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Fishing Wimps

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 By CAPT. MEL BERMAN, 970-WFLA

 One of the things we quickly learn as anglers is that good moving tides and agreeable fishing weather result in successful fishing days. To many a “hard-core” fisherperson (the gals are also included in this scenario) only the wimps fish when the tides and weather conditions are right. It takes a really dedicated angler to try and scare up fish under the most adverse circumstances.

 Admittedly, I belong in the latter category. You can call me up at 2 in the morning with an invite to go fishing, and I’ll meet you at the dock, ready to hit the water at 3 AM. This kind of sets the scene for a trip I had some years back with another fishing nut, my friend Capt. Jerry Williams.

It was a cold, dank, windy Sunday morning. A front was stalled over our Tampa Bay Area. Arrangements for this outing were worked out over a week before… and by golly, Jerry and I were not going to “wimp-out.” When I met him at the Davis Islands ramp it looked like someone had pulled the plug on the bay. We had never seen such a low tide at this popular launching spot.

The winds were blowing a minimum of 20-knots out of the northwest. “Still wanna go?” Jerry asked, with a measure of challenge in his voice. “Let’s do it!” I responded, reaching for the gauntlet Jerry had thrown down.

Splashing south through the choppy waters of Hillsborough Bay, our faces were pelted with needle sharp droplets of cold rain. The several layers of clothing, including a warm ski jacket and foul weather gear on top of that kept my shivering to a minimum. After what seemed an eternity of frigid “splishing and splashing,” we turned toward one of the many spoil islands which line the Sedden channel into the Port of Tampa.

Trying to position our small, 15-foot aluminum Jon boat so that we could find some protection from the brisk, chilly winds, Jerry eased the vessel to the southeast corner of the island. A small oyster bar jutted from the tip of the spoil where we would begin our nippy fishing day. Flipping out small jigs toward the oyster bar, Jerry and I managed to hook up with a few baby sea trout and a couple of hungry ladyfish. Meanwhile, the light drizzle turned into a steadier downpour. The gloom, the wind, the cold, the slow tide, the scarcity of fish, pushed the words to my quivering lips. “What in the world are we doing here?” “Let go in!”

Jerry said he’d agree to head for the ramp, but since we are already near one of his favorite redfish spots, and with the tide just starting to move, let’s make one more brief stop. So Jerry sloshed us across the bay to his secret little “honey hole”… a very shallow grass flat that had small ‘drop-offs’ and some scattered rolling moss.

Preserving my “macho” image and not wanting to be regarded a spineless wimp, I agreed to the cold wet trip across the open bay. As we tried to make it beyond the shipping channel a large tug was barreling down the waterway, probably heading for that warm cup of coffee at their dock. To our dismay, the deep draft commercial craft spewed out a wake of major proportions. We tossed and turned as the 4-foot rollers made it to our beleaguered small aluminum vessel. The last thing I needed was to get wet on the frigid, dank morning. Nonetheless, we managed to navigate these treacherous open waters and slipped into the protection of a barrier island lined grass flats area.

We still had to endure drifting the flats through the discomfort of bone-chilling wind and drizzle. I was beginning to wonder if Jerry’s inspiration would pay off as we got lots of good “casting practice,” but no fish to show for our bone-chilling effort. However, Jerry assured me that when we reach a certain ‘honey hole’ “we’ll hook up with some fish.” “Yeh, yeh… sure,” I thought to myself… but I will humor my adventurous compatriot and go along with this one last shot. About the time I reached my maximum “soak-tolerance level,” I hooked a rather large sea trout. This is the kind of occurrence that delays the departure of any fishing fanatic, and kept the words, “Let go in NOW!” from leaving my lips.

Then, the moment we arrived at Jerry’s “magical spot”, the clouds opened up with a vengeance. What had been a cold drizzle turned into a major downpour, bathing us with a chilling shower so heavy, we could hardly see 5 feet in front of us. Tightening up the drawstring on the hood of my foul weather jacket, a cold, damp feeling began penetrating through to these old bones. But at that very moment, from out of nowhere, a massive redfish had followed my Zara Spook to the boat. As I reeled the lure in, the redfish made a second lunge at it and I hooked up with that huge, copper-colored 36-inch beauty.

As I was fighting this enormous fish, another bulky red ferociously attacked Captain Jerry’s bait. Releasing these lunkers, both of us enjoyed the thrill off hooking a variety of snook, reds and monster sea trout. One trout was so large; I honestly thought the fish was a good-sized snook. When I got it boatside, I could see that this was a trout and at least 29-inches in length. It appeared that the sudden deluge had somehow triggered a feeding frenzy. The fish were now jumping on our lures the moment they hit the water’s surface.

Suddenly, the rain, the cold, the brisk winds didn’t seem to matter. This dank, uncomfortable day had turned into one of those glorious fishing adventures. With rain drooling down my face and off my nose, I gleefully hooked up with some of the largest, friskiest fish I’ve landed all year. It could have been a bright, balmy day and we couldn’t have had more fun. All fish were released. Jerry and I simply appreciated the opportunity to tangle with such frisky lunkers on so disagreeable a day.

Then, as swiftly as it began, the monsoon rains switched back to a slow drizzle. At that very moment, it was as though some unseen hand had thrown a switch. The ‘bite’ stopped abruptly. No matter what we threw at them, no matter how expertly we worked our lures, the fish resumed their previous ‘lockjaw mode.’ Then Jerry and I looked at each other and almost in unison, said “It’s time to go in!”

Flats Lures That Work!

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 By CAPT. MEL BERMAN, 970-WFLA

Most fishing enthusiasts are weird. They drag around gargantuan tackle boxes, packed so tightly with lures they can hardly get the darned thing closed. Yet, if subjected to a reality check, I could put our most used artificials in a tackle box small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. So why do I show up for fishing trips lugging a tackle box loaded with every possession I own that is related to our waterborne diversion? My theory is that I anglers have an insecurity. It’s a basic instinct that’s even more compelling than Sharon Stone’s. I want to be ready for the fish with exactly the right lure, in the right size, in the right color, in the right shape, in the right depth of operation, making the right noise, with the right wiggle, the right castability, the right action, and all the other variables that go into the “right stuff” of artificial baits. Never mind that, before the trip is over, I retreat to that old “sure thing” lure after a few impatient throws of the new stuff.

Yet I insist on spending those sweat-earned dollars for an endless array of what I perceive as “silver bullets” — baits that will ostensibly transform us into burgeoning Bill Dances.

Most seasoned fishing experts, however, always advise starting off with the time tested favorites… lures that have earned their place in most tackle boxes on the simple premise that they consistently catch fish.

Therefore, I present for your consideration a series of flats fishing lures that, when worked properly and under the appropriate conditions, will produce gratifying results. I also will describe specifically how to work them so that you can achieve optimum results. For your convenience, they have been categorized into specific groups of lure types. Each product has been extensively field tested by this writer, and are only included when they pass muster as a consistent fish-catcher. Just remember though, the other dimensions of Iather, tides, and other conditions could very Ill be an inhibiting factor in your success rate even with these proven lures.. Nevertheless, I believe that if you persist with these winners, give them half a chance, I feel confident that you should soon be hitting “fishing home runs.”

