Fishing Articles and Tactics

Fish Species To Target by Month In The Tampa / Clearwater Area

My fishing charters target a great variety of species that are swimming off the coast of the Tampa / Clearwater / St Petersburg Area. Certain species, such as Tarpon, Kingfish, Bonita, Cobia and Spanish Mackerel migrate south to north in the spring and north to south in the fall.  These movements are driven largely by temperature range and bait availability. Others, such as grouper and snapper, migrate east to west, changing depths throughout the year, but remaining here.

What are the fish I regularly target on fishing charters in Tampa?

The primary inshore species...snook, redfish and seatrout are here year round and all have prime seasons, some of which overlap. This guide is written for the inshore / nearshore fisherman...those who don't travel outside state waters (9 miles out).

fishing charter species infographic

How Tides and Weather Affect Fishing

What is the best day to fish in the next month?  This is a question that all recreational anglers would love to have the answer to.  Why?  Because chances are, between family and work commitments, most recreational anglers are lucky if they can get on the water just once or twice a month.  It sure would be nice to go on the days when catching fish was going to be the easiest. The good news is that "good" fishing days are somewhat predictable.  

Great Winter Saetrout Fishing in Clearwater
There are three or four key variables to the equation of determining a good fishing day.  These are; the time of year (what fish should I target), tides, and weather (precipitation, temperature,wind direction and speed). So first, how does someone determine what to fish for.  Well, nature decides that, for the most part. Fishing Guides in the Tampa / Clearwater Area are fortunate to have a wide range of species to fish for every year but it is certainly critical to know when each of these species will be available in large enough numbers to target. This information is readily available by contacting your local tackle store or favorite fishing guide.  The internet can also give you this information although the first two sources are better as their information will be more accurate based on their understanding of current weather conditions and water temperatures. 

Now that the target species is determined, what days will be best to catch this fish...or fish (plural) as several species may be available at the same time. Strong tides generally drive better fishing so a tide chart is the next thing to look at.  Around the full and new (dark) moons, there are approximately 7 days that have stronger tides.  Tides around the half moon are generally weak.  What this means is that about half the days of every month are a lot better than the other target a strong tide day.  Tides are calculated by a mathematical algorithm so actual tide data is available well out into the future, so there's no reason not to use this information. Another factor in determining when to fish for what is the actual volume of water movement. Generally speaking, there is more water movement during the middle of a tide phase than towards the top or bottom (high and low tides). Certain fish, like seatrout and snook, tend to bite best during maximum water movement.

Weather is a more complicated animal in determining when fishing will be productive.  Weather includes precipitation, temperature, wind direction and speed.  Precipitation doesn't really complicate the decision making process. If's there is a high percentage chance of rain and those going on the trip don't want to get wet, don't go.  When inshore / nearshore fishing in the Tampa / Clearwater Area, rain, by itself, doesn't really affect fishing much in a positive or negative way. If you add a high chance of lightening to the mix, and there's plenty of it to contend with in this area, don't go. A Tampa Fishing Guide's first responsibility on all trips is not to catch fish, but to be most trips where lightening is a concern will be cancelled.   

Caledesi Island Redfishing
Temperature is the next variable. Fluctuations in temperature are not really a factor during the summer months.  Water temperatures reach up into the 80's, usually sometime in lat April to early May, and then stay there until the fall so monitoring the temperature is not really on the radar for most Tampa Fishing Guides during this time of year. Once cold fronts become a reality in late fall, early spring and winter however...temperature is very important. Shallow inshore waters are most impacted by temperature swings.  An extremely cold night or two can plunge temperatures by ten degrees or more, which is devastating to the fishing. From a human perspective, it's quite easy to understand.  If a person is thrown into an icy lake, getting warm is the only immediate concern...not what's for dinner. Depending on the severity of a cold front, fishing may be compromised anywhere from 2 - 4 days.  Although fish will adjust and begin eating again at lower temperatures, it will still take several days for them to acclimate. Generally, several warmer days are required to get things back on track. In the winter, this is certainly true for seatrout fishing. Every fall, the first severe cold front can be significant as well.  Each of the last two years, excellent kingfishing has been available within several miles of shore well into December. When the first severe front arrived however, it lowered ocean temperatures enough to drive these fish south towards their wintering grounds in the Keys.  So, in this case, it removed a whole species from the target list for 3 - 4 months, until they return in the spring (as water temperatures rise).

Why is wind a significant factor?  It can affect everything from where an angler can fish, to water clarity, to the level of the tide.  Here are a few examples.  A wind in excess of 15 miles per hour is sure to muddy inshore waters if it originates from the west, north or south.  Why?  A north or south wind blows right up or down through St Joseph's Sound (The Inter-Coastal Waterway) guaranteeing that water will be muddy.  A strong west wind will also affect the Inter-Coastal Waterway as, when the tide comes in, it brings in all of the churned up sand on the beaches. As all Tampa Fishing Guides know, seatrout and snook tend to eat better in clean water so, when the water is muddy, it might be better to focus on redfish...a fish less affected by water clarity.  On a west wind however, a mid afternoon outgoing tide may provide both warmer and cleaner water so, on some cooler days, trout will eat on this tide where they would not eat on the morning incoming tide. Also, on a west wind, muddy water will extend out off the beaches, possibly creating low clarity all the way out to 5 or 10 miles. If it's kingfish season, that's important as kingfish will swim straight west into this wind until they get to clean water.  If the angler is in a smaller boat and running 10 miles out is not a good option, then kingfish are off the list for that day. Obviously if winds are strong from any direction but out of the east, venturing offshore is not a good idea simply because of rough seas.  On strong east winds, caution is still required as heading off shore (downwind) will seem easy but heading back into this wind will be much more difficult.

