When working a puzzle most people start by locating the easiest pieces. These pieces are generally ones which can be spotted with out much effort; most of time form the outer edge, and give us some idea or a direction to work in completing the puzzle. Inshore fishing is much like a puzzle, but with one big exception. The puzzle is ever changing, so let's find a few pieces of the puzzle which are a given, call them the outer edge and work from there.
Define the area you want to fish. Purchase a good chart of the area you want to learn and study it. Don't try to educate yourself on a large area at one time. Remember this is a puzzle, one piece at a time.
The environment in which saltwater fish live is in a perpetual motion of sorts. The waters of the Gulf are constantly changing, by the day, minute, hour and its inhabitants have no choice but to roll with the flow. It is easier to notice subtle changes in a few square miles than a whole bay or sound.
During the hot months look for deep channels or cuts which hold fish and allow fish to congregate in times of lower water and concentrate on fishing the edges as the tides rise and fall. Inshore species such as sea trout will move up onto the flats to feed as the tide floods in and stage on the edge of the channel as the tide falls to feed on various bait retreating with the tide.
Plan your trips at different times of the day. Early morning, late evening, and night are some of the best times to fish when the water temperature in your area reaches the hot stage. Pay attention to what tides produce the best bite at these low light periods.
Teach yourself how to understand how tides affect the water depths, currents, turbidity and fish activity in the area you are fishing. Different tides produce different conditions. The intensity of a tide and the flood level of a tide are determined by the position of the earth in relation to the moon. Days just before the full and new moon will produce the greatest tidal changes. Study the moon phases and tide charts, understand them. Learn which moon phases produce the best tides and fish activity.
Learn to fish in different depths with different tactics. Slow drift bouncing a jig, bucktail, or deep running crank bait, then notate where and when you catch fish. Fish for the most part are structure oriented. Deep grass flats broken by patches of sand and rock mean structure and hold fish, especially during hot weather midday periods when fish become less active in shallow areas.
Baitfish buffets! During the hot months schools of baitfish can be plentiful. Pilchards, menhaden, glass minnows, etc. are game fish candy. Look for diving birds or try checking a channel edge on a hard falling tide and you shouldn't have any trouble finding them. Fishing around schools of bait can produce some great opportunities. Trout, redfish, tarpon, cobia, mackerel, ladyfish, sharks, and many other species all show up at one time or another when an easy meal is involved. Pay close attention to the bait and the conditions. If you can learn to pattern bait you can catch fish.
Last but not least record your observations. Keep a log of your time on the water so when history repeats itself by producing similar fishing conditions you will have a starting point. If you do not own a "global positioning system" (GPS) try to acquire one so you can accurately record where you have been fishing and have had success. Spend as much time on the water as possible. Go fishing on days and at times when you feel conditions aren't optimum; this will make you think even harder. Never be afraid to try a new tactic, bait or idea, you just might stumble on to something like another valuable piece to an ever changing puzzle.
It's the last Wednesday & Thursday of July in the Florida Keys and the midnight madness of the 2005 mini spiny lobster season is within minutes from opening. We keep looking down at our GPS waiting for that magic hour of 12:01 am. We can't stop talking about that succulent white meat that will soon be gracing our BBQ grills.
The Caribbean spiny lobster, Panulirus argus (Latreille, 1804), aka Florida spiny lobster, grows to about 15 inches in length. Like the other 20 members of the genus Panulirus such as the Australian, California, and Chinese spiny lobsters, it lacks the large pinching claws of their Maine lobster relatives. Its only defense is the spines that cover its shell, which help protect the lobster from predators. The Caribbean spiny lobster uses a second pair of antennae in sensory perception, which are found folded along side the body when not in use. These lobsters have a striped body, brown-gray in color with yellow spots on the segmented tail. They have compound eyes and can detect orientation, form, light, and color. If startled, lobsters will kick their large abdominal tails rapidly to swim away backwards to safety.
The Florida spiny lobster inhabits tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico. This nocturnal species inhabits coral reefs where it hides during the day in crevices under ledges.
As the alarm on our GPS rings out across the flat, I flip the switch on the six underwater shrimp lights encircling the boat. The lights do their job and illuminate the flat in all directions. Bruce & Jenna then turn their head lamps on and step out onto the front deck. By the end of the night their necks will be sore and cramping from swinging their heads back and forth looking for those elusive red/orange eyes. It's not long before Jenna starts pointing to the portside of the boat yelling, "There's one, there's one dad."
I bump the engine forward in an attempt to bow into the bug. Bruce raises his bully net as the boat drifts closer and closer to our prey. Just before the current begins to take control, Bruce plunges the net down into the shallow water, trapping the lobster to the grassy flat three feet below. With a perfect stroke reminiscent of Tiger Woods at the Masters, Bruce swings the bug up and into the rear cockpit of the boat. I carefully reach down with my gloved hand and pick up the prehistoric looking creature, being careful not to get stabbed by the two horns protruding from its head. Using a metal measuring device, I carefully place one end between its eyes. I lower it along its carapace and watch as the gauge drops over the edge and touches the tail.
With a splash, back into the water he goes. As I watch the langoustino dart away into the darkness, I yell out, "Go grow up, we'll see you next year."