THE GOOD OLD JIG
The 12 Fathom Buzz Tail Shad
To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “a jig is a jig is a jig.” In fact there is nary a jig that won’t catch fish. It is undoubtedly one of the most effective all around fishing lures. Though there are countless variations of this basic design, all are basically worked in the same manner. One simply flips it out, lets it drop, twitches it upward, lets it drop again. This procedure is repeated several times until it is retrieved back to the angler’s fishing position. Some fishermen enjoy a great measure of success by simply casting the jig out and slowly reeling it in, without jigging. This is especially effective using shad and curly tail style tails, which tend to have their own action. Others like to work a jig in mid-water column, twitching it as you would a plug.

Subtle differences in jig head design and color is one way manufacturers trump their competitors. The Cotee “Liv Eyes’ jig head has a slightly flat profile that imparts an enticing “screw-tail action,” To this day, it is ranked a favorite with legions of experienced anglers. Yet, there are other fishing enthusiasts who sIar by the more traditional “cannon-ball” shaped jig heads, like those offered by Bubba, Love’s Lures and 12-Fathom Jigs.

There are several tail styles, including the shad, eel, swirl, and the grub tail. The later has a unique spiral drop, and when slowly walked across the bottom, looks uncannily like a shrimp. Shad tails have their own wiggle, and require minimal jigging on the part of the angler to catch fish, and are great “starter lures” for the novice. The same could be said about the swirl tails, which are basically a grub-shaped tail, with a curl of plastic attached to its rear.

Many old hands recommend that you set aside the urge to buy those bright, blazing colors. Experience has shown that the drab motor-oil or root beer colors are the most prolific producers. Gold or silver metal flake tails work Ill under bright, sunny fishing conditions. The darker colors, like green, root beer, etc., excel in dark water or low light, overcast days. Some fishing enthusiasts will doggedly stick with a white or pearl tail, with red jig head. Why? Because it could look like a bleeding bait to the target species and, of greater import, they always seem to catch loads of fish with this combo.

A favorite with snook fishers is the 12-Fathom’s tiger-striped jig tail. Available in silver, gold, green and red, these striped tails apparently emulate chubs or kilifish, one of the snook’s favorite forage species. Worked slowly across the bottom of deep passes and canals, these striped plastic tails can also be irresistible to reds, trout and most other shallow running sportfish.  But don’t forget about the 3-inch Mullet and the Slam-R!

Another favorite is the “The Bubba Silver Flash.” Here is a clear curly tail grub, loaded with an overdose of sparkling metalflakes. This wiggly, sparkly jig tail, gyrating and flashing through the water, has proven irresistible to most species, especially snook. Bubba also markets some unusual colored tails, like “pumpkinseed,” brown with dark flecks in it… “green tomatoes,” green with a red core, and an interesting variety of other colors. Bubbas are all made of a softer texture that seems to be irresistible to most fish.

The popular Love’s Lures Tandem is the epitome of a “user-friendly” jig. It is an ideal lure for fishing beginners, because it will catch fish with minimum effort. Comprised of twin 3/32 ounce heads, fitted with either a specially designed grub or swirl tail, the Love’s Lures tandem comes in a great variety of colors. Each jig head is so light, it drops very slowly, permitting its use over the shallowest of grass flats, yet it has excellent castability. The Love’s Lures Tandem is an outstanding “starter lure,” but will frequently be found in the tackle boxes of seasoned anglers.

The tandem jig is not the only successful Love’s Lures bait. A few years ago, Bill Love and his son Steve, took that same 3/32 ounce, light I jig head, added a small cork, about 15 inches of the leader, and dubbed it the “Float ‘N Jig.” Because of this unique design, the Love’s Lures Float ‘N Jig can be worked conveniently in the “skinniest” of water Definitely not a finesse bait, Steve Love works it with such a violent action, you’d swear he’d never catch anything. Yet, he’ll invariably outfish most everyone with his unorthodox action.

Here’s how to work the Love’s Lures Float ‘N Jig. Flip it out… wait a moment or two as the jig drops. Then, with a sharp upward movement of the rod, the cork makes a loud slurping sound. Steve Love claims it is that sound, like a hungry fish feeding frenzy on the surface, that entices most species. Steve and his dad have landed numerous seatrout, including several “gator-sized” lunkers up to 29 inches. The Float ‘N Jig is also quite effective for snook and redfish, but it seems to be one lure that seatrout absolutely can’t resist.

VARIATIONS ON THE JIG

Some years back, Mark Nichols of Stuart invented an artificial shrimp that really worked. The “DOA” not only looked like a shrimp, but emulated an action that, from a fish’s perspective, appeared to be the real McCoy. The original DOA Shrimp did produce good results, but many anglers simply didn’t care for the excruciatingly slow retrieve it required. Then
last year, Nichols Int back to the drawing boards and re-engineered his DOA Shrimp. He made it slightly heavier, added a standard single hook and impregnated the plastic body with real, pond raised shrimp. The result is a bait that’s far more user friendly, and catches fish with even greater competence. As a matter of fact, many anglers now grade the new DOA Scented Shrimp as their most effective lure.

Many anglers catch lots of fish by walking the DOA Shrimp across the bottom, employing an occasional light twitch to emulate a shrimp dodging a predator. The favorite color by far is the natural, light beige that looks so very much like a real shrimp. Others have also had good success with gold glitter and white. There are also darker colors, including root beer, and various shades of green and chartreuse.

Spoons

Many of my expert fishing friends would say that, were they restricted to just one lure, they’d choose a simple ¼ oz gold spoon. Many of us concur with this selection. Most agree that there is no more effective “redfish finder.” Their design is quite simple, comprised of a traditional 1¾” blade, fitted with a split ring and treble hook. Love’s Lures has added a split ring and barrel swivel to the top of their “Lovin Spoonful.” This gives it a bit more buoyancy, enhancing its shallow water use. It also adds an enticing side-to-side wiggle, and helps minimize annoying line twist. Most other brands can be fitted with this split ring/barrel swivel set-up and modest cost.

Though I favor the ¼-ounce variety I do not want to denigrate all other small spoons on the market. There is a huge cadre of successful anglers who have made their reputations landing fish with such favorites as the Johnson’s Silver Minnow, Bubba, Gator, and Hobo Spoons, plus many others brands.

Spoons are also among the easiest of lures to use. Simply cast it out, and retrieve slowly as possible, keeping it just below the water’s surface. In shallow water, it is best to close the bail before the spoon lands, and start reeling immediately. Even a novice, who’s not familiar with the use of artificials, can easily entice a fish to strike with this highly productive, basic lure.

Twitch Baits

Harold LeMaster was a genius. When he invented the original MirrOlure 52-M in the 1950s, he came up with what many consider the quintessential plug. Most MirrOlures share a unique design feature that sets them apart from the other hard baits. In order to emulate the brilliant flash of a forage fish, Harold LeMaster added a silver or gold foil inside their plastic body. As they are worked, MirrOlures pick up the sun and glint in the same way the scales of a baitfish might. Over the years, this design has proven to be a highly effective. Unlike plugs which have their own wiggle when reeled in, most MirrOlures require the angler to twitch the bait, providing a wide range of actions that can be tailored to the targeted species and fishing conditions. Once mastered, most anglers tend to eschew the use of crank-type baits in favor of these versatile twitch baits. There are many other equally effective twitch type plugs, such as the Bagley Finger Mullet, Trader Bay’s teakwood plugs, Bomber Mullet, the Dalton Special, and dozens of others. I’m certain you could add a number of your own favorites to the list.