Tampa Fishing for Big Summer SnookAnother reason to consider wind direction is when planning on where to fish.  On a strong west wind, fishing outside off the beach is not advisable and fishing the eastern shore of the Inter-Coastal Waterway may not be either.  Getting on the leeward side (east) of the larger barrier islands...Caledesi and Honeymoon...however, may be a great solution as this shoreline on these islands will be protected and, if the wind is west or southwest (even better), the wind will make the high tide higher and allow a longer time to catch redfish in the shallows...which is again a fish that will bite in wind-blown muddy water. Reciprocally, a northeast wind will lessen the tide height.  This might affect certain shallower fishing spots, rendering them unfishable, as not enough water has come in to allow fish to get there.  More importantly, if a boat is up in a canal and needs enough water to cross a shallow flat to go fishing, a northeast wind may make this flat uncrossable until several hours later than it would normally be...impacting the departure time of the fishing trip.

So, several days before the next Tampa Fishing Trip, a local angler should check all of these variables to make sure fishing on the planned day is still viable .  Assuming that the answer is yes, an itinerary should be created the night before as to what locations will be fished, based on weather and tides.  As in any other endeavor, a little planning can result in a much more productive day.



Casting Accuracy - A Key Skill for Catching Redfish

Many young fishermen have started their careers fishing small lakes, ponds and rivers catching sunfish, perch and, on a good day, a nice largemouth bass. As these young anglers grow, they come to realize that catching the best fish, these bigger bass, is tied to their ability to cast.  Certainly, these fish are often caught in open water areas but, just as often, they are along the shoreline, close to weeds, brush or fallen tress. Placing a  cast within inches of the perfect spot can be the "make or break" in getting that big fish to strike.

Redfish fishing tacticsCasting accuracy can also be critically important in targeting redfish in the Tampa / Clearwater area. Redfish, from an availability and sporting perspective actually have a lot of similarities to a largemouth bass.  They are generally aggressive feeders and put up a healthy fight but what makes them most similar is their distribution.  These fish are available in a large number of southern states and, in the waters that they are found, they inhabit an extremely broad range of environments, much like a largemouth bass in a lake.  Tampa / Clearwater fishing charters targeting redfish may fish anywhere from near shore ocean structure, to beaches, to open flats, to islands, to back bayous and rivers, to mangrove shorelines. It is when fishing these inshore locations, mangrove shorelines in particular, where casting accuracy becomes critically important.

Making accurate casts is not simply about developing the physical skill and muscle memory to repeatedly put a bait in the right location.  It actually starts with tackle.  Obviously, no one would use a stout grouper rod with 40 lbs test to try and cast up into the bushes but even when using basically the right tackle, there are many small details that will aid in casting.  Start by rigging a seven and a half foot medium action spinning rod suited for 10 - 20 lbs line. Match it to a 4000 series reel such as a Shimano Stradic 4000.  Next, what line should be used? Consideration should be given to the type of structure around as well as size of fish likely to be encountered. Having considered these factors, determine the lightest line that will work as lighter line will have less resistance and make casting easier. Also, use braided line as the diameter per pound is thinner than monofilament.  It's easier to cast thread than rope...thinner is better. Many Tampa Fishing Guides will use 10 lbs braided line..knowing that this line strength will handle most of the fish encountered. If Mr. 35 inch shows up, it will require angler skill to land the fish, but it is still possible. Regarding the leader, four feet of 30 lbs test is a good choice as abrasion resistance is needed for the fish that may get up into the mangrove roots.

The next decision is terminal tackle. Know that the easiest baits to cast are those with the most weight towards the hook. This being the case, heavy baits such as cut chunks of fish are a great choice..understanding that live bait may, from time to time, need to be used if fish are eating them better. With that said, redfish aren't usually overly selective eaters. Hook size should be determined by bait size..a 2/0 or 3/0 circle hook is usually sufficient. Weighting is really a key ingredient to accurate casting.  If using a cut bait, a split shot should be placed close to the bait.  This is the easiest bait to cast and is the rigging used on most Tampa Fishing Charters for redfish. If using a live bait and using a weight is acceptable, place the bait a foot or two up the line to allow the bait to have some action. Remember though that the further away from the bait the weight is, the harder it is to make an accurate cast. If the best presentation at the time is to have the bait appear most natural, suspending it under a bobber may be required.  Do understand that this will be the hardest bait to cast accurately for distance however.Clearwater Redfish near mangroves