The spiney lobster sport season will fall on July 26th and 27th for 2006. The bag limits are 6 per person per day for Monroe County and Biscayne National Park, and 12 per person per day for the rest of Florida. The possession limit on the water is equal to the daily bag limit, and off the water is equal to the daily bag limit on the first day, and double the daily bag limit on the second day. Possession limits are enforced on and off the water. Spiny lobster has a minimum size limit that must be larger than 3" carapace, measured in the water. A reminder that possession and use of a measuring device is required at all times, and night diving is prohibited in Monroe County (only during the sport season). A recreational saltwater license and a crawfish permit are needed for harvest. Regular spiny lobster season is August 6 through March 31. The bag limit is 6 per person per day. Harvest of lobster is prohibited in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park during the sport season. Harvest is also prohibited during both the 2-day sport season and regular season in Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and no take areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Call (305) 743-2437 or visit www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov for information about no take areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Please call the Marathon Law Enforcement office at (305) 289-2320 for lobster harvesting regulations for Monroe County. Recreational trapping of lobster is prohibited (www.myfwc.com).
LOBSTER BAG LIMITS
Monroe County - 6 per person per day (2 Day Sport Season--July 26 - 27--and Regular Season--August 6 - March 31)
Biscayne National Park - 6 per person per day (2 Day Sport Season--July 26 - 27--and Regular Season--August 6 - March 31)
Elsewhere -- 12 per person per day (2 Day Sport Season--July 26 - 27) and 6 per person per day (Regular Season--August 6 - March 31).
As we continue to drift through the narrow, shallow channel, Bruce spots a pair of bugs unknowingly making their way into the gauntlet of awaiting boats) As we reach our quarry, Bruce again slams the net to the channel floor and shimmies it back and forth, forcing the lobster to entangle itself. Bruce swings the net backwards and quickly scoops the bug up and into the boat. As the lobster lands at my feet, I retrieve it and place my gauge along its back. The gauge is nowhere near falling over this time.
Into the livewell it goes. Only seventeen more to go as the "bug hunt" continues into the night.
Spiny Lobster must have a minimum carapace length of greater than 3-inches and the measurement must take place in the water. The carapace is measured beginning at the forward edge between the rostral horns, excluding any soft tissue, and proceeding along the middle to the rear edge of the carapace. (www.myfwc.com)
As with any activity, to be a successful "bully netter", one must make a small investment in the necessary gear. First and foremost is the bully net itself. A bully net is normally a two-foot diameter hoop net attached to a pole not less than eight feet long. The hoop of the net is bent at a ninety-degree angle to the pole. Basically, it is a shrimp dipping net with a right angle bend in it.
Depending on where you're at in the Keys, you may or may not need a boat. But it definitely improves your odds. I have seen successful bully netters in ten foot Jon-boats and all the way and up to twenty-eight foot pontoon boats. Bully netting is definitely a social event, but after years of chasing our prey, we have found that a flat bottom, maneuverable boat with a maximum of four people works the best. That gives you one boat operator, one spotter and two netters.
Next is a good hand held spotlight of not less than (1,000,000) one million candlepower. Not only do we utilize the hand held lights, but we also press into service the head lamps that we use during alligator season. Last but not least, we have fabricated a customized framework of PVC piping with shrimp dipping lights attached at the ends. The lights rest just below the waterline but not below the lower chine of the boat. This way the lights will not blow out by popping in and out of the water and if you're forced to run up on a grass flat, you won't break them off. We use six of them, but the most important are the two lights on the bow. The remaining four are located off the stern and off each side. Yes, we look like a UFO running through the water, but we find the bugs.
Since many smaller engines just have an alternator big enough to operate the running lights and several pieces of instrumentation, a pair of trolling motor batteries will be needed to run your lighting system.
And finally, a lobster-measuring gauge made out of metal, not plastic. We have found over the years that the cheap, plastic gauges can shrink or expand from lobster to lobster, depending on if its been left on the deck, in the cooler or in the water attached to the end of your tickle stick. In the past we have had legal bugs just after sunset and by midnight the gauge has shrunk by almost a 1/8th of an inch.
Early in our adventures, we always kept several of the plastic type gauges on the boat. We didn't realize there was a problem till "the man" came along side and checked out our catch with his metal gauge. We were suddenly in possession of three short lobster. After being schooled on the difference between metal vs. plastic gauges and a pleasant verbal warning, back over and into the water the short bugs went. My advice is to spend the extra couple of bucks up front. They may save you several hundred dollars on the other end when the marine patrol officer breaks out his "metal gauge."
We look down at our watches and its 2:45am. With three limits on the boat and the livewell bursting at the seams, we shut down the arena of lights and head back to the dock. As I push the throttle forward and come up onto plane, the still, humid air turns into a cool, refreshing breeze. As we approach the dock with smiles and thumbs up, the ladies are waiting to indulge us in a well-deserved cerveza and one of those good island cigars.
After cleaning and bagging our catch, I peel off my gloves and look down at several dozen deep paper cuts on my fingers and palms. I look up at Bruce and say, "yea, it's worth it." As I drag myself upstairs and to the bed, I think about how we just beat the "morning madness" and get to sleep in. Tomorrow night at sunset, we get to do it all over again, with nary another boat in site. Ah, paradise!!!
"See you on the Boat or in the Blind"
Sheepshead don't seem to be affected by the low water temperatures we will soon be experiencing. Instead, they head to offshore rocks, wrecks, and artificial reefs for their annual spawning activities. When this occurs, they bite with little caution and aren't too choosy about what they eat. Crabs, sea worms, sand fleas or fresh shrimp all seem to get the same number of bites, so I always opt for shrimp because they're easy to get and easy to use.
Perhaps the easiest fishing of all will be at the older artificial reefs. There may be a thousand or more sheepshead congregated over a single rubble pile. I have seen hundreds around the Steel Tower off Cedar Key and CFBC Marker #3 off Yankeetown. Then there are the secret spots like the old tripod marker lying down off Yankeetown and several little-known shallow water wrecks. Some old trap piles load up too. The trap piles are closely guarded secret honey holes. Some of the spring holes will have sheepshead, big mangrove snapper and an occasional grouper that will bite on the warmer days.