Here’s how most experienced anglers get work these twitchers. Flipping the plug out, take up most of the slack, and with a slight wrist movement, twitch the lure with the rod tip. With most topwaters, the twitch pulls the lure slightly below the surface. After the twitch, lift the rod tip to provide a measured amount of line slack, allowing the plug to rise to the surface. Repeat the whole process several times until the bait is finally to the boat. For the most part, the reel is used exclusively for taking up line. It is the rod tip that imparts the action.

SOFT TWITCHBAITS
Recently there has been a great deal of crossover between fresh and saltwater artificials. Most significantly are the so-called soft baits. Among the first to make the journey was the Culprit Jerkworm. This was followed by the Cotee Reel Magic, the 12-Fathom Flats Floater, DOA Baitbuster and several others.

These soft twitchers have proven to be irresistible to virtually every back bay sport fish. The majority are “Texas rigged” using a large worm hook hidden in the body cavity. This creates a major advantage for those who frequently fish through grass or other potential snags.

The down side for these soft twitch baits is that the fish must bite through the soft plastic before it is snared. In most instances, the enthusiasm of a strike, the fish will clamp down on the hook through the plastic. On those occasions when they bite with less vigor, many anglers let the worm hook dangle along side the soft plastic body, or rig it on an ordinary jig head.

The DOA “Baitbuster” is already set up with a husky 6/O hook which protrudes from its finger mullet shaped, scent impregnated plastic body. The Baitbuster is worked with short twitches, separated by pauses and straight reeling. Many anglers achieve good results twitching it violently across the water’s surface.

STICK BAITS
Stick baits are a variation of the twitch bait. The main difference is that they are fitted with weighted tails causing the plug to sit upright, or “stick” up. Worked across the water’s surface, stick baits switch back and forth… what a lot of seasoned anglers call “walkin’ the dog.” This erratic action and the accompanying splashing is quite intriguing for most species and fish become either curious or even angry at this wild “wounded bait” that invades their line of vision. Most strikes are vicious and it is not uncommon for the fish to be hooked along the side of its head as it angrily attacks the lure. Among the most popular stick baits are the venerable Heddon Zara Spook, Norman Rat’lure, MirrOlure 97 M and 95 M, Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow, and the Ozark Woodwalker.

For the most part these stick baits are twitched with the rod tip held high, using a rapid wrist action, dancing it violently across the water’s surface. A light, longish rod works best. Toss one of these stick baits at the base of a mangrove or near a school of tailing redfish. Then walk that lure crazily on the waters surface. Crank slowly so that the splashing, walking action is sustained as long as possible and the fish gets a good bead on it. Other expert fishers have also had considerable success with an opposite technique, twitching slowly, working it similar to the standard twitcher type plugs.

CRANK BAITS
When one refers to “crank baits,” most generally picture the bulbous, big lipped plugs, ala the Rebel-R, Rapala Fat Rap, Norman’s Deep Baby, Bomber Model A, etc. However, I have taken the liberty of broadening the definition of crank baits to include many of the plugs which have their own action when “cranked” in by the angler. Admittedly, Ire I to be true to this definition, the entire array of spoons, mentioned earlier, would fall into this general category. Yet, most would agree that spoons rightly deserve their own special classification.

By far, the most popular “crank bait” in the country is the Bill Lewis Rattle Trap. There is one cogent reason why this rattling lure and all its first cousins from various manufacturers, are held in such high esteem… most fish go nuts when one wiggles and rattles by. There are several versions of this popular type of bait, including the Rattlin’ Rapala, Strike King Diamond Shad, Cordell Super Spot and Rattlin’ Spot, Bagley’s Chatter Shad, etc. Yet, the champ in this category is the widely used Rattle Trap. It’s not just a tribute to Bill Lewis Lures marketing prowess, it’s simply that
Rattle Traps perform better than most crankers. All brands come in a great variety of styles, from deep sinkers to shallow rattlers, to fresh and salt water versions, in a tremendous array of colors.

It’s not brain surgery to effectively work this bait type. Simply toss it out and wind it back in. Many anglers like an extremely fast retrieve. Other like it “low and slow.” It’s your call as to which technique produces the optimal results. Then there are those with twitchy fingers, who can’t resist giving it a kick or two upon retrieving. All techniques seem to work. It’s basically that loud rattle and the shiny wiggle of the lure going by that suckers the fish to bite. Of course, for flats fishing, I would choose the shallow running salt water versions. Just one word of caution however… even though these rattlers are designed for shallow water usage, they’re not topwater plugs. When you cast it out in 2 feet or less, you’d better click the bail shut before the lure hits the water. Then, keeping the rod tip up, start working it immediately before it grabs a clump of grass. With these precautions in mind you’ll find the widely used Rattle Trap type lure to be an outstanding and productive crank bait choice.

Around the west coast of Florida, the most popular self wiggling lure for flats fishing is the Bomber Long-A series. Suncoast anglers prefer the mid-sized 3½-inch 14-AX, or 4½-inch 15-AX series. It too comes equipped with rattles that are designed to emulate the sound of fish feeding or bait busting the surface. The rattles have a remarkable impact on the lure’s effectiveness. As for colors, virtually everyone gravitates toward the red head-silver body or gold color plugs. Bombers have the ability to draw violent strikes from big reds, snook, cobia, outsized trout, and other flats species.

There are many variations of the Bomber Long-A. The Bill Lewis “Slapstick” is a stick-type crank bait that sits upright in the water, and has an action that, as the Bill Lewis ad says, “drives the fish slap crazy!”
Other longish lipped bait sharing similar characteristics include the Bagley Bang-O-Lure and Top Gun, Rapala Balsa Minnow, Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue, Rebel Windcheater, and a host of others. All are worked the same. Deploying all these lipped baits in shallow water, you must close the bail just before it drops down to the water’s surface. Then begin reeling without delay. Again, a slight twitch every few cranks is also an option with these plugs.

“SLURP” BAITS
I trust you won’t mind, but here is a classification that I’ve taken the liberty of naming. The designation, “slurp” bait, pretty much describes how they work. Splishing and splashing their way across the water’s surface, the lures are said to emulate fish in a feeding frenzy, a wounded bait, a terrorized school of baits, or whatever your own speculation conjures up. These slurp baits seem to arouse the curious attention of most species. Generally speaking, they strike more with anger than with hunger.

There are two basic versions of slurp baits. One is the “chugger” type plug with a flat surface on the front that chugs through the water as it’s worked. A typical example is the the MirrOlure 12-M or Rebel Pop-R plug. Others are designed with spinner blades on the tail and/or the nose. These include the the new MirrOprop, Bagley Bang-O-Lure, MirrOlure 5-M and 26-M, and Smithwick Devils Horse. Many of these slurps are a combination of both features, like or the Bagley Chug-A-lure and Luhr Jenson’s “Jerkin’ Sam.” To be sure, there are dozens of other spinner blade/chugger slurp baits that are equally as effective.

