By Captain Mel Berman
** There’s a fascinating transformation that occurs in each of us when the weather morphs from the choke-hold of winter to the benevolent serenity of an April day. The once relentless northerly winds have now veered to a more benign east and south bearing. The air smells good, remains dry, invigorating, always agreeable. First light is the coolest part of the fishing day. A warm jacket feels good. Then, as a broad Florida sun rises overhead, we all strip down to basic shorts and shirts, basking in nature’s annual renewal.
“Wonder what the poor people are doing today?” That time worn, slightly elitist phrase is often invoked in these shining environs. No harm meant. Just an expression of joy when coupled with a spring fishing trip. Forget about the work-a-day world. Let’s play hooky! Your only concentration is to find out where the fish are, and what they’re eating this glorious day.
THE MACKS ARRIVE
In the spring there is a real slugfest between those peacefully calm days and a series of rugged, windy blasts which invariably disrupt the peak offshore fishing season. Ironically, it is usually when the winds howl at highest velocity that the main schools of king and Spanish mackerel, blackfin tuna, bonito and other spring visitors choose to parade through our near shore waters. Those with lower seasickness tolerance must wait for a break in the gusty winds to venture out with their spoons, planers and plugs.
Upon passing the outer buoy, you notice the crystal clear character of the spring offshore waters. The surface is busy, pock marked with burbling, shifting schools of roaming baitfish. Birds dive into this feast, loading up on calories missed during the austere winter. Somewhere under the pods, large groups of equally hungry pelagics survey the scope of the baitfish banquet, ready to feast on these beleaguered silvery forage fish. It is also your turn in nature’s food chain.
If wrestling with “smoker kings” is your passion, slow-trolled live bait is just what the doctor ordered. Larger horse minnows, shad, and mullet work best. Some chum and a good sized cast net is about all you need to load the baitwell. A net with heavier leads is going to get down quickly enough in the deeper waters to capture sufficient greenbacks. If you’re not yet ready for all that fuss, there is the time honored and highly productive technique of trolling artificials. Most choose spoons and plugs trolled on small planers or downriggers.
It’s not too soon to start dragging your spoons right at the outer buoy. Keep your eyes peeled for birds diving on bait. Never drag planers through the greenbacks. You’ll spook the bajeebers out of the fishes feeding on them down below. Try pulling your spoons or plugs so they skirt around the edge of a bait school. Sooner or later a mack will make a big mistake and lunge at that piece of metal.
Many anglers, not too keen on trolling, prefer anchoring up and still-fishing for mackerels using live bait, spoons or jigs. First, you can prime the pump by setting up a chum line. Many tie off a prepared chum block the to the stern. There it can dribble out a line of goodies that’ll draw just about every fish in the neighborhood. Some prefer their own chum mixture, mushing up canned jack mackerel in bread and water, or simply cutting up bait with shears, dropping small pieces off the stern. All of these tactics get the chumming job done, calling the fish over to within casting range.
IT’S PRIME TIME FOR GROUPER
One of nature’s springtime pranks is that when the kings are in and biting, every other sportfish species… inshore and offshore… busts loose. This is evident as you pull your planers where it’s not uncommon to have an occasional grouper striking your bait. Before GPS, lorans, color machines and chart recorders, most old-time Florida anglers trolled until they located a bunch of hungry gags. Once hooking a grouper or two trolling, they’d mark the spot, anchor, and bottom fish. This is still a valid technique, breaking that “fish by the numbers” mentality, especially during the active spring fishing season.
The grouper have now returned from the winter spawning haunts in the bays and from deeper offshore waters to converge on what locals call “the short rocks.” (Translation: rocks a short ride from shore.) It is not uncommon during spring months to catch reds and blacks up to 20-pounds in waters as shallow as 10 feet. Remember, in spring you don’t want to head out too far. You could very well be riding right over the grouper motherlode.
Start by looking for good structure in the shallowest of waters. The aforementioned trolling actually speeds up the process of finding fish. It will enable you to cover vast areas until you locate a pack of hungry fish. If you’re in the “dip and drop” crowd, not into the trolling scene, simply motorfish a “fish show” on a ledge or set of rocks. Here’s how that routine goes: As you move around your loran coordinates, keep that bottom machine chugging. When you spot a stack of fish on the recorder, have one of your buddies drop a bait down as you keep the vessel held over the spot with the motor. Should he catch a grouper, fling a marker jug over the side. Then simply set up right on the jug.
Remember, most grouper are lazy and will not leave their cozy rocks. Therefore, anchoring is very critical and it’s important to know how the boat is going to hang. One way is to observe the direction in which other anchored craft are pointing. If you have a buddy who’s already on his spot, give him a blast on the radio to check out his anchor heading. That can save a lot of aggravation and valuable fishing time.
As for baits, since there are so many live shiners showing up, why not load up on the freebies before you hit the trail. Outer buoys with good structure are often the scenes of swarming schools of greenbacks. Here too chumming before you toss the net makes a big difference in how many shiners you catch per throw and, thus, how much time you’ll be spending with this chore.
When you set up on your grouper hole, it helps immensely to drop a weighted and filled chum container down to the bottom. This gets the grouper show on the road, calling the fish over from at least three surrounding counties. One cheap chumming technique that works is to put several soggy old sardines from previous trips on a hook, drop them down to the bottom and shake loose. This definitely gets a grouper’s motor running. Bear in mind though, as soon as you stop chumming, the fish stop eating.