I generally use bait-casting rods or spinning rods. Twelve- to twenty-pound test line is adequate for any sheepshead because they fight fair, not trying to head into a hole like grouper. Yes, you are cut off occasionally, but it is most often an accident where you hook a sheepshead after your line has drifted behind some structure covered with sharp marine growth such as barnacles. The lighter tackle makes sheepshead fishing a lot of fun for everybody. Last year one of my clients caught a sheepie that weighed 14 pounds, 10 ounces. That sucker was a handful on light spinning gear.
Rigging is mighty simple too. I use just enough sinker to hold my bait near the bottom without letting it drift too far behind the boat with the current. Sinker weight will vary with the current flow. On slow tide days around the first quarter and last quarter moon, I can use 1/4- to 1/2-ounce. As the tide picks up speed around the new and full moon, I sometimes have to use as much as two ounces to keep my bait anywhere close to straight down. Egg sinkers are the sinker style of choice. I simply slide an egg sinker up my line and crimp a "Wavy Grip" sinker below it to serve as a stop rather than using a swivel. Sheepshead have crushing teeth rather than cutting teeth, so a leader is not really needed.
I generally use a #1-1/0 Mustad Sheepshead hook. These hooks are short-shanked, heavy wire hooks, designed to withstand the strong jaws and crushing teeth of sheepshead. I tie the hook to the end of the line with a simple clinch knot. It doesn't get any easier than this.
The rigging I have described thus far differs very little from what everybody else uses for sheepshead. Some folks opt for a swivel and leader but that complicates the rig, slows down re-rigging in case of a break-off and adds an unnecessary expense.
Here is where I do something that I have never seen anyone else do. I slip a 1/2-inch length of hot pink or orange flexible plastic tubing onto the hook. The tubing I use is 3/16-inch diameter. The best source of this tubing I have found is kid's jump ropes that are available in most toy departments. The purpose of this tubing is two-fold. First, it is highly visible. But most importantly, it gives the sheepshead a little something tough to chew on.
If you've ever watched sheepshead nibble on barnacles, you see them nip, crush, spit out the shell and swallow the soft insides of the barnacle. When sheepshead bite shrimp on a hook, the hook is immediately spit out as if it were a piece of shell. With the tough plastic on the hook, the sheepshead holds on longer while trying to remove the tubing or simply swallows the tubing, hook and all. Believe me, a lot of big sheepshead swallow the tubing covered hook. The tubing rig makes catching sheepshead child's play.
I always peel my shrimp and cut it into chunks rather than pinching or tearing it. A piece 1/2- to 3/4-inches long is adequate. I cut a dozen or so live shrimp at a time so that they stay fresh. Simply hook a piece on and drop it to the bottom and reel up a couple of feet. Place the rod in the holder. Forget what you've heard about sheepshead being sneaky biters. With the chewy plastic tubing, they hook themselves darn near every time with the rod in the holder.
You will need a dip net for the larger sheepshead. Smaller ones are simply lifted aboard. Their scales are hard enough that gaffing isn't easy unless you make a small gaff with a super sharp hook.
Sheepshead are the best eating fish we catch around here. It is mighty easy to fill a cooler this time of the year, but stop to consider the fish you are targeting offshore are there to spawn. When you kill one, you also kill untold thousands of potential sheepshead. The limit is 15 sheepshead per person and I personally think this is far too many. Five should be a gracious plenty. Catch a hundred if you want, but release ninety-five for tomorrow.
Sheepshead fishing is fun fishing. The work comes when you start to fillet them. I filleted 39 once last year, along with nine grouper. That took a mighty long time. You won't keep limits but once if you have to clean them yourself.
The idea of using live freshwater shiners for saltwater fishing first occurred to me when I had run out of pinfish over the top of an active grouper hole and nothing else would work to get the bite going again. In wintertime, the pinfish disappear to whom knows where and I was lucky to have the few pinfish that I did have with me at the time. Live bait on an active grouper hole is a guaranteed catch. If you ain't got em; you ain't got em. When one stops to assess how much valuable fishing time is spent loading up on pinfish the morning of a big offshore trip; the advantages become more and more apparent.
This still sounds like a crazy idea doesn't it; it's obviously fraught with problems. After all, how long does a freshwater fish live in saltwater? How do you keep these freshwater fish alive and transport them? What are the rules and regulations relating to this? And exactly how well does this insane idea work? Read on, now that you've been hooked....
First of all the benefits to this technique are: a) with some preparation you have bait readily available at any time of the year, no matter what; b) the bait is at your home and ready to go with no additional preparation; c) you spend your quality fishing time catching fish - not fishing for bait; d) when freshwater fish are exposed to saltwater they act erratically which in turn; e) and most importantly - increases the number of bites and fish caught.
There are no State, Federal of International rules or regulations that address using live freshwater baitfish in saltwater; (or for that matter the use of saltwater fish for bait in freshwater; but we won't go there right now). The only governing rules, which do apply to this process, are specific regulations pertaining to the manner of how these bait fish may be caught. Specifically, there are both net size and net mesh regulations for catching shiners. For catching panfish, which will be used for bait, the panfish must be caught on hook and line.
Shiners can be caught either by hook and line or by a cast net. To net shiners, I like to toss out a little bread; wait for the fish to start nibbling on the bread and then wrap them up with a good toss of my bait net. Note that according to the rules in Florida; no panfish can be kept if caught via this method and must be returned immediately to the water. However, panfish may be used for bait if they are caught on hook and line.