Generally speaking, these baits are worked in a hesitating patter. Cast it out.. slurp it… then retrieve slack… slurp… retrieve slack… and so on. Somehow larger seatrout, redfish and snook are suckers for these splashy lures. It takes a bit of practice, but with patience, you should be able to make these slurp baits talk to the fish.

A Few Final Thoughts and Suggestions

In 98% of your fishing activities, especially with artificials, there is no need to use barbed hooks. Most of us are heavily into catch and release fishing, and, with mashed-down barbs fish can be released with very little harm. Barbs are basically essential for keeping live bait on the hook. On artificial baits, this is not required. Therefore, I would urge you to crimp the barbs on all hooks. So long as you keep a good tension, you should not notice any drop in production. Many anglers, myself included, also try removing one or two of the trebles on plugs, or replacing them with single hooks. Each plug performs differently, and you’ll have to do a little experimentation with these alternative hook configurations. The main mission, however, is make sure that the fish I release will live to fight another day.

Finally, I have a serious confession to make. Given the choice between using artificials or live baits, I will invariably choose those multi-colored imitations every time. Now I know what you’re about to say, one can land more fish with the live stuff. Nevertheless, I will have a much more interesting and challenging day of fishing with my ersatz baits. I can “broadcast” the lures, covering a wider range of a given area than you can “drowning a shrimp.” Because of this versatility, I believe that I can frequently outfish live bait anglers. Try the techniques described above for the various categories of lures. Give them a reasonably decent chance to do their thing. Once that big lunker crashes on a topwater your days of live bait fishing could very Ill be numbered.

Fresh Ideas Helping Our Fishery

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 By CAPT. MEL BERMAN, 970-WFLA

As a new arrival to Florida in 1969, I remember walking down Tampa’s main drag, Franklin Street, thinking to myself, “what a nice sleepy little town. “ The entire area (later to be known as Tampa Bay) appeared to me at the time to be a typically quiet, low population Florida west coast community.

Now let’s jump ahead 38-years to 2007. The Tampa Bay population has exploded to about three million residents, and that once sleepy little Tampa village has become a major city of more than one million. Meanwhile, People are still pouring in to grab their “part of paradise” and enjoy all the amenities of living in the Sunshine State — especially fishing.

There was a time back in the mid 70s, when I could anchor up within sight of Anclote Key and be kept busy pulling in 20-pound gag grouper. There was no pressure in that fishery then — and it was almost too easy. On one of my offshore trips I had a friend join me who actually complained that “this is too easy. Just drop a bait down an reel in a fish. What’s the big deal?”

With far less restrictive regulations then, most didn’t even think about fishery conservation issues. But all that has changed. Today, with more people pursuing fewer fish, the diminution of our fish stocks is on the minds of the vast majority of those who fish Florida waters, and we’ve all become plugged in to conservation strategies. Granted, federal and state regulators have been ingenious at managing our fishery in the face of the exponential growth. However, there is only so much they can do to mitigate the effects of enormous pressure exerted by our growing and enthusiastic angling populations.

So what are some of concepts that would maintain a viable Florida fishery? Usually, for answers, we would get some answers from the scientists – people whose job it is to constantly study the data and come to very serious scientific conclusions. However, this time we decided to get a few “civilian” points of view – from many long time Florida fishing enthusiasts who have been witnesses to this unprecedented growth. We think you’ll agree that they come up with some thought provoking and possibly viable concepts.

. “We need to put a big gate all across the Florida border and don’t let anymore people come in.”

That was the initial tongue-in-cheek response from Capt. Jim Bradley, a Tampa native who grew up fishing the abundant waters of Tampa Bay. For the last several years he’s been operating a seafood business in Hernando County.

As a youth Bradley pursued most popular inshore species, and was pretty darned good at finding and catching his share of snook, reds and trout. In his youth Bradley was fascinated by the giant silverkings, winning several Bay Area tarpon tournaments. Later, he transposed his fishing skills to offshore and became one of the genuine blue water experts.

These days, Bradley has some unique ideas and solutions that he believes would help the offshore resource.

First of all, he thinks the authorities should “shut the whole grouper thing down for a good period of time – both commercial and recreational. This way the fish would get a nice long break and have a chance to regroup.” Bradley also believes that our very abundant grouper fishing went rapidly downhill with the introduction of longlining in the Gulf. “By the time they pull up those miles of longlines, most everything on the hooks are dead. What a waste.”

Bradley points out that fish handling is a great problem – even with more hardy species like snapper and grouper. With many dying during the catch and release process. Capt. Jim suggests that “instead of size limits, how about keeping the first five fish you catch, and then you’re through?” And Bradley adds that “often when most fish get big enough to keep, they’re full of roe. “And besides, the smaller fish are always much better eating.”

Jay Brewington founded Paddle-Fishing.com, which caters to the interests of a growing legion of folks who do their fishing out of kayaks and canoes. Brewington feels that the vast majority of his paddle fishing colleagues is more in tune with what it takes to maintain a growing resource. He said that “nine times out of ten, we usually just take what we need for dinner – and are really good about proper handling of the fish.” He feels that “every paddler I know is really a great steward of our environment. That’s because the kind of fishing they do brings them so close to nature.”

Brewington also calls for stronger regulations and much better enforcement of the laws already on the books. Above all, he says, ”I would like to allow Mother Nature to control our environment. There is way too much development, seawalls, beach renourishment, reopening of passes, destruction of our precious wetlands – all of which diminish what has historically been a great and abundant fishery.”

Capt. Rick Frazier, who charters out of St. Petersburg also has some strong opinions of what‘s hurting our fish stocks. “They’ve got to quit pumping all that crap in our waters,” adding that “it might be hard to contain warm water runoffs and retention pond collapses. But we really need to keep it all to a minimum. I am frankly convinced that the horrendous red tide last year was fed by all those nutrients in the water.” Frazier also feels that our changing, warmer weather patterns are affecting the habitat as well. With the lack of rain, salinity levels have been much higher which also feed the red tide organism and has a dramatic impact on the fishery equation.

“Trout regulations just don’t make sense to me,” said Frazier. “More speckled trout get killed in the catch and release process than all of the ones that wind up in our coolers.” As with Capt. Jim Bradley, Frazier thinks that we should concentrate more on bag limits than size limits. “If you catch four – keep four — then target some other species.”

He also worries that too many who fish with live shrimp tend to get the hooks deeply imbedded. “And when a seatrout gets hooked in the gut, it’s just too tempting to try to retrieve a lousy 3-cent hook – but kill the fish in the process.” Frazier highly recommends simply cutting the leader, giving fish an excellent chance for survival.

Gandy Bridge

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 More Than Just A Bridge
By Capt. Mel Berman,
Florida Fishing Weekly

For years, motorists traversed the old Gandy Bridge that connected South Tampa with North St. Pete. All agreed that the span was an inadequate, rickety structure and should have been replaced long ago. And that bridge wasn’t even the original. What most refer to these days as “the old Gandy Bridge” was actually built in 1956, replacing the first one that had been serving the area since the1920s. Running parallel and attached to the roadway was a series of catwalks that provided a unique access to one of the most productive fishing venues in Tampa Bay.

