- David Brown
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As we hang those new calendars and tap out those lists of resolutions, may I suggest a formalized focus on fishing in the New Year?
And I don't mean the old "Man, I need to get on the water more this year" stuff. Write down a list of specific targets and resolve to achieve them by the time you hang the 2012 calendar.
One of Florida's greatest natural attractions is its piscatorial diversity. From shallow flats and backwater bays, to coastal waters and offshore depths – the Sunshine State offers more than enough reasonably accessible targets to easily fill 12 months of resolutions. I can't cover the state in one column, so I'll just offer some seasonal suggestions that are sure to please.
(Note: Snook would fit well into many months, but Florida's linesider population remains in critical condition after the massive cold kill during last winter's extreme conditions. Therefore, I won't encourage snook fishing. The species remains closed to harvest and, while catch-and-release fishing is legal, anglers should strongly consider giving these fish a break until they can rebuild their numbers.)
January -- Big Trout on Low Tides: Winter sees the year's lowest tides, especially on the strong outgoing cycles around new and full moons. Throw in a strong north wind to push the water further and you have the "negative lows" that literally drain the shallow flats and leave only isolated pools of water in troughs and holes well inside the outer sand bars.
Accessible only by wading, kayaking/canoeing or airboats, these low tide oases hold loads of the big trout that gather inshore during winter. The speckled fiends will hammer topwaters, but jigs with paddle tails and artificial shrimp also produce.
Regulation note: Speckled trout harvest closes November-December in the south region and February in the northwest and northeast regions.
February -- Spawning Sheepshead: They're known as "convict fish" and not only for their prominent black and white vertical stripes. Sheepshead are notorious nibblers and their stout front teeth equip them well for pecking away at baits and making off with the goods without nearing the hook.
This challenging nature, along with some of the finest filets you'll ever taste, make sheepshead a prized inshore species. The cool months see huge prespawn aggregations around inshore reefs, rock piles, bridges and piers. Use fresh shrimp on small, light wire hooks and just enough weight to sink the bait. (If the 'heads are spooky, substitute a small jig head for the hook and sinker.)
March -- Inshore Grouper: As winter yields to spring and baitfish schools rapidly emerge, shallow rock piles, nearshore reefs and rocky channel edges will see a surge in gag grouper action.
During strong tidal flow, the fish will avoid fighting the current by holding tight to structure, but during moderate flow, they'll attack anything that crosses their radar. Dropping live baits (pinfish or grunts) or cut sardines on knocker rigs is a no-brainer, but trolling big lipped plugs like the Mann's Stretch 25 or MirrOlure 111MR can deliver exciting action.
For a serious adrenaline rush, cast shallow running plugs like a Yozuri Crystal Minnow across reefs and rock outcroppings in 10-20 feet of water and hang on tightly. Grouper have been known to confiscate rods from the ill-prepared.
April -- Follow the Rays: When large southern stingrays forage across the fertile grass flats, they're underslung mouth misses a lot of the crabs, shrimp and baitfish that flush along the outer edges of their wing-like flanks.
Opportunistic cobia will "ride" the rays in piscatorial piggyback form by swimming in close step and gobbling any of the food their host misses. This is sight-fishing 101, so push pole or troll across the flats with good tidal flow from nearby passes and watch for "muds" created by foraging rays.
If you find a ray with one or more cobia in tow, cast free-lined crab, pinfish or pilchard ("whitebait") off the ray's front quarter for an easy sell. Jigs and soft plastic jerkbaits also work.
May -- Mackerel Double Play: Baitfish schools pushing northward along the Gulf Coast will have many hungry predators in hot pursuit, but few rival the gluttonous aggression of Spanish and king mackerel.
Reefs, rocks, channel edges and anywhere baitfish gather is a good bet for these toothy tyrants. Watch for bait schools "raining" at the surface, clouds of screeching birds hovering close to the water and slashing waves of attacking macks.
Slow troll larger baits (blue runners, cigar minnows and jumbo threadfins ("greenbacks") for kings and drop down to smaller greenies and whitebait for Spanish mackerel. Go with light line, wire leader and stinger rigs for both. Casting or trolling spoons and plugs will nab plenty, as well.
June -- Tarpon on the Beach: Summer is silver king time along much of Florida's Gulf Coast and the expansive ranges of shallow beach brine offers a more enjoyable and sporting alternative to the crowded pass scenes at Boca Grande and Tampa Bay's Egmont Channel.
Beach fishing incorporates more of a hunting element, as you idle along and look for either surfacing pods of poons or the dark shadows of schools holding closer to the bottom. Sight-casting crabs or large greenbacks is the way to go. Most beach tarpon are hooked in less than 20 feet of water, so expect great aerial displays.
