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Ladies first

2/26/2010

Florida's winter fishing scene will soon transition into consistent warmth, but until that happens, the inshore shallows can be a fickle place. With sporadic cold fronts and high winds jostling the flats and bays, a lot of gamefish species can play hard-to-get.

This is when most anglers learn to appreciate a fish that's often held in low regard — the ladyfish. Slender and excessively slimy, ladyfish aren't the most glamorous fish in the sea. They're not much for table fare, either.

So what does this species bring to the table? Two things: Abundance and eagerness — both prized commodities during winter's tail end.

Fact is, this time of year brings promising patches of warmer weather, but it rarely lasts long and when it does, we'll usually have a stiff wind limiting some of the sight-fishing and boat positioning needed for the sexier species like speckled trout, redfish and pompano. (Snook too, but we're trying to lay off the linesiders for a while, as January's cold kill has the species in a tough spot.)

Through this period of unstable weather, you can just about always count on the ladyfish — and not just for their appetite. I mean, saltwater catfish are generally easy to come by, but you won't hear anyone extolling their virtues.

Ladyfish are a different story. They fight heroically, leap acrobatically and devour most any bait gluttonously. Sounds like the resume of a premier predator, but for most of the year, this humble species gets nothing but grief for grabbing baits and lures intended for the big names.

But while the A-listers turn finicky during winter, ladyfish swirl in massive schools, just waiting for something to bite. Present year-round, ladyfish congregate during the nippy months. Find one of these cold season conventions and you needn't look any further for non-stop, rod-bending action.

Likely places include deep river bends, springs, residential canals and power plant outflows. Warm water is the key, but also look for wind breaks such as tree lines and houses. Fishing in the lee makes for optimal boat handling.

Live shrimp suspended under a cork is nearly a guaranteed hook up when ladyfish roam near. Popular artificials include topwater plugs, soft plastic jerk baits, tubes and bucktail jigs. Fly fishermen also take plenty of ladyfish on sink-tip lines and most any baitfish or shrimp imitating pattern.

"Ladyfish are great for fly fishermen," said Capt. Bill Miller of Tampa. "Not many fly guys can say they caught 20-30, or more, fish on fly in one day. With ladyfish it can be done. It is a good way to practice your casting and fish fighting techniques."

An average Florida ladyfish goes about 18-24 inches. Bigger fish often mix with the winter groups and a few may measure a yardstick or more. At any size, this aggressive fish does a pretty good impression of a much larger and somehow related species.

No one's likely to confuse Elops saurus (ladyfish) for Megalops atlanticus (tarpon) in a side-by-side comparison. But in the water, the former's aerial antics mimic the latter's gill-rattling, tail-walking splash fest. So much so that ladyfish wear the nickname "poor man's tarpon."

Anglers who've previously handled ladyfish know to hold them away from the boat when dehooking. Defiant to the end, this species has a nasty habit of, well, relieving itself on decks, shirts, shoes and anything else within range.

If you're quick enough to swing a ladyfish into your cooler or livewell, these fish make excellent bait. Redfish won't hesitate to gobble chunks of oily ladyfish flesh rigged on circle hooks. Over reefs and wrecks, the same will tempt grouper and snapper.

During spring and fall kingfish seasons, the ladyfish's large, shiny profile makes a tempting target for the toothy predators. Also, when summer finds coastal shallows teaming with sharks, ladyfish chunks will put you on the fast track to a tight line.

Forethinking anglers might consider tossing a stack of ladyfish in the freezer. Fresh is always best, but with proper rigging a ladyfish dressed with a nylon skirt or pulled behind a Sea Witch or Islander (just like a ballyhoo) will tempt hungry kings. Indiscriminate sharks won't hesitate to gobble a thawed hunk of meat.

There's no size, bag or season limit on ladyfish. But don't overdo it with the harvest. We wouldn't want to run out of one of the few fish we can depend on for consistent winter action.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart — Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.