The original Gandy Bridge, built by George S. “Dad” Gandy, first opened on November 20th, 1924. It shortened travel distance between Tampa and St. Petersburg from 52 to 19 miles — allowing motorists to cross at mid Tampa Bay, instead of driving around the northern perimeter. In a very real sense, the Gandy Bridge ultimately helped unify the many diverse communities on both sides of the bay – the entirety of which has now became known as the “Tampa Bay Area”.

In 1924, the Gandy proudly was hailed as the “Longest Automobile Toll Bridge in the World.” It had a drawbridge providing a 75 ft. clearance span under which many sailboats and yachts made their way to the Gulf some 35-miles south. In the beginning there was a toll of 75-cents for an auto and driver, plus and additional 10-cent for each passenger. That ultimately was replaced by the aforementioned second Gandy Bridge in the 1950s.

Then in the late 1990s, state authorities decided that the older Gandy Bridge should be demolished and a new, more modern structure would be built in its place. That news did not sit well with most Gandy catwalk fishers, who expressed alarm at the possibility of losing one of their favorite fishing haunts.

Giving voice to these concerns was Bill Robinson, proprietor of nearby Gandy Bait and Tackle. “They were gonna take the middle section of the old pier out and make it into a reef, but then some locals got involved and urged them to keep the old bridge up along side the new Gandy Bridge and make it into what they now call “The Friendship Trail”. So these days, right beside the new Gandy Bridge which opened in December of 1999, remains the older bridge. It was refurbished to accommodate folks who want to ride bikes, jog and run – and at the same time, those precious catwalks were retained, and everyone was happy.

The amenities are many at the Gandy. On the east end is one of the better launching ramps in Hillsborough County, and on the western end, there is another smaller, but useable ramp that provides convenient access for those who want to fish the waters of Weedon Island and its adjacent power plant.

What is it about fishing around the Gandy Bridge that makes it so productive? “Well for one thing, it’s been there for so long – and there are still remnants and pieces of even the original 1924 bridge still down there,” said Robinson. “Then there’s the shade and shadows the bridge provides – conditions that attract a lot of fish.” There are available a great variety of gamefish in that part of the bay, including, snook, tarpon, redfish, jacks, trout, mackerel and cobia. “It’s really one of the best spots to catch pompano and sheepshead, with all the barnacle encrusted pilings, “said Robinson. “There’s even been a kingfish or two caught off that bridge at certain times of the year.”

The Gandy area is also one of the better snooking spots, and Robinson said that they’re all close to the shore and around the rocks – especially on the incoming tide. “You just fish straight down with a live pinfish, grunt or shrimp, and you should hook up with one of the many big linesiders that hang around there. “

He said he has caught snook all the way out to end of the catwalks. “Now on the St. Pete side, the water close to shore is real deep – about 20 feet. But way out at the end of the catwalk, it’s only about 5 feet, with a nice hard shell bottom there.” Robinson tells of one of the great old-timers who used to fish the bridge at night. “He would go there where it would shallow up put and a lantern down – letting all the baitfish congregate. Then he’d put another lantern out about a couple-hundred feet back towards land. Once the bait ganged up around the first lantern, he’d take and walk it from the shallow part back to the other lantern – which coaxed the bait right to that edge where it drops off. Now that’s where the snook hang out. And that old guy would catch a bunch or really big linesiders out there every time.”

We asked Robinson to tell us what’s happening at the Gandy this time of year, “Well the tarpon are already there and they will be available until around October – when they start to migrate on out. Now every once in a while someone will hook one of those huge tarpon there, but most of them are of the smaller variety – anywhere from 25 to 90 pounds.” And Robinson said that from his perspective,” Those small tarpon are always a lot of fun on lighter tackle.”

This year, the Gandy has also been inhabited by great schools of unusually large bluefish. “The last two or three years, it seems like there’s more and more of them in the bay,” he said. “And with the great abundance of baitfish this year, there are massive schools of blues around the Gandy and all over the bay.”

One of the best things about the Gandy Bridge is its location over brackish waters. “What most don’t realize is that those waters are kept brackish because of all the freshwater rivers and lakes that constantly empty into the bay,” said Robinson. ”You’ve got the outfall from Lake Tarpon, Hillsborough River, Rocky Creek, Sweetwater Creek, Alligator Lake coming out of Safety Harbor—plus the waters you get from the rains and then the street runoffs.” Because of the lower salinity level, that part of the bay never got hammered by last year’s extended red tide. That why these days so many anglers are making a beeline for the Gandy Bridge. Many area residents regard it as a convenient roadway between the two counties. But most of us who fish around here think of it as their favorite honey hole,

Give Freshwater a Try

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 By CAPT. MEL BERMAN, 970-WFLA

Come on, admit it. You’re a dedicated saltwater angler, but have often flirted with the idea of checking out the freshwater scene. “Right now’s a great time because bass fishing is at its peak,” says ESPN’s “Bass Professor,” Doug Hannon. “With these cooler fall waters, saltwater species have many travel options. Freshwater fish don’t have that choice. They’re landlocked in canals and coves. And the larger bass are staying put, guarding their beds during the spawning period.”

Hannon says that most of your typical flats fishing equipment should work just fine and, “with any kind of trailerable boat, decent tackle and reasonable fishing skills, you should do just fine.”

While personally preferring soft jerk baits or tube jigs, he insists that most of your saltwater lures — Spoons, jigs, topwalkers, crank baits or twitch plugs– are very capable bass catchers. “But remember, you’re going to have to work them all very much slower.”

As for freshwater fishing destinations, anglers really won’t have to travel very far from wherever you live in Florida. For example, Pinellas County anglers have convenient access to Lake Seminole, where you can land some decent size bass, flipping worms in the reeds. There’s also Lake Tarpon near Palm Harbor; the Hillsborough River between 40th and 50th street in Tampa, and Bradenton ’s Manatee and Parrish Lakes. Hannon highly recommends a visit to the Tsala Apopka chain, near Floral City and Inverness. This should put you into heavy duty bass action. On the other side of the state, the Kissimmee Chain in Osceola County is red hot right now. The lake itself is undergoing a restoration drawdown, which has concentrated the bass in more accessible, tighter quarters.

Okay, once you launch the boat, where do you go from there? “If it were me, I’d head for the northwest corner of the lake,” says Hannon. ” That’s where it’s protected from any of the recent cold fronts where the water temperature should be at least 4-degrees warmer.” Avoid areas that have been sprayed, and search out quiet, still canals, pockets or coves with good sand bottom, plenty of structure, and a wide variety of vegetation.

And don’t overlook the panfish. There are many species that are fun and easy to catch — that will prove to provide

some very tasty dinners.

One very important pit stop on your venture into the world of freshwater fishing would be a visit to a bait store near any lake you plan on visiting. The folks who operate these shops are almost always happy to let you know what currently going on — where to fish and how — supplying you with the kind of bait that you’ll need to assure that your day on the lake will be productive So why not forget about all those snook, reds and trout this one weekend? Go on, give bass fishing a shot. Who knows, you might actually get to like it!