It is most important to carefully and gently handle the fish at all times; this is important to keep them in good shape for the coming trip. Remember the less the fish are handled the better off they will be. Upon catching the shiners, place the fish in well-aerated, large volume cooler. Don't toss them in the bucket; gently place them in the bucket. I have also found that a 30-gallon garbage pail works well with a bungee cord to hold the top on during this transport. Have a five-gallon bucket available to transfer water and fish as necessary. 48-quart coolers work well also for live wells; you can place about 25 six-inch shiners in a single cooler and close the lid and then gently add fresh water every 45 minutes until they are transported to your larger holding tank.
The goal here is to keep the fish in extremely good shape for the next leg of their journey to your house. I transfer the shiners into a large cattle trough ~ 500-gallon capacity - but here again, a 30-gallon garbage pail works just fine also. In the cattle trough tank I do not have any aeration or filtration because my surface area to volume ration for oxygen exchange is fairly high and I have added native plants, which clean the water and add oxygen. In a 30-gallon garbage pail, a simple sponge filter with a small air pump and the fish will be fine. I keep these fish for a week or two prior to taking them out saltwater fishing. Having commercially raised, transported and shipped fish for years, I have learned many tricks of the trade to keep the fish in good shape while both awaiting for the big fishing trip and while in transit to the fishing locations.
In order to keep these bait fish in good condition, make sure they have plenty of water (1/2-gallon per fish minimum) and if in doubt, add aeration with a sponge filter in the tank. Fresh water fish are much more hardy than saltwater fish; there is absolutely no way saltwater fish could be handled and transported as these shiners and panfish can be and then make it to the bottom with a hook through them still in good shape. As tempting as it may be, minimize the amount of food fed to these fish (stale bread) during their stay with you; this is extremely important approximately two days before the big fishing trip. The fish won't starve. Fish travel best with no food in their system; thus there is no waste put into the water which is what begins the cascading problems of poor water quality, elevated nitrates, low oxygen and then early death of your bait.
There are several tricks that can be used to transport these fish on the big fishing day. I typically put my transport cooler (a 60 quart cooler or larger) in my boat the morning of the fishing trip. The last thing I do before I pull out the drive way is transfer the bait into the boat. I net the shiners, put them in the bucket and transfer them five gallons at a time. It is important to keep the water chilled down by adding some ice to the water because the saturation level of oxygen is increased. Also keep the top of the cooler closed to keep the fish in the dark, which slows down their metabolism also. I have drilled a small hole through the top of my cooler and run my air line to my small battery powered air pump into the tank. I have a biologically active sponge filter in the tank, which helps with keeping the water quality in top shape.
The real trick to successfully transporting fish is assuring that the water temperature does not get too hot for the fish in the summertime, keep the oxygen level high and keep the water quality high. Directly before transporting the shiners, adding a few drops of Stresscoat; a commercially available medication for tropical fish also helps. Stressscoat helps a fish replace its natural slime coating, which it looses when netted, handled and transported. The product contains aloe, which helps to coat the fish and helps to prevent the loss of electrolytes and also protects damaged tissue on fish. 4 ounces is approximately $3.50 and can be found at tropical fish stores or on Internet. Just about a half an ounce in 15 gallons of water makes a big difference.
When you are ready to use the shiners, gently net the fish out of the tank quickly; don't get too much saltwater in the tank either. When I first started experimenting with this trick; I took 20 live shiners out and brought 10 live shiners home to test how hardy they are on the water. Approximately 14 hours later; and they were doing fine.
How long will a 6" freshwater shiner with a #6 Circle hook through his dorsal flank live in saltwater, anyway? About 27 minutes (in my saltwater live well.) How long will a freshwater shiner live in saltwater without a hook in it? About 27 minutes. So, my question to you is - How long does a live bait need to stay on the bottom where you fish? One added benefit is that upon emptying the bait well of the shiners; you have some reasonably clean fresh water to splash over your deck and bait station and tackle area on your ride in.
How well does this technique work? As you put that metallic glistening freshwater shiner over the side and you watch it glimmer and shimmer its way down to the depths of the bottom; don't set that rod down! It is another tool to have in your box of tricks; however, it is a lot like fishing.
"Just off the bow... 2 o'clock," I whispered. I could see tails rising from the shallow water covering the flat - my angler couldn't. The glare from the morning sun was directly in his eyes. I needed to reposition the skiff so my angler could see the school. Slowly and methodically, with the aid of my push-pole, I eased him into position. One well-placed cast later, an epic light-tackle battle occurred, and eventually, a beautiful copper redfish was brought boat-side for release.
Silence is golden
Shallow-water anglers are precarious and should probably be grouped into a separate segment of the fishing population - one by themselves. A segment that relies on polarized sunglasses and skiffs with very shallow drafts, that sport strange looking perches. These anglers pride themselves in owning reels with extremely smooth drags and rods capable of delivering offerings that weigh a mere fraction-of-an-ounce to fish well out of normal casting range.
Though the list of tools and characteristics mentioned may vary depending on the angler, anybody who pursues fish in extremely shallow water, and wants to be successful, has a common need; to be as quite as possible. Silence is golden when pursuing fish in skinny-water.
One of the most effective tools a shallow water angler can have at their disposal is a push-pole. Whether it be on an open flat, in a salt marsh or along the bank of a creek, the only potential noise with poling comes from the operator, or the pole contacting the bottom. Thus, alleviating the need for mechanical propulsion and reducing the chance of any non-natural noise, which may alert fish.
I don't know how long the push-pole has been around, but if I had to guess, it probably would date back beyond reed-boats on the Nile River. Of course, the push-pole has evolved since it's early years, but its function is still the same: propulsion and steering. Modern day push-poles can be found in a variety of lengths, including different end attachments, and are constructed from several different types of materials. It's up to the angler to decide what best fits their needs.
