Shrimping, Crabbing and Other Florida Fishing

By: Doug Sease

ADD TO FAVORITES
Drop your rod and reel! Adventurous fishermen should look into different types of fishing in Florida. Try scalloping, shrimping or even spearfishing to really test your skills.

When most of us think about fishing, we think about rods, reels, hooks, line and sinkers. But if you really want to get serious about capturing dinner—and having fun—add nets, spears, tongs and traps to the list of fisheries weapons. You can use that arsenal to do anything from lazy crabbing to physically taxing spearfishing.

Shrimping

Like so many other anglers, I spent years sitting in boats, on piers, or beaches wetting a line, hoping that something tasty would swim by, notice my bait and take a bite. I got my share of fish that way, but there was something a little passive about it. Once I learned to throw a cast net, though, I began to get more deeply involved in my fishing. Cast nets are mostly used for two things: catching bait and catching shrimp. Now that I live in Vero Beach I use my cast net mostly for catching bait. If all goes according to plan, the bait I catch in my net in turn produces dinner via the old rod and reel method.

But when I was living in Jacksonville some years ago, I used the cast net to go shrimping during late summer in the St. Johns River.

You can catch shrimp from a dock or from shore, but using a boat gives you a little more versatility in where you fish. The idea is to set some baits—cat food with a fish base is good—on a shallow bottom to attract the shrimp into easily netted clusters. A light source, such as a propane lantern, is a useful attractant and also shows the shrimps’ glittering eyes, letting you know when the run is starting. Then it’s a simple matter of tossing your net over the baited bottom and hauling in your catch.

Be sure you know the limits, which change from time to time, so that you don’t get in trouble with the fishing authorities. Your local tackle shop will almost certainly have brochures furnished by the state that give limits and sizes of all sorts of catchable marine creatures. Alternatively, you can go to myfwc.com on the web for a full listing of regulations governing both salt water and freshwater fishing. 

Now I know I said its “simple,” but it’s simple only after you’ve learned to throw your net, which isn’t always that simple. You can find various techniques for throwing cast nets on the web. I use a net made by Calusa and their video on learning to throw a cast net at www.calusa.com is very good. It’s the technique I use.

If you don’t want to learn to throw a cast net, there’s an alternative. Simply take your boat out into the current, anchor and put a spotlight or lantern on the bow. Then just sit there, keeping a careful watch for the glitter of shrimps’ eyes as they wash downstream in the current. A quick scoop with a dip net and you snag ‘em.                                                     


Crabbing

The next step in my evolution as an amateur waterman was crabbing. I love crabs, but for a long time I was confined to buying them at the fish market. I’d occasionally haul up a big blue that was determined to have my fishing bait for lunch, but one crab does not a meal make.

My first efforts at actually catching enough crabs to make a dinner started out the old-fashioned way: a chicken neck, a string and a dip net. The key is to find a little saltwater stream surrounded by weeds. You toss over your chicken neck tied to the string, then sit and wait until you feel a little tug. Then you slowly retrieve the neck.

Usually the greedy crab won’t let go until he’s almost at the surface. The trick is in the timing. He has to be close enough to the surface that you can swoop your dip net under him, but not so close that he gets nervous and abandons his free lunch before you can strike.  Kids, by the way, love crabbing.

That kind of old-fashioned crabbing can be fun occasionally, but if you want to get serious about crabs, you want to use traps, big wire cages with tapered openings. Put some bait in the cage—a big chunk of ladyfish or the proverbial chicken neck—set the cage out on the flats among the weeds and leave it alone for a day or so.  

With two or three traps set out, you can sometimes get enough crabs in one run to make dinner. The key is to remember where you placed your traps (I tie a small piece of wood to each trap as a marker buoy and record the location of where I dropped it on my GPS). 

Scalloping

There isn’t much that’s easier than crabbing with crab traps, but scalloping comes close. Florida’s Big Bend, from the Pasco/Hernando County line to the Mexico Beach Canal, offers a relatively short scalloping season from July 1 to September 10, the only area that I’m aware of that provides for “catch your own” scallops. Steinhatchee is perhaps best known for scalloping in this area.

