Anyone reading this blog knows that I almost always fish artificials (by almost all, I’m talking 99% of the time). I enjoy watching fish chase topwater plugs, and trying to find patterns that enable me to fool them. This almost certainly results in catching fewer fish, but my personality has always found it difficult to sit somewhere with a bait on the bottom waiting around for things to happen. There are times when my philosophy is shaken. With a customer on board, when you can’t find any fish active enough to chase down a lure, anything is on the table. I have had a prior fishing trip with my brother-in-law, Mike Holman, who lives in Isle of Palms, SC, just north of Charleston. Unfortunately the time we went was deep in the winter. We tried several areas, and I was impressed with how fishy the creeks looked, even though there were no baitfish or redfish in the area. When the opportunity to go again presented itself, along with the opportunity to see some of my in-laws, I was delighted to give it another try. We fished two days, and as usual, I started every day with plugs of various kinds. Mike noted that most people don’t find artificials very effective, and that the guides mostly don’t use them. Naturally, that confirmed my choice….I would find a way. We began by running Mike’s Pathfinder to a creek about five minutes away from the marina at Isle of Palms. The water was brown, the tide was low with oyster bars lining the creek, and hordes of mullet moving along the shoreline and even out in the middle of the creek, which was about 4 to 6 feet in depth. I threw topwaters, suspending plugs, jigs and a spoon, all to no avail. Meanwhile, we had caught several small redfish, and then a 29 incher arrived and caught my attention. That was followed by a 28 incher. These fish were all caught on cut mullet. Check the video for live action.
We caught several more fish and then had to head back for family business. Mike and I decided to go out very early the next morning to an area closer to the inlets to try and both fish and net some live bait. Again the area we ran to looked incredibly fishy. The water was a little clearer but still very murky. Mullet and glass minnows were everywhere. We managed to net a few finger mullet for the livewell and threw plugs for a good 45 minutes and never had a swirl. Very disappointing. We picked up our late-arising guests and returned to the same area as the day before. I again tried a few plugs and was again rebuffed by the redfish migrating up this creek. This time I gave up earlier, and switched to Mike’s rig. He was fishing 30 or 40 pound braid attached to a shock leader of 30 pound fluoro, with a quarter ounce sinker above a swivel, then to a short 8 inch terminal 30 pound leader tied to a relatively small circle hook. These are hooked to either a half or whole finger mullet. This rig works very well, as no hookset is required, and for people who don’t fish frequently, allows the rod to simply sit in the holder while the fish hooks itself. We pretty much had non-stop action, anchored just above a small side creek. The reds were clearly moving into the larger creek and the mullet were more concentrated around the bars at the mouth of the smaller creek. We ended up with a number of excellent fish, including two nice flounder.
When we got back to the dock for lunch, we were chatting with a guide who was docked next to us. He looked at my topwater-rigged rod and kind of chuckled “using topwaters, huh?”. He didn’t even ask how I did. It was a great trip, lots of nice fish, and I certainly changed my attitude about the best way to catch redfish is in that area. In our area, if we had fished that way, we would have been beset by 40 pound sting rays, hardheads and small sharks….none of whom made an appearance on our trips. But I’m still thinking there has to be a way, so I’m hoping for another invitation to this great fishing area to give artificials another try. As Jim Valvano said, never give up.
Between travel, home construction, music festivals and meetings, I’ve been a bad blogger. But with cooler weather, more fishing takes place, although not necessarily more catching. Earlier this year, the Doug Johnson Reeling for Kids tournament was a huge success, in spite of some dicey weather. I was pleased to again get the opportunity to fish with Noah Brindise and his guests from Arthrex, including a former student Mike Moser, from the Sports Medicine group in UF Orthopedics. We caught a good number of fish, including this trout that was almost five pounds, and Mike caught this fine redfish….but as usual during this tournament, the nice redfish we caught were all over slot. This is by far my favorite tournament of the year, for a great cause, and I’m ready for next year already.
