People call me all the time and complain that, no matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to catch any fish.
“I can tell you everything you need to know in five minutes,” I tell them.
“Really?” they say.
“Really,” I reply. “And it won’t cost you a penny.”
All that is required, I explain, is that you remember the “Seven T’s.”
Florida has a variety of habitats and fishing conditions. No single rod and reel will work for every situation. A lightweight spinning rod that you may use to fish for spotted sea trout on the grass flats of the Gulf of Mexico will be woefully inadequate to take on king mackerel in the Atlantic Ocean.
Most successful anglers have at least two rod-and-reel combinations: one for inshore and one for offshore. Offshore tackle can be broken into several categories: trolling, bottom fishing and big game, for example.
The most versatile combination for Florida (and this will work in both fresh and salt water) is a 7-foot, medium-action rod, paired with a spinning reel rigged with 8- to 12-pound test. Traveling anglers might prefer a two-piece “stick” with a hard case for added protection.
Fish are like people. They have different tastes, habits and comfort zones. King mackerel, for example, are open-ocean swimmers that can be found on both coasts during their annual fall and spring migratory runs. They are voracious predators that tend to feed on large schools of baitfish.
Red drum, in comparison, spend most of their juvenile lives in the estuaries, venturing out into the open ocean only after they have reached sexual maturity. Redfish, as they are commonly called, feed on mollusks and crustaceans along grass beds and oyster bars.
What works for king mackerel will not work for red drum. Before you head out, do some research about what you will be fishing for. Just as a good football coach studies the other team’s offense and defense, you too should know the opposition.
All fish are drawn toward structures. Many fish will hide behind a rock or in an eddy and ambush prey. The same holds true for every species of fish in Florida, be it blue marlin off Key West, red snapper near Pensacola or largemouth bass in the lakes of Central Florida.
Every species has its preferred topography or habitat. Snook like docks or overhanging mangroves. Trout prefer seagrass. Redfish gravitate toward oyster bars. Grouper frequent wrecks, artificial reefs and naturally occurring limestone “hard bottom.”
Understand how and where a particular species lives, and you will catch fish. On a recent trip in Charlotte Harbor, we scouted the area at low tide and identified all the oyster bars and grass beds. A few hours later, after the tide came in, we caught our limit of trout, redfish and snook.
There is an old adage that the best time to go fishing is whenever you can. Not true. Fish are most active at dusk and dawn, or during what I call the “shift change.”
If you want to sell donuts and coffee to factory workers, set up your cart when the night crew is leaving and the day crew is just coming to work. The same philosophy can apply to fishing in Florida. Fish at dawn, and you will find the predators of day and night both active. The same holds true for dusk.
Don’t fish during the middle of the day. It is too hot and the sun is too high – there are no shadow lines from overhanging docks, bridges or trees, which is where fish usually like to hang out. The low-light conditions of the morning and evening will produce the best results.
Every species of fish has an optimal temperature at which they function. If it gets too hot, they slow down. If it gets too cold, they find a deep hole, where the water might be warmer, and hide. Certain species, including snook, will even die if the water gets too cold.
But in general – and this holds true if you are fishing for Spanish mackerel off the Jacksonville Beach Pier or chasing tarpon off Boca Grande – 72 degrees is the magic number. Every species, inshore or offshore, comes alive when the water temperature hits this mark.
That doesn’t mean you can’t catch fish in warmer or cooler conditions. You just need to adjust your technique. Fishing for trout this winter in Sarasota Bay, the fish refused to bite, so we slowed down our retrieve and triggered a major feeding frenzy.
All fish feed when the water moves. Anglers may debate what is better, an incoming or outgoing tide, but all will agree that the slack tide is to be avoided at all costs.
The tides play a particularly important role on the Gulf Coast, where the water may fluctuate only one to two feet on the grass flats. All the things fish love to eat – crabs, minnows and shrimp – get caught up in the current on a strong tide.
Tidal fluctuations, even though you won’t notice them, also matter in deep water offshore. Trolling for king mackerel off Clearwater Beach this spring was as thrilling as watching paint dry, but then the tide turned, and our lines started screaming.
Fishermen should approach every outing with an open mind. An angler may have caught fish all around the world, but there is still no substitute for local knowledge.
Fly fishing in Florida Bay near the Ten Thousand Islands by Everglades National Park, I was tempted to snap my fly rod in half and take up golf.
Instead, I stopped in a local tackle shop and had a friendly chat with the man behind the counter. He explained that the bait changed with the season. He suggested I try a fly that resembled a scaled sardine, which were plentiful that time of year.
I followed his advice. That simple investment of $4.95 made my fishing trip. Talk may be cheap, but at times it’s priceless.
While you are in the tackle shop, pick up a free copy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s book of saltwater fishing regulations. Florida has myriad species to catch, and just as many laws to govern them. Go to www.myfwc.com for more details.