July -- Snapper Slappers: Aggressive and abundant, the Gulf's many snapper species offer spirited battles and tasty filets. On reefs, wrecks, ledges and roll-offs in 60-plus feet, mangrove and red snapper are the top targets, but you'll find a few lanes and vermilion along the way.
Cut sardines and squid are the old standbys, but once you get them going, snaps will gobble live baits like pinfish, Spanish sardines and small blue runners. Bucktail jigs tipped with sardine chunks will tempt snapper and reds are suckers for shiny blade style jigs worked erratically in the water column above structure.
(Red snapper have a short harvest season, so check for current dates.)
August -- Amberjack Attack: When hot, calm days allow long runs to deep water wrecks and springs, an arm-stretching battle of epic proportions awaits in the AJ 'hood. These double-tough brawlers patrol the upper edges of their structures and rarely hesitate to put the chomp on just about any baitfish unfortunate enough to enter their realm.
Top choice is a big pinfish, but blue runners, pilchards (netted inshore), grunts and spadefish will meet with violent reception. Tackle up with 80-pound line on stout conventional outfits and use a back brace with a rod gimbal.
For an artificial approach, AJs will slam a shiny diamond or blade style jig. Fire the jig to the bottom, crank it to the upper edge of the structure (noted on your bottom machine) and rip it up and down in rapid cadence. If a fish grabs the jig and drops it, keep working – another take is usual quick to oblige.
September -- Night Moves: Arguably, the hottest month of the year for Florida, September is prime time for after-hours angling. Fish lighted docks and bridges for snook, trout, bluefish and the occasional redfish.
Predators patrol the perimeters of light rings and dash into the glow to pick off shrimp, crabs and baitfish that drift across with the tides. Light jigs, small plastic shrimp and glass minnow or shrimp pattern flies are best. Cast past the light and work your bait into the strike zone.
Offshore runs can deliver tremendous nighttime snapper, grouper and shark action. Night temperatures are much more bearable than the stifling daytime highs. Just be extra careful about keeping track of hooks, gaffs and any hazardous objects in this low visibility scenario.
October -- Redfish Rally: Early fall sees redfish throughout the Gulf Coast gathering in large schools as they prepare for the fall spawning ritual. These annual groupings offer prime opportunities for banner days as large breeder class reds of 20-plus pounds mix with slot fish and feed heavily over grass flats, bays and beaches.
Look for redfish to gather around points, passes, islands, creeks and spoil bars. The large numbers mean lots of casting opportunities, but stealth is paramount. Spook one redfish and he'll take the herd with him. Keep your distance and pick off perimeter fish with Berkley Gulp shrimp on jigs or weedless rigs. Topwaters can yield incredible action, especially when reds mix with noisy mullet.
November -- Trips on the Traps: Unquestionably the oddest of Florida's sport fish is the tripletail. With its dorsal and anal fins positioned far aft, this one appears to have three rudders.
A gypsy lifestyle makes the tripletail difficult to target, with catches ranging from bay bridges to offshore weed lines. However, the fall stone crab season tends to concentrate a good many tripletail along the coastal shallows, specifically around crab trap buoys.
Traps attract baitfish and the crafty tripletail employs subtle ambush tactics by staking out the buoys, hanging inconspicuously – like a piece of flotsam – near the float and grabbing any meal that wanders too close.
Sight casting live shrimp or small pinfish under floats works best, but plan on checking a bunch of buoys. Most of the fish will be in the 2- to 6-pound range, but the occasional honker of 10-plus may stretch your string, so medium-action spinning gear is best.
December -- Tuna Time in the Keys: There aren't many bad reasons to visit the Florida Keys – especially when winter makes this subtropical habitat a true Floridian paradise. However, one of the really good reasons is the cold season aggregations of pelagic like the feisty and delicious blackfin tuna.
Wrecks, reefs and sea buoys harbor baitfish schools and tuna are quick to find the chow. Anchor uptide of your spot, soak a block of frozen chum and spice up the scent trail with a few live pilchards here and there. Free-line live pilchards on small, stout hooks and use medium-action spinning gear with 20- to 30-pound braided line to put the brakes on these hard-charging fish. For optimal table fare, bleed and ice your tuna immediately.
To make this a baker's dozen, let's add an extra resolution – Release More Fish.
For the record, I believe licensed anglers who fish with legal tactics and adhere to current fisheries regulations on size, season and bag limit should enjoy the option of harvesting and eating their fish.
However, taking a limit just because you can is not good resource stewardship. Take what you can eat in a meal or two, share a little with friends and family now and then, but consider the wise words of my friend and Sarasota guide, Capt. Rick Grassett: "Limit your kill; don't kill your limit."
Conserve the fish and you'll have plenty of new resolutions for 2012. Best wishes for a safe and productive year of angling fun.
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.
Resolve to sample more of Florida's angling abundance