Later in the summer I had a fun trip with Mark and Sarah. Mark is an Ebola researcher from Maryland and his friend Sarah recently moved to Gainesville. Mark warned me that Sarah had not fished a lot, so I did something I haven’t done in about five years….bought some live shrimp. Sarah managed one trout on a shrimp before we both tired of dealing with ravenous pinfish, so I taught her how to throw a plug. About five minutes later she managed this fine redfish on a topwater, and later this fine trout. Mark also found a nice redfish and asked if there was something we could find so that Sarah would have something pull hard on her line….amazing how easy it is to find 40 pound stingrays when you’re fishing with cut bait. Forty-five minutes later she had her fill. A great trip, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again this winter.
In early September, in spite of heavy boat traffic from scalloping and lots of floating grass, we could usually find some redfish. Here’s a pair that Tommy Thompson and I found, along with a nice trout that Doug Barrett caught, all on topwaters.
I’ve had visits from several old friends, some from NC, Tennessee, and that distressed area of the US, Destin. Lark and Tom, old friends from my Nashville days, helped me hunt. Fishing was tough, but they did catch enough for one dinner….a small keeper redfish and a nice flounder. And my old high school friend Joe Jacobs came for a day to find things just as tough, catching this inshore gag grouper and a variety of fish, but not what we were looking for.
Most recently the fishing in Steinhatchee has been confusingly slow, for a month that historically is one of our best months of the year. The water has been very clear, although the floating grass has stayed around longer than usual to torture plug fishermen like me. We did have a minor red tide episode, but it fairly rapidly left the area. The migration of baitfish seems to be delayed, and there are a lot fewer mullet than I’m used to seeing this time of year. Hopefully things will swing around now that there is some consistent lowering of the water temperatures.
I’ve heard about the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades (iCast) for many years, but never actually made it to one before this year. As a member of Florida Outdoor Writers, I can obtain a media pass and given this year’s convention is in Orlando, it seemed like a great opportunity. iCast is the largest sportfishing trade show, with about 10,000 attendees. Essentially every manufacturer, from small town operations to major international businesses, come to iCast to present their new products for buyers to see and order. Most of the new products shown are not available to purchase at the time of the show. There were hundreds of exhibitors; this is a list to give you an idea of who was there.
While the show begins on Tuesday and runs through part of Friday, I decided to go for two days and arrived on Wednesday morning. The registration area really gave no clue as to the size of the show, which was truly overwhelming.
This is just a tiny section of the convention center…
Obviously some kind of plan is needed, but I just wandered down aisles and asked about new products that would be of interest to my kind of fishing…..light tackle, inshore with light tackle. I passed up the ice fishing booths fairly easily. There were four huge aisles with nothing but fly fishing tackle and products.
One of the first new products that caught my eye was an attempt to find the holy grail of inshore fishing with artificials….a weedless topwater bait. Z-man lures have been around for a while and use a unique compound for their soft baits, one that is amazingly tough and stretchy….and it floats. Their new bait is called the Pop Shadz and when rigged Texas-style it is weedless and floats on the surface, even with a hook in place. With our massive amounts of grass in the late spring and much of the summer, if you like to fish topwater baits you are out of luck, but I’m looking forward to giving this a try. It’s built as a popper but the rumor is that they are working on a walk-the-dog type bait. This bait is shipping next week and I’m looking for some in the mail.
A new product that has generated lots of chatter is the Hobie Pro Angler 17T. This massive kayak is more of a fusion vehicle than a kayak; it’s not going on top of your car, but can be easily trailered and launched. A tandem unit, it’s very flexible with seating. It uses two of Hobie’s Mirage drives, introduces a new hexagonal rail to attach extras, and will provide an amazingly stable platform for two people. One great addition for livebaiters is the self-contained livewell with built-in 6V battery, a movable partition and two extra rod holders.
I’ve had the opportunity to fish with TJ Stallings at a previous Outdoor Writers Conference. TJ is the driving force behind TTI-Blakemore, makers of Road Runner lures and Blakemore Real Magic. While a lot of Road Runner lures are targeted for freshwater species, there are always some excellent salt-water possibilities. One that caught my eye was the Bang-Shad Buffet Rig, a double jig with spinners that would absolutely kill trout when fishing the Big Bend flats.
