Daylight savings time heralds changes in the approach to inshore fishing in the Big Bend. Water temperatures are rising, and while there are variations from year to year, it’s easier to find fish. The flats populate with grass, followed by pinfish; whitebait begin to migrate through the area and bring with them the pelagics, kingfish, Spanish mackerel and cobia. Mullet move inshore as well. This spring has been pretty much according to form, with one exception: the trout are a little bit delayed in getting onto the flats. Some are still holed up in creeks, and some in deeper water, but things will normalize later this month. Redfishing has been excellent. In fact, fishing with Doug Barrett, I had probably my best redfishing day ever in our area. Working a shoreline with lots of mullet, we happened upon a school and over two hours, caught 17 upper-slot redfish. At one point, we caught 8 on 8 consecutive casts. The fish didn’t move more than 25 feet over that period of time, which was unusual. Most of the time, after catching several fish, the school will move off. We used exclusively suspending plugs, either a Mirrodine XL or a Live Target suspending scaled sardine. It’s also worth noting that we fished for at least two hours before finding the school and caught only one or two trout, so knowing where and how to look for schools can make or break your day.
Redfish school throughout the year, but most reliably in the spring and fall. They school by size, but in the spring, almost all schools hold slot-sized fish. In the fall, most fish are schooling in preparation for their migration offshore as adults, never to return to the shallows, so a lot more overslot fish are caught in the fall. Locating schools of redfish is a challenge for me. There are several guides in our area that are experts; I would not put myself in that category, but I’m learning every time I go out. But there are basics that can help you have a better chance of finding some schools.
Redfish schools move in and out with the tide. On lower tides they will hold offshore, favoring water at least two to four feet in depth. As tides come in, so do the redfish. Occasionally you will come upon a school of redfish rapidly moving. This is a challenge as well. It’s very hard to get in front of them without spooking them with your motor. If you can run way outside of them and place your boat where you think they are headed, sometimes that works, but it’s amazing the amount of time they just disappear when they get just outside of casting distance. Stealth is very important. Additionally, schools that are moving rapidly are less interested in eating and more interested in moving, but if you can get plugs to them, you will likely connect. When schools are simply moving in and out with the tide, they are usually in a feeding mood. Traditionally, looking for “nervous water” is one way of locating schools, but you can be fooled by wind rips on the surface, or schools of mullet. The non-traditional way of finding schools is to run very shallow through areas that are suspected of holding schools, spooking them and noting where they are. Then after coming off plane, the school will settle down and you can move toward them. The preponderance of “tower boats”, shallow running boats with tall towers, are made specifically for this purpose. Personally, this isn’t my style of fishing, but even though I don’t fish in this manner, I not infrequently will come across schools while running and I will take advantage of that. Always keep your eyes on the water while you’re running in prospective areas. And when I say “move toward them”, I mean doing your best to arrange a drift taking wind conditions into account that will enable you to drift into the fish, or where you think they are. Trolling motors, if run consistently and very quietly, may work, but if you use a kicker, the school will likely move off. Pay attention to the wind and use it well.
What are prospective areas? Well, in some ways there are no shortcuts for this information. Either hiring a guide or, even better, spending lots of time on the water learning locations are the only ways. There are spots that seem to attract schools of redfish on a regular basis. Most of the time these are areas near creek mouths or near rocky structure that becomes covered with rock grass (sargassum) during the spring and summer. Areas that regularly hold mullet are always worth a try. And there are some places where I regularly catch fish that I cannot decipher…I have no idea why there are fish there, but they produce regularly. As I said, there aren’t any shortcuts (since nobody is likely to give you specific GPS numbers), so spend time on the water, and watch the water carefully. Keep scanning the surface, look for flashes and tails showing up in very shallow water. On higher tides, fish the shorelines as the fish move up into the grass to find crabs.
Luckily, not all redfish hang in schools, and there are usually plenty of solitary or pairs of fish to be caught, so keep casting. While I almost always use plugs, either suspending lures like the LIve Target sardines, Mirrodines or Catch 2000 plugs, or topwaters like the Rapala Skitterwalk or the Heddon Superspook Junior, sometimes I get desperate. During one large tournament, we fished all day and caught nothing competitive. With an hour left I finally threw out a pinfish filet near a shoreline under a float. Five minutes later we had a tournament fish in the boat. Unfortunately it was really ALMOST a tournament fish….it was just overslot. Happens a lot to me during tournaments. You also don’t have to restrict yourself to a few plugs. One of the best redfishermen in our area only uses jigs and soft tails. Gold spoons are the classic, but I only use them in heavy grass, along with unweighted soft jerk baits. When redfish are hungry, they are not picky eaters.
I love catching redfish. For many years I almost considered them bycatch when I was trout fishing. No more; now it’s more the other way around. And our area is one of the best places on earth (outside of Louisiana, anyway) to catch good numbers of quality fish. Making redfish a gamefish and removing it from the marketplace has resulted in a rebound of this fishery that everyone in the Big Bend should appreciate…and enjoy!