The process of choosing a push-pole, for someone new to the idea of poling a boat, may be just a little perplexing, so lets look at a few things that should be considered.
How long of a pole will one need? Generally speaking, if you are poling from a non-elevated position on the deck of a boat, a 12- to 16-foot pole will work fine. If you'll be poling from an elevated platform, an 18- to 22-foot pole would be a better choice. The longer the pole, the fewer times you will have to pick it up out of the water.
What type of bottom will you be poling across? If you will be poling in mud, you may need a little longer pole and you will definitely want a fork at one end of the pole. If you are poling over firm bottom structure, you may be able to get by with a slightly shorter pole. A pointed metal tip on one end of the pole is a big help when planting a pole on hard bottom such as coral, shell or oyster.
How much time will you actually spend using the pole? If you plan on spending the majority of your time poling, a lighter pole is the best choice. There are quite a few poles available from various manufacturers that are made of composites, which are both light and strong. If you are only planning on using a pole occasionally, or for staking out, pushing off, drift control, etc., a heavier fiberglass model will work just fine and should come with a considerably smaller price tag. Also, if you wear any type of jewelry on your hands, a pole with a smooth finish may be more desirable. The ridges or twists in some pole's finishes may cause unwanted noise, which can telegraph from the pole through the water column.
Once the length and construction of the pole you will be using has been decided upon, there are a few basics to remember when poling a boat. While poling, you are steering and propelling from the rear of the boat for the most part. If you want to go in a straight line, the pole should be planted directly center of the transom. If you want to steer right, plant the pole to the right rear of the boat, and to steer left, plant the pole to the left rear. Your results will be just the opposite of what you should expect from using a paddle, as the boat will turn in the direction of the side you pushed from, instead of away from it. Yet, it's really quite simple and only takes a little practice to become proficient.
The other portion to the art of poling is, proper body mechanics. You will want to reach as far up the pole as possible while holding the pole as close to your body as you can. The push-pole should be tucked in close to your body, intersecting at a point near your hip as you begin to push. As you walk your hands up the pole, bend at the knees slightly, using your weight to create momentum. This will allow you to take some of the strain of poling off of your arms and upper-body. Once you reach the end of the pole, repeat the process again.
I think if you give the push-pole a shot and begin to utilize it as a tool, you will see how it can provide access to fish that are not normally accessible at times. The advantages of using a push-pole are great and it is definitely a good addition to the shallow water anglers list of tools, but there are times when maybe a pole is not the most practical means of approaching fish in shallow water. Over the next two parts of this series we will cover a couple of other methods, which can be just as effective for the angler if used properly. So, get out, grab a pole and see if you can get just a little closer to a few of those skinny-water fish that have been alluding you, just out of casting range.
Part II: The Troll
An electric way to stay on top of the situation
Apalachee Bay is located at the northwestern extreme of Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf of Mexico and is an inshore angler's paradise, plus my home stomping grounds. This bay harbors some unique features in its shallow waters, which make it an extremely productive fishery. But, at the same time, some of these features can become a boat owner's nightmare.
I was paying attention to the fish at the other end of my line pulling drag, when I happened to glance to my left and noticed we had drifted into an area of submerged rocks. Rocks which hold bait and big fish - the same type that like to eat gel-coat off the bottom of flats-skiffs and devour lower-units for breakfast. My intention was to be there, but not on top of a rock. With one quick motion, I pulled the release rope on my trolling motor and dropped the unit from deck to water. No damage was done and we continued to pull quality fish from the submerged area of structure, but making sure to stay on the peripheral. I have replayed similar scenarios in more than one instance in my saltwater fishing career and each time was happy to have a trolling motor at my disposal.
Trolling motors are a great addition to saltwater fishing boats while serving multiple purposes - the main one being an ability to move the boat and change direction with little effort, without the use of a combustion motor. When pursuing angling opportunities in relatively shallow water this can be a big plus. Positioning a boat to cast to a school of hungry redfish that is on the move or being able to get ahead of a pod of tarpon quickly, with very little commotion, is worth the cost of admission - if you are serious about your pursuit of inshore game fish. Remember, silence is golden when fishing shallow water. As well, a trolling motor can allow anglers to safely gain access to and navigate areas which may not be optimal for a boat's big motor.
Modern day saltwater trolling motors are an amazing work of engineering; capable of withstanding the harsh saltwater environment they are intended for use in. They are quite, energy efficient and can be mounted in various locations on a boat to best meet the angler's specific needs. Customization is no problem. If you can dream it, chances are it can be configured. Fore, aft, foot-control, remote control, removable, 12-, 24-, 36-volts, - name your power, variable speeds and multiple foot pounds of thrust are available. The choices are numerous and chances are, if you desire the addition of a trolling motor, one can be found to meet your needs.
The list of benefits is long and diverse, but with that said, a trolling motor is not the answer to all shallow water angling situations and can be a drawback in some situations. There are batteries to contend with which add extra weight to a vessel and electrical connections that may corrode. They take up some space and do produce some disturbance in the water, regardless of how quite they are. Though, many of the downsides can be avoided or adjusted to best meet a fisherman's needs.
The number of different models and designs of electric saltwater trolling motors available in today's marketplace can leave a buyer perplexed, wondering where to start. In an effort to supply a few standardized rules concerning the purchase and use of trolling motors, I contacted Joe Brown, Senior Brand Manager with Minn Kota. Minn Kota, a manufacturer of saltwater trolling motors and trolling motor accessories, supplies consumers with all the necessary information to make a sound buying decision. This information is available at www.minnkotamotors.com. But, I will not leave you at the mercy of a web search for some of the basics which Joe and I discussed.