Lots of cooler activity at iCast. The two heavyweights, Engel and Yeti, have been developing lots of competition. Both companies have come out with portable heavy duty coolers that go way beyond any portable cooler you’ve seen before, both in features and in price. This is Yeti’s contribution.
Several makers have determined that fishermen might not feel comfortable cutting bait on top of a $750 cooler, so one hot new item is an integrated cutting board that fits inside the cooler. In addition, Engel has developed metal trays in pairs that fit into their larger coolers. The bottom tray sits directly on the ice. The trays provide lots of flexibility in terms of storage.
Coleman has also gotten into the high-end cooler game with their line of Esky coolers. Available in four sizes from 55 to 205 quart models, they range from $350 to $750 and have a cutting board integrated into the top of the cooler.
I saw lots of items that I thought were exciting, from kayak anchor poles to integrated technical buffs and shirts to Daiwa’s new sealed Ballistic spinning reel which should be totally salt-water resistant. Here are several things that caught my eye. A small company makes a plastic weedguard called the Slide-Off that slides over a jig eye and extends to the hook, making it weedless. It comes in multiple sizes. Calcutta baits is selling an actual vending machine that dispenses frozen chum and bait 24 hours a day. Wild River has made the tackle bag that should include everything you might need for a long trip; it has built-in LED lights inside and outside, a USB charger, an accessory solar charging attachment, and a stereo system.
It was also great to see a lot of friends I’ve made over the years from all over the country that are regular attendees at iCast. For the past few years the convention has alternated between Las Vegas and Orlando, and while I might not make the trip to the desert, I’ll be looking forward to the next Orlando meeting. A great, if somewhat overwhelming experience.
I was fishing last weekend with my regular fishing partner, Capt. Tommy Thompson. It was a foggy morning, with little wind, and water temperatures in the low ’60s. Because I fish topwaters preferentially, and the because the conditions were perfect, I started fishing with my favorite lure, a nickel Heddon Super Spook Junior. Tommy was fishing with a Live Target scaled sardine. After the first hour and a half or so, Tommy had four upper slot trout to the boat (all released) and I had had two hits and misses on my topwater. Although I am accused of being stubborn, that was enough to get me to switch to a suspending lure, and within five minutes, I had brought this oversize redfish and a four pound trout to the boat.
In my years of fishing the Big Bend area, I have moved away from live or cut bait fishing in almost all situations, because of two reasons: I lack the patience to sit and wait for fish, and second, I believe that in most cases, artificials catch bigger fish. And I do love topwater fishing….the fish tracking down the plug, the explosive surface strikes that get your adrenaline flowing. But there are limitations to fishing topwaters. The most important is water temperature. In very warm water, and especially in very cold water, fish will not put forth the energy to blast the surface plugs that work well in more temperate waters. And at times, even when the water temperature is reasonable, they’re just not interested in topwaters. While this is extremely hard for me to accept, my stubbornness does have limits, and I will switch to something subsurface. This could include jigs, unweighted or weighted soft jerk baits, crankbaits, or suspending plugs. In this post I’ll stick to lipless suspending plugs, how to pick them, and how to fish them in relatively shallow water, less than four feet in depth. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that if you go to ten different captains you’ll get ten different lists of lures, so this list is specific to lures I use all the time. There are a number of suspending lures I’ve yet to try, like the family of Sebile lures, and hopefully I’ll get around to those soon.
One of the great things about fishing suspending lures is that we have a huge selection to choose from. My selection depends primarily on one factor, water depth. How I work them depends on another factor, water temperature. In general I use one of two types of suspending lures. One type will dive down to depths of 4 to 6 inches, and when left alone, will float slowly to the surface. This characteristic is similar to fishing a floating crankbait such as the Heddon Swimmin’ Image. The advantage to these lures is that they can be fished in very shallow water. Essentially they don’t sink, so I feel comfortable using them carefully over rocks in a foot or so of water. I’ll still occasionally get hung up, but if I work them carefully, it will be much less frequently than a sinking suspending lure.
Live Target makes a number of very realistic lures, and they come in a variety of bouyancies and diving depth. This 3.5 inch mullet is described as a floating twitchbait, and dives to a depth of 6 inches. When worked very slowly, it will work shallower than that. I usually work it with very small twitches and fairly slowly. It also comes in a larger size with the same characteristics. It is the perfect lure for very shallow fishing when a topwater just won’t do.