Goliath Grouper Protection

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Goliath Grouper: Should they still be protected?
By Capt. Mel Berman, 970-WFLA

Many who fish and dive our waters have been asking about the status the Goliath grouper. Should they still be protected? Have their stocks recovered to the point where they should be taken off the Protected Species list? Are they eating other popular bottom fish? We have some answers. 

Typical of the questions I receive is this email from recreational angler Rodger Trexler who says::

“I know new regs on grouper will probably pass this year. How can we get the ball rolling on opening up a way to start harvesting Goliath grouper again. Just change their label to game fish and let only hook and line take them. Then put a slot, say 28″ to 40″ and let the recreational guys look for some other table fare while on the water. The slot would leave the big breeders alone. These fish have come back in a big way, even buy the states own numbers. Talk to any person who dives the locale reefs and bridges and they will shock you with the numbers of Goliaths they have seen. I am one who tries to learn from past mistakes and we have made some big ones with this species, but now we can, I feel, start enjoying this great fish as table fare again without destroying the numbers. So back to my question, who do I call to or write to get this ball rolling.

Thanks for your time,

Rodger [mullet] Trexler ”

For some answers, I directed Mr. Trexler’s comments and questions to Steve Atran, Population Dynamics Statistician Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. Here was Atran’s response:

“Dear Mr. Trexler and Captain Mel:

The Gulf Council received two presentations on Goliath grouper at its May 13-16, 2002 meeting in Destin earlier this month. The first presentation was a series of underwater videos shot by *Captain Eddie Toomer, a member of our Reef Fish Advisory Panel. The video showed Goliath grouper concentrations on various artificial reefs off southwest Florida between Charlotte Harbor and Florida Bay. These videos were shot over the past 3 to 4 years between May and September in depths of 40 to 150 feet. Captain Toomer estimated that most of the Goliath grouper were between 300 and 500 pounds. He stated that every wreck had Goliath grouper, but they were more abundant on wrecks that were further offshore and more difficult to reach.

The second presentation was a NMFS update on the status of Goliath grouper by Dr. Anne-Marie Eklund, who is the head of the NMFS Goliath grouper research group. Although Goliath grouper are in greater abundance than in the mid-1980s, they are still well below the abundance levels seen prior to 1983. Some fishermen have expressed concern that snapper and grouper disappear from areas that are populated by Goliath grouper due to predation by the Goliath grouper. However, underwater fish counts show that other groupers are more abundant in areas where Goliath grouper were found than in areas where Goliath grouper are absent. Stomach content analyses indicates that the primary food for Goliath grouper is invertebrates and slow moving fish. One interesting observation is that Goliath grouper seem to be more abundant on artificial reefs than on natural reefs. Data collected by volunteer divers for Project R.E.E.F. (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) found, off Charlotte and Lee counties, Goliath grouper were present on 50%-60% of artificial reefs but only 10%-20% of natural reef sites, and less than 5% of dives made off the Florida Keys. Dr. Eklund felt that it was premature to say that Goliath grouper had recovered. She also expressed concern about high methyl-mercury levels found in Jewish. Methyl-mercury concentrations measured from large Goliath grouper caught from 1989-1991 have been found to exceed the USDA’s action level of 1 ppm. (Since 1990 it has been illegal to harvest Goliath grouper, and the Goliath grouper research group has used only non-lethal methods to study the fish.)

Following the presentations, the Council declined to take any action concerning Goliath grouper. Therefore, their status will remain status quo, i.e., harvest prohibited.

Sincerely,

Steven Atran
Population Dynamics Statistician
Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council
web site: http://www.gulfcouncil.org

* I should also note that in the past Capt. Eddie Toomer was a spokesman for commercial fishermen, voicing strong opposition to the Florida net ban’s passage when it was under consideration by Florida voters. Toomer appeared numerous times on my 970-WFLA radio program arguing in behalf of the gillnetters.

Capt. Mel Berman

GPS Gets You There, But Look Around

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By Capt. Mel Berman, 970-WFLA

There’s no doubt that marine electronics have increased the mortality rate for many popular  ocean species. It has in fact elevated the game of many anglers who heretofore were not at the top of their bottom fishing game. Yet, even with these amazing computerized devices, it is important to still take a look around.

I recall a time when someone petitioned me for some productive numbers in about 100-feet of water off Anclote Key.  Knowing that those distant spots wouldn’t be hammered on a regular basis, I agreed and provided him with some special coordinates that had produced for me. Then, off he went some 50-miles into the Gulf anticipating a great mother lode of hefty grouper. Yet, after three hours out and three hours back, my friend arrived back at the dock a really unhappy camper.

”I ran right to those numbers you gave me, anchored up, and we didn’t catch squat,” he complained. “Did you think of turning on the recorder and looking around a bit,” I responded. “Well, no. We just zeroed out the course computer and dropped the anchor.”

This winter season is “grouper prime time” in Florida. But you can’t simply fish by the numbers.  

Thanks to the advent of advanced marine electronics, even the novice grouper digger can make a beeline for all the honey holes.  While it is true that GPS and loran before that would take you right to a likely set of grouper rocks, to really setup right on them, you’ll need to see what’s going on below.

Fish have fins, and they don’t always stay in the same place. And you could head for a beautiful “break” and find nobody home. It is not uncommon for gags to forage up and down a big ledge and when you show up, they could be anywhere in the neighborhood.

One very effective technique that seasoned grouper-diggers practice is to take a heading for some GPS destination. But when they get to within a mile or two of their coordinates, they slow down, put out a couple of baits on planers or downriggers and troll the rest of the way. 

In almost every instance, they never make it to their final GPS location. If an area has a known set of rocks, pocked marked hard bottom or ledges, chances are that whole area would be similarly structured, holding many fish. This technique is also the way many skilled grouper anglers find new spots.

Once you hook a fish trolling, mark that spot with a jug. Then do a “180” and troll back the other way. Chances are good that you will pick up another grouper – and when you mark that second spot, just set up in-between both markers. You should be right over the hungry school of fish.

As for what to ‘drag’ behind your planers or downriggers, I have always had a great deal of success trolling big plugs such as the Long-A Bombers,  larger spoons like the Clark’s #5 Spoon Squid, or with strips of mullet on a skirted jig such as the Sea Witch. With downriggers, you also have the option of trolling jigs and other smaller baits.

But whatever you do, don’t depend solely on your GPS to get you to your fish haven. They are great inventions that have been a real boon for all offshore anglers. Just remember, these devices will only get you in the neighborhood – you need to “knock on a few doors” to see if anybody’s home.

 

Great Spring Snook Migration

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By CAPT. MEL BERMAN, Florida Fishing Weekly

Is it temperatures, time of year, instincts or traditional migration patterns? Whatever the motivation, this is a season when Florida’s snook populations leave their low-salinity wintering locations in the upper estuaries, ultimately moving onto their spawning grounds at beaches, deep passes and barrier islands where they spend the summer.

What are some of the way points for snook as they head for their warm weather locations? Where would they be found during this transitional period?