With proper tackle and rigging, the angler has now put himself in the best position to cast accurately. What remains then is the physical action of executing the cast. This is critically important in targeting "shoreline hugging" redfish as these fish often will only bite if baits are placed up into mangrove caves...overhung indentations along the shoreline that may reach back 3 - 4 feet. The question that should be asked before an angler cast into heavy structure is "How will I stop a bad cast?" Many novice anglers think that flipping the bail over will save won't... or pulling back on the rod, even though the bail is still open.  No again.  The trick is to cast and then immediately find the line with the left hand.  As the bait approaches the target area, the line can be "feathered" to slow it down, or simply pinched to stop it.  The best way to find the line immediately after the cast is released is to place the left hand immediately under the base of the rod and in front of the reel as the line will be right there. This technique allows Tampa Fishing Guides to cast with power towards the target, which improves accuracy, but also allows the bait to be stopped in time if the cast is not perfectly accurate.

Like so many other activities, there are many small skill sets that combine to make an individual much better at a given profession. The ability to cast accurately is a must have skill to consistently catch shoreline redfish in the Tampa Area.



It's All About Presentation

Spring Snapper Fishing in TampaThere are times when fish eat with reckless abandon.  The tide, the weather and the bait all come together in a perfect storm of fish feeding activity. Any bait cast out results in a hooked fish. For Tampa Fishing Guides who fish on a regular basis, it's a known fact that this is not the norm, but a beautiful exception. The other extreme exists as well...when all of an experienced anglers efforts result in very few fish.  Most days however, are somewhere in between...and this is where a good angler with good technique experiences greater success. 

Bait presentation, or how a fish sees a given bait in the water, is a critical piece in the puzzle of getting a fish to eat. There are several factors which affect how a bait looks.  In order for a bait to swim freely, it must not be weighted in a manner that causes it to swim unnaturally.  Hook size, line/leader used and weighting all affect this.  Using a small whitebait with a number 2/0 or 3/0 hook may drag the bait downward, making it appear unnatural....where using a 1/0 would not. A moderately interested snook may quickly decide not to eat this bait. Certainly using any kind of weight in this situation would only make matters worse.  Even the pound test and length of the leader are important.  A small bait on a heavy leader will not be able to swim correctly.  A bait on too short a leader will not work as line shy fish may see the braided line moving just a short distance away. These small details can make a big difference in an angler's level of success.

Understand too that a natural presentation may include baits that are right on the bottom so, in some cases, weighting a bait may help simulate a more "natural" presentation. For example, mangrove snapper, a fish commonly targeted when fishing in the Tampa / Clearwater area, are generally very cautious feeders. As a result, they are typically most cooperative when a bait does one of two things. A dead or cut bait either sits on the bottom for a while, so they can inspect it and make sure it doesn't "move" in an unnatural way or it drifts down to the bottom at the exact rate of speed the same bait would drop if there were no hook in it.  To achieve the first presentation, a weight would be used to hold the bait in a natural position.  In the second case, a very small hook and a long, light leader would be used to most accurately simulate a bait with no hook. In this situation a tactic would be employed that is critically important to catching many species of fish. The technique is similar to what would be called mending in fresh water.

Summer Beach Snook FishingAnglers fishing for trout in fresh water rivers are very familiar with this term.  The key to getting a trout to eat a dry fly is to cast the line forward and at such an angle that the fly will drift for a maximum length of time, through the desired area, without the rest of the line dragging the fly.  The anglers may make small rolling adjustments, rolling the line upriver (or mending the line), to aid in the process of the fly showing no drag.   Any trout that is eyeballing this fly, will immediately drop off the second this fly starts dragging, as that is not how an insect on the surface would behave. 

So, going back to the second presentation discussed above for snapper, when a live, crippled or cut chunk of bait is dropped for a mangrove snapper, line must be removed from the reel in a way that does, in no way, effect the rate of decent of the bait. This bait should fall exactly as this same piece of bait would fall with no hook in it...with no stops or hesitation. When the angler can duplicate the natural decent rate, many more fish will be caught.

When live baiting for species such as snook, the desire is to have the bait swim as if it were unencumbered by a hook.  The first order of business is using the proper tackle as discussed earlier...the right hook, line/leader (lbs. test and length) and weighting. Feeding out line plays a critical role here as well. First, a properly rigged, large whitebait is cast into the area believed to be holding snook. Immediately after casting, all slack from the cast is removed from the line so that the angler has good awareness as to the bait's location. The bail is then opened. Snook will often pursue a bait, toy with it and not eat it, or strike and miss it. In all of these scenarios, the snook will expect the bait to behave in a certain way. The expectation is that the bait will run for it's life, thus the open bail allows the angler to give the the bait the necessary slack when it wants to move. If this is not done, when the bait goes to run it will be "close lined" or stopped unnaturally, and the pursuing snook will likely turn off of the bait, knowing that something is wrong.  So having the ability to manage line in a way that makes the bait behave most realistically will always produce more strikes.

In most cases, when a novice angler is fishing next to an experienced one, the difference in fish count is due to the tackle used and the presentation skills of both anglers. Paying attention to these small details can yield big results.



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