Other suspending lures sink at slightly different rates. My selection depends on the depth of the water I’m fishing, and where in the water column I want the lure to reside. Mirrolure makes a number of suspending lures, with a variety of sink rates. From left to right, I’ve shown a MirroMinnow, which looks like a large glass minnow. This lure sinks very slowly because of it’s slim profile, and I’ll use it in water from 2 to 3 feet in depth, especially when there are whitebait or glass minnows around. The middle lure is a Catch 2000; I use the regular and the Catch Junior, a slightly smaller plug. It sinks just a little faster than the MirroMinnow. Lastly, the Mirrodine and Mirrodine XL are listed as sinking to maximum depth of 2 feet but they will sink slowly beyond that depth when allowed to. A whitebait imitation, the Mirrodine is the newest addition to the line, including the very new Paul Brown Soft-dine, which is a soft plastic version of the Mirrodine with similar characteristics. I have caught many fish on all of these lures and select them based on the kind of bait around as well as the sink rate. I vary my lure action, from sharp twitches followed by no action and a slow fall, to a constant twitch/return method, primarily depending on water temperature; the colder the water, the slower I work the lure.
Rapala also makes a nice subsurface lure that is particularly good for a walking-the-dog approach but about a foot or two under the surface. The lure on the left is the X-Rap Subsurface Walker, which comes with a feather on the rear treble and a cigar shape that is very effective. The only limitation is that they come with freshwater hooks that need to be changed out. The lure on the right is another Live Target lure, the scaled sardine. This lure comes in three sizes and two types. Both types are described as twitch baits, but one is called a floater and the other a suspender. They are physically identical. The floater behaves like the mullet bait described above, but will only dive to about 4 inches and then float slowly to the surface, while the suspender will dive to 12 inches and slowly sink. These lures have been very productive recently; in fact, they are difficult to find in many locations. I use both types in the smallest 3 inch size.
Last but not least is the Paul Brown Corky Devil. I’ve written a blog post about this lure before (http://bitemefishing.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/time-to-pop-the-cork-for-winter-fishing/) and in spite of the multitude of other suspending plugs I use, it remains my go-to bait in the cold of winter. While it’s sink rate is a little faster than the other plugs noted here, it can be fished with care in shallow water. The crucial aspect of fishing a Corky Devil is to fish it as slow as possible, then slow that down by half. I rarely even give the lure a twitch, but just throw it out and raise the rod tip, reeling fast enough to keep it near the surface, and then letting it drop down again. In frigid water, fish will not chase a lure, so a lot of action is wasted. The advantage of the Paul Brown lures is that they are soft but durable plastic, so the fish is much less likely to spit out the plug than if it bites down on hard plastic. Tommy Thompson and I have been using these plugs for about fifteen years, before they were bought by Mirrolure and we had to order them over the phone and pay by check before they would be mailed to us. They are unbeatable when there are trout around in cold water.
Fishing suspending lures in very shallow water can be challenging but you will learn how to keep the lure in the middle of the water column and off the bottom. When you figure that out, get ready for some great shallow-water fishing. These plugs will produce a lot of action.
I’ve known Jerry McBride for a number of years now. He has worked at Florida Sportsman Magazine as an editor, and at DOA Lures for a period of time. Jerry now is a freelance writer and does kayak tours in his home area of Jensen Beach. Over the past years, I have to say that I have never seen anyone catch as many large trout as Jerry, and he does pretty well with snook, redfish and pompano as well. He’s a committed conservationist, releasing all the big fish he catches, and does whatever he can to protect the fragile waterways in the Indian River Lagoon. He probably catches 15 or so 30 inch trout a year; in my fifteen years fishing at Steinhatchee the largest trout I’ve ever caught was 28 inches. He makes great pies, too. So I was really pleased to have him come up for a visit to kayak the Steinhatchee area and show us how it’s done. We postponed the trip, waiting for some decent weather, and lucked out, finding several good days.
