Late summer is an absolutely lovely time of year in South Florida, however, it’s not exactly prime time to put together a successful inshore adventure, Thanks to 100° air temperatures and boiling water on the flats, successful shallow water fishing pretty much fizzles out by 10:00 a.m. and the action usually doesn’t heat up again until around 4:00 p.m. when things start to cool. Sure, you can get in on some decent fishing here and there but it’s inconsistent at best. Naturally, this is exactly when my son-in-law, Dr. Jim Pitts, dropped by for a visit in hopes of landing his very first tarpon.
While the majority of tarpon head north by the end of summer, I know a special guide that consistently digs up healthy ‘poons nearly every month of the year. Captain Rick Murphy (www.sportsmansadventures.com) has a few secret holes that actually produce triple-digit tarpon when there aren’t supposed to be any around. After a few persuading phone calls, Rick agreed to take us fishing in Everglades National Park and guaranteed that Jim would catch his first tarpon. Jim didn’t care how he caught a tarpon just as long as he landed one, so we decided to leave the fly rods at home and fish with a ‘Glades staple—pinfish.
Energetic as a gorilla, these thorny baitfish work extremely well in turbid water with hardly any visibility, at night, and in clear open water.
I’ve fished tarpon with Rick on many occasions in the past but Jim was a newbie, so as we drove to the ramp Rick explained what the day would entail. First, we had to start at dawn because we’d be pretty much fried by noon. The first stop would be to one of the countless grass flats to catch live bait.
Aptly named pinfish, it’s amazing that anything eats these spiky offerings that we were after, but the meal must be well worth the pain because without a moments hesitation, almost every predator residing in the shallows readily pounces on properly presented pinfish. Fortunately, pinfish are easy to catch and extremely durable. All you have to do is situate yourself on the edge of a healthy grass flat, disperse some chum, and use tiny pieces of squid tipped on a multiple hook Sabiki rig. Once the “pins” show up, you can pull them in four or five at a time. You need about four dozen for the day so the bait-making process typically doesn’t take long.
While most mature tarpon move north when the water heats up, there are always some ‘poons to be found from the 10,000 Islands to East Cape. Rick’s method of locating these inshore powerhouses is to investigate the endless bays and creeks along the coast until he spots a pod of rolling fish. The hunt can range anywhere from minutes to hours and must start early because tarpon don’t seem to roll much once the sun is high in the sky. Targeting tarpon with pinfish is a pretty simple operation. You need a plug or spinning rod with some backbone, a reel spooled with 20 or 30lb. braid, 6-feet of 80lb. fluorocarbon, a 7/0 circle-hook and a float or popping cork. A pinfish’s natural instinct is to swim toward the bottom, toward safety, so the float keeps it trapped in the strike zone a few feet below the surface. This same rigging technique can be utilized in nearly any inshore venue across the state during any month of the year with extremely effective results.
Rick killed his engine a few hundred yards from where we last saw a tarpon roll and poled us toward the action. By the time Rick reached the fish, Jim and I were rigged with pinfish hooked through the back, just ahead of the dorsal fin. Drifting with pinfish is a lot more exciting than it sounds. For some reason, tarpon need to spend a considerable amount of time inspecting the intended meal before striking—deciding whether the pleasure is worth the pain, I imagine.
Jim is an experienced angler, having caught everything from brook trout to blue marlin, so he was more than ready when the first tarpon engulfed his pinfish. Twenty minutes later he was releasing his very first trophy ‘poon. Mission accomplished.
Throughout the morning, Rick explained his opinions about pinfish very rationally and readily admits that when he first started guiding over 25-years ago, he was terrible at throwing a cast net. If he needed live bait he had to catch it on hook-and-line. Pinfish provided the ultimate solution, as they are readily available around Flamingo’s grass flats and unlike pilchard and mullet, which make seasonal migrations, anglers can set up and catch pinfish 12-months out of the year. Personally, I can relate to a lack of cast net expertise. Plus over the years, other than bonefish, I don’t think I’ve found a fish worth catching that wouldn’t jump all over a live pinfish.