As a rule of thumb, the more power the better. More specifically, the more foot pounds a motor produces, the quieter it is and the fewer disturbances it makes when pushing or pulling the boat through the water. The additional weight and space required, due to the size of the motor and number of batteries, should be taken into consideration when deciding on the proper trolling motor. Given that you don't want standard excess weight to negatively affect your boats performance.
Quality deep cycle marine batteries should be used to power the motor. Good, solid, electrical connections are important and the proper gauge of wire from the battery to motor connection should be used. This will keep electrical resistance to a minimum, provide an optimal operating situation and extend battery life.
Shaft length is very important and should be taken into account when deciding what model of trolling motor you are going to use, especially on a bow mount unit. In general, the center of the unit should be submerged a minimum of nine inches. The included diagram will explain how to properly measure shaft length. You will want to add a little extra length when calculating motor shaft length needed, if you plan on using the motor in rough water, as this will help minimize motor cavitations.
With the proper consideration, purchasing and installing the right saltwater trolling motor on your fishing boat should not be a problem. The use of a saltwater trolling motor will allow you to have one more tool to use in your pursuit of saltwater game fish and when the need arises, to move quickly and quietly into position for the cast of a life time.
Part III: The Drift
A Deep Look into Drifting Shallow Water
It was early afternoon, mid-spring. The rising tide's progress was evident as the previously exposed flat, of an hour earlier, began to disappear below the surface of the water. A light breeze was casting an ever-so-slight ripple on the bay. Small batfishes were flipping on the surface. The many sandy patches scattered across the vast saltwater grass flats were being revealed by the sun overhead. I remarked to the other two anglers on my boat "there is only one piece of the puzzle left to find... fish".
Vast areas of shallow water can prove to be very productive and sometimes very frustrating, for fisherman trying to locate concentrations of fish. Knowing where and how to start a search for productive shallow water is essential, along with the ability to move about quietly. At times, a trolling motor or push-pole are good options for moving about the shallows, like discussed in the previous two articles of this series, but not always. Drifting is definitely the quietest way to locate fish while exploring, looking for fish, or simply accessing shallow areas that may harbor fish.
On the particular day I am speaking of, we were fishing pristine St. Joe Bay, located in Florida's Panhandle Region. For those who are not familiar with St. Joe Bay, it is a hyper-saline environment. This means the bay's salinity is very high due to a lack of freshwater inflow, thus presenting extremely clear-water. Couple clear-water with miles of extremely shallow flats, and you'll find a shallow-water anglers wonderland. But, at the same time, these parameters can create a nightmare when it comes to locating fish for the area newcomer.
The afternoon was perfect to say the least, but not knowing exactly where to start, I eased my skiff up-wind of a flat, where on previous adventures to the bay I'd found success. I killed the switch on the motor, raised my jack-plate and cocked the motor hard to the right so the boat would drift beam first. Drifting quietly across the flat, we began casting in a fan pattern to every visible sand-indention within reach, in hopes of finding a willing customer or two. It didn't take long before we were into our first school of redfish, after that, we managed a few very nice trout. Once we located fish, we were able to stay in the area by quietly moving and strategically positioning the boat to drift the area numerous times.
Drifting in a boat seems to be a favorite way for many anglers to locate a concentration of fish, especially in deeper water. But, there is a difference in aimlessly drifting the flats trying to locate fish and drifting shallow water with a purpose in mind. When I speak of shallow water, I am speaking of water that is two-feet deep or less. Often, these shallow areas hold large numbers of fish just waiting to be caught. But, the trick to getting close enough for a well placed cast is accessing the area quietly. Stealth is the reason many kayak anglers are finding great success. They are able to get into shallow water with minimal disturbance. Traditional boat owners can do the same. Obviously, most traditional mono-hull boats won't float as shallow as a kayak, but many smaller boats do have the ability to float in a foot of water, and maybe less.
Respecting the Environment
First let me say, be very careful not to damage the bottom or sea-grasses when entering into any extremely shallow expanse of water. Prop-scars take a long time to heal and are having a devastating effect on Florida's shallow grass flats. Besides, entering an extremely shallow area with the big motor defeats the purpose of trying to be quite.
Know Your Boat
Finding the best time to fish shallow expanses of water is paramount and more times than not, a rising tide is the best bet. Fishing on a falling tide can be tricky and leave you stranded if you are not familiar with tides, bottom and water depths in the area. Use the tide and wind to your advantage. Allow the current to propel your vessel. Go with the flow and make sure the weight in the boat is evenly displaced. This will reduce the amount of hull-slap created and the possibility of the boat contacting the bottom in extremely shallow water. Know what the draft is on your boat.
Your motor is a rudder and should be used to adjust the angle and direction the boat drifts. I personally like to drift with as much of the boat's beam forward as possible. This gives each angler onboard plenty of casting room. A trolling motor or push pole can be used to adjust the path you drift on. But, remember you are trying to be as quite as possible. Experiment with different motor angles and learn how your boat reacts.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are irreplaceable when determining the direction you are drifting; especially when you are drifting an area repeatedly. The auto-track feature, when displayed, will provide you with a reference line of your current location and where you have previously drifted. Let me stop here and point out something very important. When you plan to drift an area multiple times, do not follow the track line back to the desired starting point. Instead, make a wide arch around the area you want to drift back through and stop the boat well ahead of your target location. This will minimize the chances of disturbing a productive area.
As well, a GPS unit will allow you to mark and save the location of bottom features, structure and areas that have previously held fish. If used in correlation with other information like wind direction, water temperature, depth and tidal flow... it can be a key to unlock an area's secret. Many marine GPS units available in today's market offer all the necessary information an angler would desire in a compact machine easily mounted on a small boat. Just think... why would you not want to know your current location, what the tide is doing, the water temperature, moon phase and depth - it's all applicable to finding and repeating success.