On day one, we fished the afternoon high tide from my boat, scouting locations for kayaking. We fished a number of locations around rocks and oyster bars; Jerry’s first fish was a 30 inch redfish, followed by a 26 inch trout. He was using a suspending Live Target sardine, and although I caught a few nice fish as well, he caught the largest ones. All the fish we caught (around 10 total) were over 18 inches, with a number over 20 inches.
On day two we were joined by Capt. Tommy Thompson. We used my Young Gulfshore 20 as a mothership for Jerry’s 13 foot Hobie kayak. While I was a little concerned about how it might fit, it actually fit perfectly into the cockpit, and sat firmly in place while I ran on plane.
After unloading Jerry and the kayak, Tommy and I worked our way into an area where we intended to meet Jerry. The fishing on the severe low tide was tough, but as the tide moved in, Jerry found this nice upper-slot redfish.
We moved to the rocky area we had found the large trout the day before, but the big ones were nowhere to be found. We ended up with around ten or twelve fish, and while all were keepers, there was only one over 20 inches. While Jerry fishes from the kayak much of the time, when he sees a promising area he slides out and wade fishes the area, which is a very successful way to find fish.
On day three, with a quick-moving front heading our way, we decided to launch Jerry’s kayak from a shoreline while he explored some of the oyster bars near the river, which had given up some excellent fish recently. After a while I ran out in my boat to keep him company from a distance and to take pictures. It didn’t take him long to catch the big trout of the trip, measuring just under 30 inches.
A few casts later he scored a 24 incher, that looked like a baby after the large one. He worked his way further into the creek, to an area where I couldn’t follow him, and caught a 27 inch redfish and a number of trout, although none were as large as the one pictured. He is an expert at taking selfies and here are two of the fish he caught further up the creek.
The trip turned out very well, and Jerry will be able to get some stories written about winter trout fishing from a kayak in our area. I’ve fished with a lot of people over the years, and I am always amazed at Jerry’s knowledge of fish behavior, which he got in part by growing up and helping in his father’s fishery in Nebraska. He is confident about how fish locate themselves in current and tidal flow, and seems to know exactly where a fish is likely to be. He really is one of the best I have ever seen, and he’s a lot of fun to be around as well. I’m already waiting for a return trip.
After months of tannin-stained water and massive quantities of floating grass, the waters around Steinhatchee have returned to the clear productive state of normality. The fishing has been excellent, both offshore and inshore. Somewhat atypically, trout have been moving into the Steinhatchee River in the absence of a major cold snap, and not surprisingly, nobody has complained yet. Silver (sand) trout have been everywhere, including in the river and at one of the recent hotspots near the Bird Rack north of Steinhatchee. One captain with a large party wanting a fish fry brought in 160 pounds of silver trout. On a brief trip with Capt. Tommy Thompson and Doug Barrett, we took several nice trout on topwater plugs near Rock Point over mixed grass and sand potholes. The next week I took Tommy and old friend Capt. John Peyton out for another reconnoitering. While we didn’t find any redfish on our early drifts, we managed to find some excellent upper-slot fish using topwater plugs south of Dallus Creek, again in an area of potholes.
We moved offshore as the tide dropped and found some large Spanish mackerel, several nice flounder and a good number of silver trout with the occasional speckled trout. There were schools of white bait scattered over a quarter-mile square area being attacked by mackerel, bluefish and ladyfish. The fishing was so good that I convinced my son Sidney and his girlfriend, Lee Ferinden, to come out for a trip. Fishing has never been Sid’s cup of tea, but he was excited to give it a try after a number of years. Both he and Lee re-learned how to cast. Again, we couldn’t find any redfish in the early morning flood tide, but as we moved out we again found large schools of whitebait. Returning to an area west of the Bird Rack at Big Grass Island, we found silver and speckled trout, at times catching fish on every cast. We also came across some giant Spanish mackerel which somehow were unable to get their teeth through the 25 pound fluorocarbon leader. The largest was over 5.5 pounds and looked like a small kingfish coming to the boat.
As I mentioned, we had reports of some trout being caught in the river. We noticed several boats landing lots of small silver trout, but some nice speckled trout have made it into the river as well; Chase Norwood, the son of Sea Hag owner/operator Charlie Norwood nailed this gator trolling a Mirrolure in the river.
