lead fish.
Redfish, like the aforementioned bonefish execute schooling behavior as well, however, redfish are more attainable. Redfish school in several different manners throughout the state and can be found packed tight anywhere from skinny-water flats and mangrove-encrusted estuaries to coastal passes and beaches. Unlike bonefish, prize reds tend to move in a slow, rhythmic pattern as they scour the bottom in search of forage.
Captain Chris Myers of Central Florida Sight Fishing Charters (www.floridafishinglessons.com) targets schooling bull redfish along the Mosquito Lagoon and Banana River. Captain Chris tells me that casting accuracy and proper presentation are far more important than the style or color of your lure. Redfish aren’t the pickiest of game fish and when actively feeding, they won’t turn up their noses at much. Whatever offering you choose, it must be presented in front of the fish and retrieved so they can actively chase it down. There is often a fine line between placing it too close, which will spook them, and too far away, where they will not show any interest. In most cases, place the lure 5 to 10-feet in front of the lead fish. At the precise moment the lure lands, skim it across the surface until it’s two feet in front of the fish and let it sink. At this point, additional action may be needed depending on the type of lure you have selected. Captain Chris makes an excellent point on proper presentation when approaching schooling redfish. “Make sure you take the time to position your vessel correctly when encountering a school of redfish so your retrieve is on an angle that mimics prey fleeing instead of heading unnaturally towards the predator.”
When picking a lure to throw at tightly packed redfish, choose an offering that mimics the prey they’re actively feeding on. When finger mullet are milling around the surface topwater plugs produce explosive surface strikes. If you spot tails, signaling the reds are digging around the substrate, subsurface jerkbaits will be the most effective option.
Tarpon, often lovingly called the silver king for their unmatched strength, size and some of the most amazing aerial acrobatics exhibited by any game fish, can be found along the entire coast of Florida from inshore shallows to near-shore and open ocean venues. From the thousands that migrate our shorelines to the schools of juveniles that call Florida’s rivers and lagoons home, shoals of these prehistoric overgrown herring can be encountered with relative consistency.
Most of the time large schools of tarpon are located when they reveal their presence by rolling on the surface as they gulp air, and most anglers will tell you that your success will be determined by your position around the moving school. You want to position yourself from an angle ahead of, and a little to the side of, the fish’s direction of travel. You should then cast across and ahead of the school and retrieve your lure, fly or bait back in the direction the fish are traveling.
Captain Phillip Wilds of Anchored Charters (www.anchoredcharters.com) in Panama City, Florida offers this technique when targeting schools of tarpon. “What I have found most productive is waiting for the fish to come to me, as opposed to trying to chase down the fish. I want to place the boat in the path of the fish when they are moving from Point A to Point B by anchoring or staking off. This enables me to provide the best presentation possible, and it’s much quieter so as not to spook the fish by running an outboard or trolling motor. When the fish are approaching, I may need to make some minor adjustments. Usually, I can find what we call a “line” in which groups of fish will consistently be moving along the same small stretch of water. This is why I can often anchor in one spot and have great success. You may, however, find yourself anchoring several times before finding a good line. Finally, when tarpon fishing remember to be courteous and use proper judgment. Nobody likes the guy who runs up and down the beach blasting by anchored boats and cutting off schools of moving fish.”
Around the entire coast of Florida, bluefish and Spanish mackerel can often be seen free jumping and breaking the water’s surface as they corral and bust schools of small baitfish high in the water column. Spanish mackerel and bluefish aren’t as spooky as the aforementioned trophy’s, but maybe that’s because they’re not as desirable either. Both of these species provide excellent sport on the appropriate tackle and are well worth your time. While they won’t spook as easily, you should still be as stealthy as possible. Throttle back quite a distance away and idle into a position ahead of the moving school if you want to be successful.
The next time you’re on the water when that first bit of the sun begins to pop its fiery head over the distant horizon and out of the twilight you spot a school of tails or a pod of rolling fish, try to remain calm and refer to the information provided. And whatever you do; never run directly up to or through schooling fish. This brilliant move which so many of us have witnessed way too many times will surely result in the dreaded blowout every time!