A small drift-sock or sea-anchor is important to have onboard. Several manufacturers like Minn Kota, offer different drift-socks tailored to best fit your needs. A drift-sock, when deployed, will slow the speed of your drift. Slowing the boat allows an area to be thoroughly dissected. The slower you drift through an area, the more likely you are to find fish. Additionally, the angle at which the boat drifts across the water can be adjusted depending upon where the sock is attached to the boat. Drift-socks can even help stabilize your boat in choppy water.
Using a stake-out pole like the Cajun Anchor, or a Power-Pole, which can be deployed quietly and with relative ease, will allow you to stop the boat during your drift if the need arises; whether it's to fight a fish or to thoroughly fish an area that is holding fish. A small anchor on a short rope may also suffice.
Getting it Done, Quietly!
Regardless of how quite we try to be we will always make a little noise, but there are a few rules which keep noise, or potential noise, to a minimal. Keep the cockpit of the boat clear of unnecessary clutter, which can be bumped into or accidentally kicked around. Try to keep movement in the boat to a minimum and speak quietly. Don't drop objects or slam lids on coolers and hatches. Focus on being quite and the task at hand. Be aware of your surroundings and the current conditions, and when you find success, take note - success repeats itself for a reason. When this happens and you recognize it, you are on the way to putting another piece in the puzzle of shallow-water fishing, and have probably begun to look deeper into the art of shallow water drifting.
Just Out of Reach
Big fish don't get big by not being aware of their surroundings. Long casts, or the ability to make a long cast is imperative. When fishing an extremely shallow area, I cast the bait as far as I can, then begin to retrieve the bait at different speeds to try and figure out what will entice a strike. My favorite baits are un-weighted plastic baits, small weed-less spoons, top-water plugs and shallow-running stick-baits. As well, small live-baits can be very effective in shallow water. Light or medium-light tackle is the best choice for this type of fishing. Eight-pound spinning outfits with seven to seven-and-a-half-foot rods are ideal for extremely light offerings. When using plugging rods, I like to use the same length as my spinning outfits and step-up to 12 to 17 lb line. Most of the time, I will use a double uni-knot to attach a three foot section of 16-20lb fluorocarbon leader to my mainline for added protection against abrasion.
Cobia is an internationally occurring species, and the last limb of its family tree. That is to say, they have no known relatives. They are a wanderlust stricken, dark, typically brown fish, with darker lateral lines that fade to a bright white belly. Their spindle shaped body can be up to six or more feet long and cruises through the water, propelled by a distinctive crescent shaped tail. These seemingly docile rogues can weigh up to 150-pounds and move with impressive speed when excited, thus making them a highly prized adversary in the game fishing world. Their diet of mollusk, crustaceans and fish gives them a championed spot on the table fare charts as well. In short, they are a fine eating, hard fighting fish that can be caught in all the warm waters of the world, but this list of fine adjectives isn't what makes the cobia so special.
As a general rule, cobia winter in the waters of south Florida, but spawn in the late spring and summer all throughout the Mississippi River delta. They make an annual trek from their wintering grounds to the big bend area of Florida, then run the beaches west. The offshore current in the Gulf of Mexico runs west to east, giving the cobias reason to hug the shoreline, as the shallower waters weaken the current's strength and lightens the effort needed for their journey. While cobia can be caught year round, this particular event has been coined as "Cobia Season."
Most anglers' interest in the cobia is queued by the thrill of the hunt; rather, the means eclipse the end. This is probably displayed best on none-other than the panhandle's Emerald Coast. Starting as early as late February and lasting as late as early June, cobia season on the Emerald Coast could almost be described as festive. Like dove season for the huntsmen, cobia season kicks off the fishing year for charter boat and recreational anglers alike. Enthusiast and experts of all types emerge and every bait shop, tackle store and back deck becomes the scene of a friendly banter fest, all discussing and debating and even sometimes arguing about the finer points of the art. In a group of three or more, there are sure to be varying opinions about every little detail, except two; the magical water temperature is 69-degrees Fahrenheit and when the azaleas start to bloom, cobia are on there way.
Just as the upland bird hunters have their favorite shotgun, perhaps a Browning Citori 12 gauge with custom etchings on the receiver depicting their favorite bird dog flushing prospective game, and their Stetson hats, matching their khaki outfits; the cobia fishermen have their own superfluous necessities. Sight fishing for cobia is indeed the gentry' sport of northwest Florida. Like the hunter's afore mentioned personalized firearm and favorite hunting dog, most every cobe seeker has at least one custom rod equipped with a reel chosen for a specific attribute, such as a manual bail or smooth drag. Some favorites are the Penn 706Z or Mitchell 302 because they're durable and simple, they're quick to cast and smooth to retrieve and a properly maintained drag system will yield great performance year after year, fish after fish. Although neither of these reels are in heavy circulation/production, they are still swapped and sold from time to time. While they do offer immense line capacity even with the 20-30 lb monofilament needed for cobia and rugged bodies that can take a good beating, the newer Penn and Shimano reels are just as good, if not better.