I really had a great time with Lee and Sid, and I was glad we managed to catch a few fish as well. While ordinarily I don’t keep fish, we ended up keeping around 20 pounds of trout and mackerel filets to grill. The water temperature throughout the day ranged from the low to the mid-60s. Water was clear just about everywhere and we could see the bottom over 10 foot creek beds. Unfortunately the floating grass continued to make plug fishing challenging, but that is improving as well.Looking forward to a long holiday weekend to get in some more water time. As the water temps continue to cool down, the trout fishing could improve dramatically as the larger fish begin to school. That will be “Corky time” for us, time to fish my favorite cold-water lure, the Paul Brown Corky Devil from Mirrolure. Can’t wait for that cold weather!
Fishing has been tough for the past few months due to the early summer heavy rains in upper Florida. We’ve had tannin-stained water pouring out of every river and darkening the usually crystal-clear Steinhatchee waters, interfering with both scalloping and fishing; in over 15 years of fishing out of this wonderful port, I have never seen this until last year, and now we’ve had it for two summers in a row. Some reports even found darkened water over 15 miles offshore. Last year the water finally cleared in November and we’ve been hoping for an earlier improvement this year. Most of the inshore guides have been taking some time off and doing boat repairs. Near the end of September, I took Capt. Tommy Thompson and master angler Doug Barrett out to take a look. We found continued tannin-stained water and a fair amount of floating grass. There were baitfish everywhere; large schools of mullet, glass minnows and whitebait. The water was variable depending on tide and location, but we found some excellent trout schooling and blasting schools of small menhaden as if they were jacks. We caught a number of keeper trout on topwater plugs, but couldn’t find any redfish. I also jumped a tarpon but on trout tackle that was over quickly.
After a few weeks I wanted to see how things were going prior to a charter so Tommy and I went out last Saturday. While I had hoped for continued clearing, the water was still dark and in some areas near shore very turbid. Further offshore the water cleared somewhat, but floating grass was still an issue. We tried several of our favorite redfish spots, and Tommy found this nice 6 pounder on a small Skitterwalk.
On Sunday I had a trip with Glen Maddox and Jan Barnett. Both have a lot of fishing experience, and Jan has a place at Steinhatchee. Glen is ordering a Young Gulfshore 20 like my new boat and wanted to see how the boat ran with my Merc 150 4 stroke, as well as learning his way around the shallows at Steinhatchee. We left the Sea Hag Marina at 7:30 and headed south initially to fish some rockpiles on a high flood tide. Fishing with spoons, we found nothing so we ran up to the north where Jan caught this fine upper-slot redfish on a gold spoon. At the time she hooked the fish, she saw three or four other fish so we continued along the shoreline and then came back, but with no results. That was the only redfish of the day, which was disappointing.
As the tide dropped we moved out to try some trout fishing. We tried briefly around the Bird Rack outside of Big Grass Island but moved further out to an area known as Doghead, north and west of the Bird Rack. We fished jigs on the bottom in 5 to 8 feet of water and immediately began catching a good mix of sand trout (to 15 inches), speckled trout, black sea bass and some small mangrove snappers. I briefly hooked a cobia when he swam by us. When the bite stopped we ran closer to the river and fished some spotty bottom areas where Jan got this nice 20 inch speck.
Really enjoyed fishing with Jan and Glen; it’s always easier when your party really are accomplished fishermen. Additionally, we had a great day weather-wise, with cool temps, light wind and water temperatures that started around 69 and made it up to the mid-70’s by 2 PM. While the fishing isn’t nearly back to normal, the inshore guides are finding good limits of trout. The redfish are scattered and not heavily schooling yet, although that should happen in the next six weeks or so, assuming we get continued clearing of the water and the water temperatures stay in a similar range. Larger trout will move in closer to shore with clearing water and increasing salinity. And if you’re looking for something to do on October 19, it’s time for the second annual Hatchtoberfest, a fund-raiser for breast cancer, being held at Roy’s Restaurant in Steinhatchee. Lots of events including the famous Steinhatchee mullet toss, live music, a pink pancake breakfast, a 3 mile run, a poker game for prizes, and local crafts. Should be a great time….