Lots of people have some exciting times when they’re young and carefree, but my old high school friend, Joe Jacobs, kind of wrote the book on that. Without going into great detail, think of a pirate living in St. Barts, illicit cargoes, Princess Caroline of Monaco, and starting a new country with your partner Mikhail Baryshnikov. But I digress. After escaping the Caribbean, Joe hosted a TV show, did some guiding in our home town of Lake Worth, Florida, and embarked on an adventure in documentary film-making involving rare and lost cultures…naturally with a tie-in with fishing. His films are currently being considered in several markets, and for an interesting preview, please note this link.
Now given Joe’s vast world-wide experience at fishing, one would be led to believe that he is an expert in the latest high-tech tackle, lures, and obscure techniques. Actually he considers himself a true world-class expert in only one kind of fishing…using jigs and soft plastic tails. In his travels around the world, jigs were easy to carry and replace and were usually the only tackle he had with him, except for a fly rod or two. Now if you’ve been following my blog at all, you realize by now that I don’t usually fish with jigs. I lean toward lures, primarily topwaters, but suspending lures as well, especially in the winter. Over the years I have become convinced that while catching fewer fish, they tend to be larger with lures….and I love big fish. I fish with jigs when forced….drifting for sand trout, or fishing in holes for seatrout. Oh, at one point years ago I used to fish with live shrimp, or cut bait, or popping corks, but left to my own devices, it’s plugs.
In my last blog post from November 1 I talked about a hot day for redfish while fishing with Joe. While I didn’t give specifics, the fact is that during that trip, I caught all the redfish and the one trout. Joe was skunked. He fished jigs with soft plastic tails, and then switched to a topwater I gave him which he claims had lost its ability to rattle. The water was flat, calm, clear, and very shallow, warming up after a cold front, and we were fishing over a mud bottom. That’s the kind of day that can make you want to try again, and Joe and Capt. Tommy Thompson and I went fishing yesterday. It was a cold windy morning but warmed up nicely, and unlike the last time we fished, the water temperature was in the high 50’s and we had a good mid-morning high tide. We ran to fish some points that had rocks around them (which describes just about every point in Steinhatchee) a few hours before the high. There were good concentrations of mullet. Joe was fishing his secret weapon soft plastic while Tommy and I fished topwaters and suspending lures, and at one point I tried a soft weightless jerkbait. Joe started catching redfish, and he was catching them in exactly the places where we were throwing plugs. In fact, he caught 8 redfish before we caught anything; finally Tommy got a trout, the only one of the day. As the tide peaked and started moving, the fish became more active and we started to catch some fish on plugs, but Joe still was killing us. We ended up with 22 redfish; 17 were caught by Joe using his jig and soft plastic tail. The largest was 24 inches, but all were quality fish.
Now if that kind of result doesn’t lead to a reflective re-examination of your fishing philosophies, as I mentioned in my previous post, you are in for a rough fishing career. I asked him to give me some tips about his passion for jigs.
Joe doesn’t just LIKE fishing jigs with soft plastic tails; he has studied heads and tails for years, and has strong feelings about how they should be fished and how they should be rigged. He also believes color and the transparency of the tail is significant. He stores his favorite tails in plastic bags with mineral oil to keep them slick. In terms of colors, he likes to use light colors in clear water (like many people) but favors translucent bodies with or without glitter. In darker water he chooses a jig tail to match the water. If mildly turbid, he might choose a midrange brown or gray translucent tail. To him, the fact that light can pass through the tail is important. I have always tended to use light colored lures in any conditions, assuming that the contrast makes the plug easier to see in turbid water, but Joe feels that real forage (shrimp, pinfish, mullet, crabs) are almost never as brightly colored as my lures; therefore, fish see those colors as abnormal and not likely to be what they are looking for. Rigging is important to Joe; he feels he catches a lot more fish if the rigged jig runs perfectly straight through the water, with no cartwheeling or asymmetrical motion. He uses a variety of heads and tails, choosing the heads based on depth and water color as well, with unpainted heads getting used frequently in clearer conditions. Most of his tails are simple, without shad tails and some are very simple, like the Mirrolure Little John tail (click on these pictures for more detail).
Rigging is something that has to be just right, according to Joe. As mentioned, the combination has to run perfectly straight….or he will re-rig it immediately.
What he is looking for when working the jig is for it to bounce off the bottom and settle back down. As he points out, that gives the jig both an active motion (during the quick jerk) and a more passive motion as it settles and sits on the bottom. He notes that live shrimp have a similar kind of motion. It means you may end up getting soft plastics hung in rocks or in heavy grass, but at least they cost considerably less than a $14 plug. And with practice you can learn to use the spring of the rod to loosen many jigs that do get hung up.