Catching scallops is easy. Finding them, not so much. I recommend going with a guide the first time to learn where and how to look for scallops. After you’ve found them, it’s simple: use a mask, snorkel and fins to collect scallops right off the bottom and store in a mesh bag, available at any dive shop. Not only do you stay cool swimming the Gulf waters, you’re also likely to be in water only three or four feet deep, so you can stand up anytime and take a break. Like crabbing, scalloping is something kids love to do.     

 
Scuba and Spear Fishing

The ultimate step in alternative fishing, though, came when I learned to scuba dive. Scuba diving takes you where the fish are.

Even the best fish finder sitting in the cockpit of a sleek offshore fishing boat can only hint at what’s down below. Someone skilled in the use of these electronic instruments (take it from me, most of us aren’t!) can determine if the bottom is sandy, muddy, weedy or rocky. He can identify clouds of baitfish and individual large fish. But unless he can dive down and actually eyeball the bottom, he doesn’t really know precisely what he’s looking at on that digital screen.

In Florida’s clear waters, scuba makes every reef and ledge a potential undersea zoo as well as a potential fish market. The tools of the trade vary. During lobster season, for instance, you go armed with a tickle stick and net. When you spot a lobster under a rock or ledge, the tickle stick—an aluminum rod with a slight crook in it—is slipped in behind him to urge out of his hole. Then the net drops down and you have dinner (assuming, of course, the lobster meets the minimum size limits to be a keeper).

I don’t mean to make it sound quite so simple. It isn’t. I’ve never gotten very good at it, but my friend Jeff Marinko is an expert.  

Jeff is also an expert spearfisher. I’ve done some spearfishing, but if I had to feed myself with what I shot, I’d starve. Part of my problem was that for a long time I used a pole spear or Hawaiian sling.

A pole spear is just that: a spear tip attached to a pole. There’s a big rubber band at the other end of the pole that you use to propel the pole and its spear tip forward to spear your prey.

A Hawaiian sling is a wooden tube with a hole through the middle and a big rubber band attached. A four-foot stainless steel spear slides through the hole and into a pocket in the rubber band. When you see a target, simply pull back the band, aim the spear and let ‘er fly.

Jeff does things differently. He uses a pneumatic spear gun that is powered by compressed air rather than rubber bands. But again, I don’t want to make it sound easier than it really is. Jeff goes spear fishing two or three times a week, weather permitting, and even he misses a lot. While grouper may hide in a hole or under a ledge and make a good shot, snapper and other fish are nervous and tend to flee when a diver gets near.

“Everything happens so quickly that you’ve got to react in just an instant,” Jeff says. “Otherwise, the fish are gone.”

The real key, Jeff explains, isn’t so much shooting the fish as finding the fish. Over the years that he’s been diving, Jeff has accumulated hundreds of “numbers.” Those numbers are the latitude and longitude of reefs, rocks, ledges and wrecks that hold fish. Unless you have some numbers of your own, it’s going to be difficult to secure enough fish for dinner.

The good news, according to Jeff, is that even the well-marked reefs and wrecks can hold some good fish. These are the places that rod-and-reel fisherman on the surface have dismissed as “fished out,” on the assumption that too many people know the location.

But the good news from Jeff is that it isn’t a lack of big fish to catch that’s the problem. Rather, it is that there are so many bait fish swarming around those reefs and wrecks that the grouper and other reef dwellers simply aren’t hungry. That’s what I mean about not knowing what’s really down there unless you can go look at it.

A word of caution: scuba diving is a physically demanding sport. The gear—tanks and weights, mostly—is heavy and clumsy, at least on a boat or land (once in the water it becomes nearly weightless). It is easy to get disoriented underwater. Even in Florida’s waters, visibility is sometimes only a few feet. A mistake can be deadly.

So be sure to learn to dive from a certified dive school. And if you don’t dive often, always dive with someone who knows safety procedures and is knowledgeable about the equipment. Scuba diving puts you in a realm most people will never experience, but it isn’t something you do casually or carelessly.

NOTE: Before participating in any of the above activities, remember to check with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at myfwc.com to check that you have the proper licenses (if required) and are aware of the most up-to-date rules and regulations (they may have changed since this article was published).

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17 comments
Jackson
Jackson April 5, 2013 8:08 AM
Attractive site.!!!
Type your comment here.
Hi I am trying to find a good area in St. Augustine that is great for shrimping. Have friend that has a sail boat docked there and we were wanting to do some shrimping this year. Could you advise us on where to take the boat to catch some good shrimp. Thank you.

Tom