THE FANTASTIC FLATS OF SPRING
In spring the entire
world of fishing is a bountiful cornucopia of profuse potential, Sounds kind of
flowery but, when you think about it, these are the golden days of our fishing
year. And nowhere is this more evident than in back country fishing. Once
dormant winter flats are now alive with activity. A first generation of spring
baits percolate across the grasses. Vast schools of mullet push massive wakes
as they pour out of creeks and passes.
Not far behind are foraging herds of big-shouldered reds and trout eager to replace the lost calories of winter. Near the mangroves and other shallow water structures, the prized snook slashes at the slightest moving target. And in April, the second level species such as jack cravalles, ladyfish and even big gafftopsail catfish provide plenty of good pulls, enthusiastically slam dunking virtually any bait in your tackle box. It is now time to pull in your seat at the table and partake of nature’s most bountiful feast.
Topwater lures, virtually unproductive in the cold waters of January and February, now, in April, regain their magical powers. Buoyant floaters like the famed Zara Spook, Norman’s Rat’lure, Rebel’s Jumpin’ Minnow, plus the MirrOlure 95-M and 97-M, all on-water walkers, draw several menacing wakes and splashes. There is absolutely nothing I can think of that’s more satisfying than to entice a fish into reaching out and touching a well worked plug. Even if you don’t always connect, the exhilaration of a massive splash if often enough to satisfy the inner soul of most anglers.
These topwaters work best when “walking the dog,” twitching it from side to side as you work it in. You’ll produce the best action with a light and longer-than-usual rod of 7-feet or more. This facilitates those vital long distance rocket casts and, when shaken briskly, walks the topwater enticingly across the water’s surface. These topwalkers need to be worked with a determined steady cadence, occasionally halting the action to give the fish a unobstructed shot at the lure. As a matter of fact, it is usually on the stop that you’ll get the most aggressive strikes.
The next category of
topwaters, when worked, pull slightly below the surface. At rest they pop back
up on top. That momentary pause on top could very well be the precise moment
when a fish nails it. There are several choices in this category including the
MirrOlure 7-M, Mann’s Stretch 1-minus, Woodwalker, Bomber “Long-A” 15
AX and Bagley’s finger mullet. For the most part, these are all twitch type
baits. Flip them out and reel, adding a twitch every so often is all it takes
to get a fish’s attention. Some of the lipped jobs can simply be reeled,
supplying their own action as they move through the water.
Many anglers, myself included, can’t resist twitching it, lipped or not. Either way, you’ll have to experiment with various retrieve and twitch rates determined by existing fishing conditions. Once you ascertain the most effective reel/twitch ratio, you can begin sight casting to areas where you spot fish moving about. If you readily don’t see any target species, simply “blind cast” your lure until you produce a strike. Often fish are feeding or laying in the deep grasses down below and can readily be distracted by a well-worked plug on the surface.
An don’t be too quick to put away the jigs and spoons. My friend Captain Rick Grassett calls the small ¼-oz. gold spoon his “fishfinder.” It’s a great blind-casting tool. Usually, you can achieve good distance with a spoon, slowly reeling it back over a broad target area. To avoid grabbing the bottom in the shallow grass flats, close the bail before the spoon hits the water and immediately start reeling. Most species, especially redfish, can’t stand it when they see that flashing piece of gold metal wobbling by.
As for jigs, pick your
poison. Most any brand works. I favor our local manufacturers, not only because
it’s good for our economy, but also because they were designed with our target
fishery in mind.
I have whaled on all flats species with virtually every home grown brand. The Love’s Lures Tandem and Floatin’ Jig; all the wonderfully soft, pliable, colorful and sparkly Bubba Jigs; the remarkably effective 12-Fathom striped and polka dot jigs, the new D.O.A. CAL jigs series, their Terror-Eyz; plus a host of other local favorites are all efficient fish catchers. Since you’ll be working in the shallow grasses, select the lightest jig head that’s castable.
When tossing jigs in the skinny waters, you’ll do best to reel and twitch as opposed to the more conventional drop and twitch jigging technique. As a matter of fact, most experienced anglers jig fish in shallow waters employing a hybrid jigging/plugging action. There’s plenty of action built-in to the curly and shad tails so that you can simply cast it out and reel slowly back in.
Most of the freshwater
“rubber worm” styles are also extremely effective for springtime
flats fishing. I have had outstanding results with the scented Mister Twister
“Exudes” and “Slimy Slugs,” but just about all will catch
As for rigging, it’s your call. You can do so conventionally with a worm hook and possibly a weight or, as many saltwater aficionados prefer, affix the rubber worm to an ordinary light weight jig head. The easiest and most effective way to work the worm is simply to cast out, let it drop slightly below the surface, then reel slowly. Being an inveterate twitcher, I can’t resist putting in a flick every so often. Also at your spring flats fishing disposal are other style baits that are a combination of any of the above major categories.
April… a month most Suncoast anglers covet. Active, hungry fishes are everywhere. Pick from “Column A” and head offshore for the vast array of enthusiastic Gulf species, or select from “Column B” working the treasures of the flats for your springtime fishing fix. It’s your call… a time of year you hope never ends. Let’s play hooky! Your only concentration is to find out where the fish are, and what they’re eating this glorious day.