When choosing a rod, I personally like something in the 9-foot range with large wire guides that just feels right. "Just feels right" to me is, for obviously reasons, probably going to be different than the blank you pick out of the corner, but keep in mind you need enough flex and quickness in the action to load and launch a 3-ounce jig, 40- or 50-yards to a location no bigger than a hula hoop, but enough backbone to set a 7/0 hook into a cobia's tough mouth and change his direction when he's hell-bent on a rhinoceristic charge off into the deep. If you've never purchased a cobia rod before, it might be prudent to bring someone a little more seasoned to the tackle depot as a guide when choosing your blank. You should be ready to fork out anywhere from $50-175 for an unfinished blank and depending on your rod builder's ability and price list, another $100-150 on labor and materials. If you're not quite ready to spring for a custom job, you can find a perfectly affordable solution in the Offshore Angler Cobia Special, which Bass Pro Shops sells for about $100. Star Rods has a couple of blanks worth shaking, although I've never personally found one that felt "right." When it comes to rod builders, I like Ernie Cavitt of Cavitt's Custom Rods in Pensacola. He does good, sharp work and has worked with me in the past to expedite special orders, whereas most rod builders would just tell you to get in line and wait your turn.
As you can probably imagine, everyone has their theory on what will make the difference between sacking 'em up or returning to the dock with a big goose egg (aka. skunked, 0), but there are a few things that most anglers agree on. For instance, the more eyes in the boat the better. Since cobia are traditionally sight fished, it is advantageous to elevate your viewpoint (i.e. a tuna tower.) It doesn't take a professional to spot a cobia, especially on a clear day, but it definitely helps to know what you're looking for. I usually tell novices to look for anything that doesn't look normal. When the sun is high, from about 0900 to 1500, is prime time to go lookin'. The preferred method for seeking out cobia is to run parallel to the beach, cruising along inside or outside of the second sand bar and checking out every little thing that may seem out of the ordinary. Things like tide lines and weed lines are always an area of interest. A few things always worth a second and third look are schools of stingray and manta rays, even the occasional sturgeon. These larger animals cruise up and down the beaches in large schools, and in doing so, kick up a lot of sand and various marine life hiding in said sand. This makes an easy meal for a cobia, thus they are inclined to follow closely behind these gravy trains scouring everything that moves. Another interesting place to find an unsuspecting wad is on the underbelly of an ocean sunfish. These prehistoric behemoths tend to weigh around a half-ton and are sometimes referred to as headfish because they are nothing more than a giant head with a dorsal and caudal fin. They move inshore off the beaches of the gulf coast in the spring to feed on jellyfish and their large, flat bodies provide shade for baitfish and cobia.
Once one or more cobia are spotted, it is important to keep a level head, as this will be exciting, especially if it's your first time. Depending on where the fish is relative to the boat, I like to close the distance between the fish and my vessel, then reposition my vessel offshore of the swimmer and running parallel and in the same direction. I don't like to rush the cast or hassle the fish. In my ideal situation I can wait for the opportunity to present its self. This luxury isn't always present, as often the fish will dive or spook. If the fish dives to the bottom, known as sounding, don't panic. Simply keep in stride and wait for a resurfacing. Keep in mind that cobia are rovers by nature and the possibility of your fish resurfacing on the same track as it was on before is slim, but not unheard of. This is where "more eyes the better" comes in handy. Everyone aboard should be scanning the adjacent water looking for evidence of the allusive animal's presents.
Once the opportunity for a cast does present itself, take it. Take a breath and avoid the buck fever, then make a crisp cast out in front of the fish. I like to throw a cobia jig first, and if snubbed, follow that with a finbait or a whole squid. If all else fails, a live eel won't. Remember, play the wind and don't throw short. The idea is for him to see it with his outside eye and follow the jig towards the boat after it has crossed his path. A common mistake made here is setting the hook too soon. Cobia will often swim right over the top of your jig, concealing it with its chin. Wait until you feel the fish pull away with your jig before setting the hook, HARD. If your jig gets snubbed, recast and work the jig violently. Once the fish is in a curious pursuit, have another angler cast the live bait in the path of the excited cobia. Usually, the excitement from the jig will invoke a strike on the natural bait. This method is called the one-two punch.
Once you've set the hook, jack his jaw a good three or four times and then let the fish run. You don't want to be too gentle with these brutes, as they will take advantage of you in a hurry, but there is no real reason to get heavy handed.
When the fight is coming to a close, and the fish seems ready to be put on ice, make sure the fish's energy is truly spent. Have another crewmember tap the fish with the bend of the gaff, or the tip of a rod. Do this until the fish no longer makes blistering runs. All this is necessary because gaffing a green (energized) cobia is a great way to get hurt and break stuff. Cobia are large and strong with a row of about ten spines on their forehead. I'd suggest letting the fish cool his heels in the fish box for about 15 minutes before taking pictures. When a cobia gets loose in a boat, it can only be described as spastic and never good. In light of these words of warning, it is always a good idea to have the most experienced angler not on the rod to do the gaff job. A good gaff job, as most old salts will tell you, is an over the top shoulder shot, executed fluidly. Once the gaff hits home, the trip from the water to the box should be one smooth motion. It's a good idea to make sure no one stands in between the gaffer and the box during these few, critical seconds.
After a successful day of cobia fishing, it is always fun to head to a local marina and have your fished weighed on their official scale, hear the "oohs" and "awes" and take some more pictures. As for to cleanning your catch, make sure you have a good quality blade, with plenty of backbone and edge retention, as these studs have tough skin and thick bones. If you've never cleaned one before, you may ask someone who has to help you. They're quite literally a handful.
While so far, I've mostly spoken of cobia season along the Gulf Coast of northwest Florida, these styles and tactics apply as well on the Atlantic coast, especially in the Cape Canaveral area. Of course, this is not the only way to catch a cobia. Some angles like to anchor up and put out a chum line, while others incidentally catch them while bottom fishing. But, like all gentry sports, there is a set way of doing things, then there is the way things are done, and in this, indeed lies all the fun.
Go Fishing Today,
Call Ernie Cavetts of Cavett's Custom Rods in Pensacola Florida at (850) 375-2757