For some authentic answers, we turned to Ron Taylor, the pre-eminent FWC snook scientist at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

“Several years ago we used to think that all of the snook would be in the backwater during winter – and spawning in the estuaries and the passes by summertime. Well that just isn’t so.  We’ve had a couple of research projects since that information was written that shows indeed the majority of fish do adhere to that migration pattern. However, you’ll find some snook in all habitats every day of every year. So yes, they are in transition in both the spring and fall. Most of them head for the rivers and creeks in the fall, stay back there over winter, then transition back to the lower estuaries and the passes mainly during the late spring and summer.”

During this transitional spring pattern, Taylor said that the popular linesiders are now on their way out of the rivers and probably setting up around some river mouths, out on the flats, but ultimately migrating towards the inlets, passes and their summer shoreline spawning sites.

Typical of excellent snooking locations would be places like Terra Ceia Bay in Manatee County. One can find snook in there year ‘round, especially along that northwest shoreline, fishing those flats and cuts with an excellent prospect of finding some hefty keeper snook. “That whole area is good all the way back to that first series of concrete seawalls,” advised Taylor. “There are two creeks there that go all the way to Rattlesnake Key. And they love to get in there during winter. In the spring and summer, they’ll just stay at the mouth of that creek. This is typical of the kind of habitat that snook prefer.”

Taylor suggests that there’s one common necessity for finding large numbers of snook – current flow. “For example, on a two tide day, with slow movement of water, you might as well keep your tacklebox in the garage – don’t even think of going fishing. Therefore, if you’ll be targeting snook, you have to fish a location with good current. You’ll also need an area with deep water nearby that falls off in low tides.”  He said that you should seek an area with some kind of structure, as well as a grass flat in the vicinity, which typically holds a good food supply in the form of baitfish and crustaceans. Snook also prefer cover and structure in which to hide so as to avoid predators.

A snook caught on a trip with Neil Taylor at Strike Three Kayak Fishing.While good tidal flow is critical to your snooking success, very strong tides can actually shut down the bite. “That’s like you and I, able to stand breezes possibly up to 35 or 40 miles an hour. But if you stood in stronger winds, you’d get uncomfortable and want to go inside. It’s the same way .with snook and most species. I’d say that if the current gets much more over 3 or 4 knots per hour, they’re not going to stay, looking for some kind of structure to get behind until the current flow diminishes.”

Taylor added that the best time to snook fish would be at the top of the tide when it starts to go out.  “I do well about two to three hours into the outgoing tide.”

He contends that our snook populations are robust here on Florida’s west coast.  “The east coast appears to be a bit leaner when it comes to snook populations. There, the numbers and recruitment (more generations of snook) have been down for the last three years. While there are many adult fish, the amount of recruitment snook is definitely dropping. So that’s why we had to change some of the regulations.”

Biologically speaking, according to Taylor, snook populations in Florida are probably at an all time high. “I know that’s difficult to say in the face of these new regulations. But what we’re looking at are some increased measures to account for potential problems that we can’t predict, plus those low levels of recruitment on Florida’s east coast. “In other words, it’s just like putting out a grass fire before it becomes an all consuming forest fire.”

According to Taylor, the extra month’s snook season closure on Florida’s west coast, put into place a few years ago was “biologically almost a moot point.” He said that if he was going to manage these sticks from a biological perspective, that month would not have been required.  “But the stakeholders demanded that we adhere to the 40-percent spawning potential ratio (SPR) goal that was set by the commission in 1994. They would not move from that goal. It was absolutely mandatory. In the face on increased exploitation, reduced recruitment on Florida’s east coast, and in the face of destruction of available juvenile snook habitat, we had no alternative but to change the regulations.”

Is all this a good thing? Absolutely,” said Taylor. “We never would have gotten to where we are today with our abundant snook populations had we not adhered to that 40-percent SPR these last several years.”

Those of us who enjoy catching snook are also concerned about their well being. So what’s the best way to safely handle and release linesiders when we catch them? “Ideally, you handle it as little as possible and release that snook as quickly as possible. What would a marathon runner need? He needs oxygen. You’d never think of putting a bag over his head. So get that fish back in the water as quickly as possible.”  He also said that we should not swish the snook back and forth in the water before release. That actually sets up a cavitation of water in its gills and could actually do some harm.  Also avoid holding the snook vertically, especially with a grip of some sort. This can literally break the snook’s jaw and possibly cause harm to its internal organs.  Taylor advises that “it’s best to just support that snook in the water with your hand and, once the fish regains its composure, the fish will swim off on its own.”

Grouper Digging Rookie

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 By CAPT MEL BERMAN, 970-WFLA
 

 We all had to start somewhere, asking way too many questions, being a pest. Eager to learn every aspect of grouper digging it is easy to become quite a pest following more seasoned anglers around on land and sea. “What’s a matter — Can’t you find your own darn fishing spots?” This is approximately what we are inclined to shout at the offending boater. However, seasoned skippers might do well to remember the poor guy is probably just a “rookie,” not sure he’ll make the team. 
 
 This isn’t meant to excuse his behavior. As a matter of fact, there are jokers who make a career of following those whom they perceive to be successful grouper diggers. These interlopers will furtively write down these poached loran numbers, then unashamedly fish the heck out of a spot until there isn’t even a sand perch left. He’s not the person we’re about to analyze here. We’re talking about one of the hundreds of people who decide to take up Gulf fishing. Perhaps they are newcomers to our state. So we must take that into account and forgive them. In most cases, they know not what they do.

Let me take you back in time, to a period when you too were a green recruit in the grouper digging wars. You can undoubtedly still recall the anguished looks as your boat “accidentally” drifted too close to a vessel with anglers hauling in what appeared to be a “mother lode” of a grouper. The point is, all of us were beginners once and, unless someone shows you the ropes, it takes forever for the novice to develop the skills to enjoy any measure of success.

Several years ago, two loveable Florida “crackers” named Billy Ray Connor and Bob “Pete” Peterson took pity on me . They came to the conclusion that the best thing for all concerned was to actually take this “dumb Yankee” under their wing and show him how to grouper fish. To this day, I believe their true motive was self defense. If they showed me the ropes, perhaps I’d go off and be able to find my own spots… leaving them to fish in peace. This would eliminate the need for such subterfuges as dropping a marker jug over sand, in the likely prospect that I’d be fooled and try to fish there while they scampered away over the horizon to some distant honey hole. So now I was to be instructed in the fine art of “Florida cracker grouper fishing.”

For the next several outings my boat would be left back in the barn. Billy Ray and Pete directed me to ride with them in their 21-foot dual console open fisherman. Above all, my assignment was to keep the eyes and ears open, and the mouth shut! In my first lesson Billy Ray and Pete counseled that it is bad form to drag one’s anchor through somebody else’s fish. (I sheepishly pleaded guilty on this offense.) Next, they advised me to get rid of those cute “store bought” grouper rigs. Their recommended shopping list included a bag of 4 and 6 ounce egg sinkers, a box of Mustad O’Shaunessy 7/0 hooks, a roll of 100 pound test monofilament line for leader, plus a bunch of stout number 4 barrel swivels. With these components I could make my own much more reliable and effective terminal tackle rigs. They demonstrated how to tie a uni-knot, a knot that wouldn’t pull loose should anything over three pounds hit the hook. Above all, they advised me to get rid of that stubby, “telegraph pole.” It would be replaced with a long, flexible, more sensitive tarpon rod, fitted with a reliable Penn 113H reel loaded with 60-pound mono. As for bait, I was advised to kick the squid habit. From that point forward Billy and Pete declared that frozen Spanish sardines an live pinfish would be the bait of choice. This transformation accomplished, all was set for the initial field trip with my new mentors.

