Inshore Structure Fishing
My angler stood motionless, heeding my advice and keeping the rod tip still as the fish nibbled at the bait.
“Wait until the fish takes it,” I coached. “It may hit it several more times. If you pull the bait away, you won’t catch it”.
Then the tip slowly bent down and my client reeled quickly while raising the rod up high. The surprised fish tried to get back under the dock, but was unable to reach the safety of the barnacle encrusted pilings. After a brief tug of war, a nice sheepshead came alongside the boat.
Fish love structure, it is an undeniable fact. It provides cover and attracts forage. All species of fish can be taken around structure, but the primary targets will be sheepshead, snapper, flounder, gag grouper, redfish, snook, jack crevelle, and black drum. Sheepshead are very reliable in winter and early spring and they will often times bite when the water is cold and dirty and other species shut down. Mangrove snapper school up on the channel edges and bridges in the summer time. For whatever reason, 2011 was a very good year for flounder and hopefully that trend will continue. Snook, reds, and jacks are available all year.
Structure takes many forms; bridges, docks, seawalls, rip-rap, rock piles, artificial reefs, oyster bars, and holes. Both Big Sarasota Pass and New Pass are filled with fish-holding structure as are most of the passes and inlets in Florida. Docks and oyster bars are abundant in our area, along with several bridges. The north end of Siesta Key in particular is a terrific spot with deep water and miles of rip-rap, docks, and the Siesta Drive Bridge. The following breaks down the two different techniques for fishing deep water and shallow water structure.
Deep Water Structure:
In most instances, a vertical presentation is the most effective way to target fish in deeper water. A knocker rig works very well in this presentation. It is simply a sliding sinker that rests up against the hook. This results in the bait resting right on the bottom and allows a fish to move off with the bait without detecting any weight. A two foot piece of heavier leader helps prevent cut-offs on the sharp rocks. The baited hook is lowered and allowed to lie on the bottom with a taught line. As with all structure fishing, use as little weight as possible, just enough to hold the bottom. The best time to fish deeper areas is during periods of slow tidal movement as a lot of current makes fishing too difficult.
Shallow Water Structure:
Docks and bridge pilings in four to twelve feet of water make up the majority of structure in Sarasota waters. Anchoring several boat lengths up current and tossing the bait back towards the structure is the best approach when fishing these spots. Whenever possible, use a minimal rig consisting of a two foot piece of leader, a hook, and a split shot. If heavy current exists, use the “knocker rig” with a light weight. When the water in the passes is clean, docks adjacent to the passes will be productive. After a front moves through, the passes will be full of cold, dirty water. The area to the south is more protected and often times the docks and canals here will offer better fishing as most species prefer cleaner water.
Do not overlook oyster bars as structure! Bars are plentiful from CB’s Saltwater Outfitters at Stickney Pt. south to Blackburn Pt. Any bar that has a drop off into three or four feet of water may hold snook, reds, sheepshead, jack crevelle, and other species. Quietly approach the bar and anchor as far away as possible to avoid spooking fish. Free lining a live shrimp or pilchard with no weight is the most productive technique when fishing shallow bars. A low, incoming tide is normally the best time to target these fish-holding structures. Fish will stage in the deeper water waiting until the tide floods and they can get up on top of the bar. Once that occurs, they scatter out and are more difficult to locate.
The coldest weather will send fish scampering into creeks and canals. The water will be warmer, which also attracts bait fish. Deep holes will hold fish, especially on the low tide stages. Holes and changes in depths are often overlooked by other anglers. Treat these spots just like and other structure, anchor up-current and let the bait flow back naturally either free-lined or with a split shot.
For the most part, this is a natural bait situation. While artificial lures can be very effective, particularly around docks, the focus will be on anchoring and fishing with natural baits, which in most cases means live shrimp. Live shrimp are the most popular bait when fishing structure in the cooler months. They are readily available, easy to keep alive, and are effective on a variety of species. Hook the shrimp just under the horn, allowing it to swim freely. If fish are nibbling around the hook, thread the shrimp onto the hook from the tail. Frozen shrimp are a suitable replacement if live shrimp are unavailable. Sand fleas and fiddler crabs are both effective live baits, but anglers will have to catch their own. Frozen baits are usually available at local bait shops. Squid and other frozen cut bait can be used successfully, especially for flounder and snapper.
A 7 foot spinning outfit spooled with twelve to fifteen pound line is ideal for this type of fishing. The rod needs to be stout enough to pull a decent fish away from cover, yet light enough to cast a small bait and detect subtle strikes. A shock leader should be used. The water clarity will determine what size to use; thirty pound test leader is a good all-around choice. Hooks come in a variety of sizes and styles. Match the size of the hook to the baits that are being used. A #1 short shank hook will work well in most circumstances. Circle hooks are quite popular with many anglers and vastly reduce the number of fish that are hooked deep. Another popular option is a plain jig head, which basically is a hook and weight all in one package.
As the water temperature approaches seventy degrees, live bait fish become extremely effective baits. Pinfish, grunts, and pilchards will fool snook, reds, flounder, and mangrove snapper. Pinfish and grunts can be purchased, shiners (pilchards, threadfins, etc.) will need to be cast netted by the angler. Bait schools are seen and cast over, or a mixture of jack mackerel and wheat bread can be used to lure the baitfish within range. A large livewell is required to keep these baits alive. Again, match the hook size to the baits, a larger 2/0 hook may be required.
One common mistake many anglers make is moving the bait too much, especially when the water is cooler. Allow the bait to sit still and when a fish begins to nibble, do not move the bait at all, wait until a good pull is felt, then raise the rod tip and reel. This works well with both circle hooks and “J” hooks. The judicious use of chum can spell the difference between a successful outing and a slow one, particularly when the water is cold or dirty. A couple of shrimp diced into small bits will often stimulate the fish, but too much chum will fill them up. Also, do not chum in heavy current, doing so will have the opposite effect, pulling fish away from the spot instead of attracting them.
One morning in early spring I was out on a charter with a family. We were targeting sheepshead under the docks that surround Bird Key. Michelle, a teenage angler from New York, cast her shrimp out and within several seconds her rod bowed deeply and the drag screamed as lined peeled off of the reel. She was almost pulled out of the boat! I quickly came to her aid, helping her pull the fish away from the dock. Miraculously, we were able to stop the fish just short of the pilings. Several more runs ensued, testing both the light ten pound tackle and the angler’s skill. We prevailed this time, landing a 22” gag grouper. You never know what surprise await in the structures of Sarasota!