Carefully hold one in the palm of your hand for a moment and you’ll notice that pinfish produce loud and distinctive distress signals. Energetic as a gorilla, these thorny baitfish work extremely well in turbid water with hardly any visibility, at night, and in clear open water. Whatever the sound and vibration they emit, it’s like ringing a dinner bell for nearby predators, especially in Everglades National Park. Simply put, pinfish are primo baits that are equally as effective, yet often overlooked for fancier offerings.
Lets fast forward to late fall when cold fronts are pushing through and game fish have returned to the flats. While snook season reopened months ago, the angling action around Flamingo is still pretty slow. Gulf water temps are dropping and the mullet have started their migration down the coasts, but the winter fish haven’t shown up yet and ENP waters are usually stuck in a fishless limbo. I had two days scheduled in October to fish with Captain Rick and as luck would have it, they fell right after a front passed through. Conditions didn’t look promising and I figured there weren’t any tarpon around, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
This time we didn’t have to depart before dawn, however, we still headed straight for Rick’s pinfish hole. Rick knows this area like the back of his hand, so the plan for the day was to do a little exploratory fishing and simply bounce pinfish off the bottom and see what turned up. We fished the same 20lb. class spin and plug outfits that we had for the tarpon but this time we rigged our pinfish on ½ oz. jigheads. The first few spots we tried were lifeless, but on our fourth drift I locked up on a quality strike. Whatever I had hooked ran off a solid 50-yards against a tight drag. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I’d connected with a whopper snook. It was a solid 20-pounds and was carefully set free after a few photos. The next drift produced two more snook—both big fish over 15-pounds. Evidently, the snook were staged along a drop-off and couldn’t resist a crippled pinfish bounced along the bottom right in front of their noses.
I connected with another monster snook that had to have been 25-pounds before a hungry bull shark made short work of the vulnerable linesider. This presented two problems. First of all, who wants to feed breeder-size snook to hungry sharks, but more importantly now it wasn’t safe for Captain Rick to put his hands in the murky water to land fish. With very little visibility you wouldn’t be able to see a bull shark charging up to grab a snook if he was only two-feet away. I hooked another healthy fish only to have an even larger shark devour everything up to the gills in one vicious bite. This spot was done, so we ran a mile or so down the beach, found another drop-off and started all over. Even in the muddy water somehow snook found our pinfish, yet we preceded to lose another big fish to the sharks. Add in the fact that releasing snook in water with zero visibility loaded with hungry man-eaters was a bit scary if not outright dangerous, and we knew we needed to change tactics for the following day.
We decided to shorten the fight time by upgrading from 20lb. spinning tackle to 40lb. plug tackle. This time Rick brought along a large landing net, which allowed us to boat big snook faster and safer. Marine artist Jean Eastman tagged along as we followed the same pattern of drifting pinfish. We agreed that if sharks appeared, we’d immediately relocate.
The heavier line and big landing net were the ticket, as we boated one huge fish after another without losing any of them to the men in the brown suits. We also jumped two tarpon and released two juvenile goliath grouper. For the most part though, it was one over-slot snook after another. I’ve fished Flamingo for 30-years, but I’ve never caught that many big snook so consistently and so easily.
During the winter, cobia show up and Rick tells me that the same pinfish rig works wonders around area wrecks and markers. I’ve also heard reports of schools of 30-pound redfish showing up off the Cape. I’m willing to bet that bouncing pinfish along the bottom is the ticket for slob red drum, too. As a matter of fact, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of predators that won’t eat a pinfish. Point is, don’t overlook these hearty baits because they work. I think we’ve just discovered the universal bait for Everglades National Park—unfortunately we’re about 20-years behind Captain Rick Murphy, but better late than never.