In those days, the mid 70s, we didn’t have the advantage of loran. Folks would simply make a decision to take a certain heading like, say northwest. When we got to a desired depth and an area that looked like it showed some promise (perhaps a darker patch of water, or just Pete’s instinct) Billy Ray would slow the boat down, and turn on “The Sitex.” (It was never referred to as a recorder. It was always “The Sitex.”) “See those spikes?” Billy Ray asked. “I think so” I said. “That, my friend, is a nice stack of grouper right there.” “If you say so, Billy.” Our preliminary step was to “motor fish” the spot. This involved using the engine to maintain the boat’s position over the fish while the crew dropped frozen sardines down to the bottom. If we got a sudden big grouper pull, Billy Ray would “jug” the spot (drop an empty Clorox bottle, with a string and lead tied to it to mark the spot) and anchor up so that the stern of the boat was right in front of the jug.

“Now let the sinker lay right on the bottom, and keep your finger on the line, so you could feel the grouper’s shadow when he passes by.” Pete instructed. Hold the rod with the right hand on the butt end. The left hand grabs the foregrip of the rod. It may feel awkward at first, but this way you’ll get the best leverage on a grouper strike.” Eagerly following these vital suggestions, it wasn’t two seconds later that I felt a violent yank by what seemed like some primeval monster down below. “Help! I can’t move it!” I yelled. “You dummy, get that darn rod out from under your arm, and put that dad- blamed outfit in front of you,” shouted Billy Ray (perhaps not precisely in those words.) Unfortunately, Billy’s admonition came too late. The big grouper sullenly backed into the rocks, spreading his gill plates and refused to budge.

We eventually had to break the line to free up my fishing outfit. Once a catastrophe like this happens, Billy and Pete knew that the grouper would “shut down.” Moments later Billy Ray revved up the engine in preparation for leaving this glory hole. “Wait a minute, fellas! Where are we going,” I implored. “There’s a ton of fish down there… we can’t leave now!” “Well, Mel, I’m afraid you messed up the bite,” Billy explained. “When you hook a grouper and he hangs up in the rocks, he “bellers” (sic bellows,) and when he does that, all the other grouper in that spot develop a nasty case of lockjaw.”

About 25-minutes later, we finally located a piece of the Gulf area that showed good structure. Using the Sitex, we came upon a decent stack of fish, so Billy flipped out a jug, and we anchored up right over the “fish show.” Grouper after grouper came over the gunwale and into the cooler. I thought I had died and gone to angler heaven! Never had I seen so many be gags caught at one time. What a joy to drop a bait down and, each time it neared the bottom, feel the sharp tug of a large, hungry grouper.

This was several years ago, before loran and the tremendous fishing pressure of today. It really was quite easy to load up on grouper. But just about the time when everybody had enough for the table and a few for the freezer, Billy Ray grabbed the remaining sardines and unceremoniously dumped the bait overboard. The entire crew moaned and grumbled in displeasure, but it was Billy Ray’s way of telling us it was time to “head for the barn.” Somehow, he had an instinct for conservation even in that bountiful era.

It’s been a long time since those eventful learning days with Pete and Billy Ray. In the intervening years, I’ve pick
ed up a few tricks of my own. But I’ll always be grateful to my favorite “Florida Crackers” for getting me started. So, next time some “joker” eases up on you while you’re fishing a favorite spot, have a bit of patience and compassion for him. Maybe… just maybe… you can pass on to someone else a few of your secrets for catching fish. In the process, you’ll cure a pest and perhaps gain a lifelong friend. Above all, just remember… you too were once “a raw recruit” in the grouper digging wars.

Grouper Fishing Tactics

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 By Capt. Mel Berman, 970-WFLA

Despite a series of cascading cold fronts that have invaded our area, grouper fishing continues to be hot. With water temperatures hovering around 60 degrees, chances are the gags might be leaving our shallow waters. Before you head out, here are some hints and tips you might want to check out. They could very well make your fishing day.

“Don’t horse that fish,” implored the frustrated charter skipper. “Just keep that rod tip up, with a good bend in it, and when you reel in line, take what he gives you.”

Even though grouper fishing is not brain surgery, there are many subtleties associated with the sport. When mastered, these advanced techniques could make a run-of-the-mill grouper digger into one who brings back the bacon… er… fillet.

One of the best ways to drink in the required knowledge is to charter any of our many talented offshore skippers. But if you do, you must pay attention!! We often remain oblivious to what’s happening and to any offered advice when riding with a skilled grouper guide. Most captains truly enjoy the role of teacher, sharing their years of offshore fishing experience.

When I was running charters a some years ago, there always seemed to be one passenger who made me look good. They caught most of the fish, not only exhibiting an innate instinct for fishing, but were receptive to any advice offered. For instance, most folks hold the butt of the rod under their armpit. After a few hours of fishing, you’re suddenly aware that the old armpit is aching, and you’re not reeling in any grouper.

It may seem awkward at first, but try holding the grouper rod with your left hand on the fore grip (in front of the reel,) and your right hand on the butt of the rod. This not only makes it easier to “feel” a grouper bite, but also provides excellent leverage when working a fish.
There is also a school of thought that says we should drop the lead down to the bottom, then reel up three or four turns. However, if you talk with most expert grouper diggers, they will tell you the best technique is to drop the lead on the bottom… then take up only the slack in the line. This way the leader and your bait can float upward, beckoning any gags within range. Keep the rod tip pointed down toward the water, ready to set the hook with a deliberate upward swing.

At first the grouper might gently bump the bait. Most skilled bottom fishers develop the ability to sense these initial subtle signs of interest. Then slowly lifting up on the rod tip, the angler generates a response from the interested grouper, where it grabs the bait so as to prevent this tasty meal from getting away. That’s why you will often observe skilled anglers frequently lifting up the rod tip slightly.
There are also those exhilarating moments when the fish eliminates all the preliminaries and makes a running strike and grab at the bait. In either case, once the fish is snared, you should be prepared to keep the rod tip up, pointed to the sky. The immediate instinct of a hooked grouper is to make a beeline downward for the nearest ledge or rocks. Your job is to prevent this. If that dire consequence occurs, you not only stand a good chance of losing the gag, but you will also “kill the bite.” The commotion of a frightened fish trying to escape has a very negative impact to others in the school.

So get that rod pointed upward, and don’t pump. The fish will pull downward, and you should keep a good bend in the rod. This applied steady upward pressure eventually tires out the fish. As it eases up, take in line slack by reeling downward, then resume your bend in the rod. Repeat this routine until the triumphant moment when the big gag reaches the water’s surface and is gaffed into the boat.