What’s the take-home message? Well….Joe and I fished one day and I caught all the fish using topwaters; the next time we fished he caught almost all the fish using jigs. You don’t have to be a member of MENSA to determine a useful message. It’s actually implementing it that’s the challenge for me. Many fishermen fall in love with one type of fishing….they have confidence in what they are using, it’s worked in the past, and it’s what they do. The flexibility to move on and try something different seems to get worse with age, just like actual physical flexibility. In fact, probably the best fisherman I know, Jerry McBride (please don’t let him see this) moves easily from jigs with soft plastics to lures to artificial shrimp without a thought. Can I change my approach to my plan when things aren’t working? I’ve got first-hand side-by-side evidence now that suggests that would be a wise move…thanks to Joe for expanding my horizons. Now to figure out that precise rigging…
I fish differently with a client/guest than when I’m with myself, or fishing with my buddy Capt. Tommy Thompson. When the pressure to catch fish is less, I can spend more time trying to figure things out. Fishing these days has been a bit of a challenge, and it seems to be related to a late arrival of baitfish. When fishing gets tough, the guide’s credo is: keep moving….keep moving until you find fish. But it’s always a great idea to put some thought into why things worked, and maybe more important into why they didn’t work. Here’s a perfect example.
After a really challenging trip a few weeks ago, old friend Capt. Joseph Jacobs was again passing through, so we made arrangements to try again on a Sunday, the 26th of October. A mild cold front had passed through, and the mornings of the 25th and the 26th were the chilliest of the year, with low temps in the high 40’s. With a negative tide at 10 in the morning, I wasn’t that optimistic, but I went to one of the few places at Steinhatchee where I can get close to shore on a negative tide. This is an area several miles to the north of the river, with a cut that runs fairly close to shore, and it’s navigable even on a very low tide. When we got there, I was surprised to find mass quantities of mullet schooling around the exposed rocks, more than I had seen in some time. Much of the seagrass had died down in this area, leaving large expanses of mud bottom with scattered patches of oysters and rocks. Because the water was only 18 inches deep, we were fishing with topwater plugs. Within a few minutes of arriving, I caught a slot redfish, around 24 inches, and shortly after, a 4.5 pound trout. Both were clearly hungry in spite of a water temperature in the high 60’s. Note the exposed rocks in the trout picture; the trolling motor was barely usable.
As the tide continued to fall I moved out but only slightly, to maintain our depth. I lost a much larger redfish when one of my trebles actually broke. Over the next few hours we caught a total of 8 redfish, the trout and a nice bluefish. All were caught on topwater plugs. Two of the redfish were enormous, given the shallow water; both were 37 inches long. Joe took the video below of the first overslot fish coming to the boat. These were not schooling fish; they were scattered over a large shallow muddy flat.
This was by far the best morning I had had in some months. Clearly the tide had turned, if you will, and fishing was on the way back to normal. I was excited, in part because one of my good buddies, Jerry McBride, was coming to Gainesville to give a talk about kayak fishing and we had plans to fish just three days later. The low tide was a little later, and there was a pretty impressive warming trend, but my plan was to get to the same area on the same tide, just a bit later in the morning.
We ran to several areas on the higher tide that had been productive, but the number of mullet and whitebait was minimal. We found several trout on topwaters but nothing substantial at all. And we saw a lot fewer mullet on the shoreline. After trying several areas unsuccessfully, we ran to our chosen spot. On a similar tide, there were fewer mullet, but still some present. However, the redfish and trout were nowhere to be found. There were lots of glass minnows (rainbait), and schools of very respectable jacks and bluefish….but no redfish or trout. And we tried mightily for a long time. Friend Doug Barrett was in his Gulfshore 20, fishing in similar areas, and caught nothing. It was as if it were a totally different area.
So it was time for reflection. It’s easy to throw out excuses when you’re on the water…there are a million of them…but another thing to sit down and try and sort out what happened. The differences between the two days were few; a two hour later low tide, and a warming trend. Otherwise the conditions, including the level of the tide and the presence of baitfish, were identical. So given those two variables, how to explain the difference? I really don’t think it’s that hard. First, the time. While it’s true that legend (and Joe in the video) say that the topwater bite ends in the early morning, those committed to topwater fishing know better. I have caught fish throughout the day as long as the conditions (wind, chop, water depth) are reasonable. I don’t think that the time of day had anything to do with the outcome. What about the warming trend? The air temperatures had increased, from a low in the morning of 48 to a low of 55. Additionally, because we were a little later, the water was warmer regardless. In fact, from a water temp in the mid to high ’60s, the water temp had risen to the low to mid 70’s. This is a huge difference to a cold blooded organism like a fish, especially when it’s the first cold front of the year. The area we fished was lacking the usual Steinhatchee lush grasses and was instead a dark mud bottom (which you can see on the video). That dark mud holds heat much better than grass bottom. So do rocks, oyster bars and other structure when they get direct sunlight. My conclusion is that the cold front caused the fish to find an area that was just a few degrees warmer…but three days later, they were more comfortable in their usual haunts….in creeks, behind oyster bars and hiding in potholes in the grass.
That’s the thought process. Of course, it boils down to an opinion, and you know what they say about opinions (no, I’m not going there). Traditionally the trout bite improves with chilly weather, and we’ll get a chance to see this week, because tonight will be the first REALLY cold night of the year, with a low in the 30’s. And I have a charter in two days, when the high will be in the mid-70’s. Either it will be a fantastic day, with a massive trout bite, or everything will be shut down because of the severity of the front. But hey….that’s kind of the way every day is during this time of transition into winter.
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 (https://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.