Inshore Fishing Guide
Tampa bay is centrally located on the west side of Florida, and is the largest open-water estuary in the state. It extends over 400 square miles, and forms coast lines that border 3 counties, with an average depth of 12 feet.
Tampa Bay has been classified as an “Estuary of National Significance” by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and has two National Parks located near the mouth of the Bay. It has over 200 species of fish that call Tampa Bay home which gives us plenty of opportunity, year-round, to get out and fish! Light tackle fishing on our flats, coastal waterways, and beaches opens up so many opportunities. Whether the fish are pressured and demand a real offering, the conditions don’t allow us to do what we had planned out, or we want to put some fish in the cooler for dinner, our charter is directly catered to it! Our state has a year round fishery, and there is always something to target inshore in and around Tampa Bay.
The winter months are considered December-early March where the water temperatures generally stay below the 70 degree mark, and our targeted species are Redfish and Speckled Sea Trout. The cooler temps prevent algae blooms and do a great job of keeping our water crystal clear which makes for some excellent sight fishing either with artificial lures or live bait. Since the water is cleaner and there isn’t a presence of snook, dropping our leader size down to a 15 pound test definitely provides us with a little advantage. Their metabolism is a slightly slower being cold-blooded, and the size of our offering is generally smaller this time of year. During these months, we experience huge low tides in the morning on, and around the new and full moons. These big low tides have the Redfish and Speckled Sea Trout pushed out off the shorelines in anticipation of the incoming water. When timed with an incoming tide, it can provide some epic sight fishing for tailing fish and big trout as they feed with the rising water.
Redfish are dialed in on Mud Crabs, Gulf Shrimp, Mantis Shrimp, and Lug Worms with the occasional Pinfish or Mullet when the opportunity is right, but the first three are the ones to imitate. Our bay has so many different types of bottom, which dictates what artificial will be the best, whether it’s a mud, sand, or grass bottom. Weedless Jerkbaits, Paddle Tail Jigs, and Bucktails are the most effective for me during the cooler months, and the color selection should always be aimed to match the color of the bottom. Everything that lives in the mud, sand, or grass is designed to be camouflaged to hide from their predators. Topwater walk-the-dog style artificial hard baits work really well at sunrise, or completely overcast days, but if the brand, make, or model of the artificial has a smaller size (might be label Jr. or Mini), choose it. Live bait options would consist of the shrimp caught off our gulf coast which can be found at most bait and tackle locations.
It should be free-lined if possible with a little small split shot if a long cast is needed, but ultimately aiming at keeping the shrimp looking as natural (unrestricted) as possible. One method that works extremely well for Redfish because of their excellent sense of smell is called dead-sticking. It involves catching live bait with a cast nest or sabiki and it doesn’t matter if it’s Pinfish, Mullet, or Ladyfish. All three work really well, but have to be alive before they make it on the hook. Chunks of FRESH dead bait placed in the path of Redfish as they transition on and off a flat, under a mangrove line or dock, or off the edge of a flat on a low tide, is a fool proof way to catch fish every time.
Large concentrations of Speckled Sea Trout can be found on hard bottoms all around the intracoastal and creek/river systems inside of Tampa Bay, in preparation for their spawn in the Spring. They’re suckers for Jerkbaits more than ever this time of year, without the presence of ballyhoo and sardines like the spring-fall. A 1/8-1/4 oz size jig depending on the water depth and bottom is more than sufficient for almost all situations when targeting Speckled Trout. Popping corks with live or artificial shrimp are extremely effective, but the distance between the bait and cork is critical. We want the bait suspended about a foot off the bottom to keep it in the strike zone. Speckled Sea Trout can’t resist topwater baits when they’re on the flats, and they’ll eat the same style topwater’s used for Redfish. A lot of the larger fish are pushed up shallower than normal, and mix in with the Mullet schools hoping their prey might get spooked by the abundance of fish. Larger weedless Jerkbaits fished around the Mullet schools produce some really big fish. They’re a little more lethargic than the smaller ones, so fishing your bait slow is imperative. If sardines are available, it’s a go-to for winter trout fishing but otherwise silver dollar sized Pinfish under a cork, or live shrimp with a split shot is phenomenal.
Spring is short-lived here in the Tampa Bay area, and it seems to last from March-April but can begin as early as February. With the abundance of bait, the water temperature climbing, and our days getting longer, everything seems like it comes out of the wood work.
Tarpon, Snook, Redfish, Trout, Spanish Mackerel, King Fish, Cobia, Triple tail, Sharks and more join the action as some of them prepare to spawn by feeding heavily and others migrate up the coast with the rising temps.
Snook are such a prized gamefish in the area not only because of their strikes, long runs, and jumps, but also due to the fact that they aren’t always easy to catch. Snook are a tropical species that love water temperatures about 70 degrees fahrenheit, but start to look for waters to cool off when the water exceeds 90 degrees. Because they have a comfortability zone, anglers have to look for them in different locations depending on the time of year! In the spring, after they’ve been cooped up in their winter haunts, so all they want to do is feed, and with scaled sardines being present, it’s their favorite. Anglers using 8-15 pound class medium action rods with a 2500-3000 size reel, is perfect for Snook fishing whether we’re live bait fishing or throwing an artificial. Leader set ups are dictated by the water clarity, the size of the bait, and where we are are targeting Snook, but on average are in between 20-30 pound fluorocarbon. A 7′ 6″ – 8′ rod helps deliver a free lined white bait a good distance when matched with a 15-20 pound braided fishing line, and can make all the difference when trying to reach sensitive fish. Artificial baits consist of Jerkbaits (weighted or unweighted), suspended twitch baits, and topwaters early in the morning or afternoon. Typically, the afternoon bite is better for Snook at the beginning of Spring when the water has had time to warm up on the flats, creeks, rivers, etc. Timed with an outgoing tide, this is arguably the best time to target Snook.
Redfish have got the feed bags big time in the spring and are still out on the open flats in the middle of the day and aren’t rushing to the mangroves on higher tides to seek shade like they do in the Summer months. We are still experiencing the huge low tides in the morning, but since the temperature is on the climb, their metabolism gets the best of them, eating almost everything in sight.
Now that there is an abundance of bait, using sardines will work well, but it’s hard to beat an artificial presented correctly when sight fishing. Most fish are in the slot (18-27″) with some fish over 30 inches are not uncommon. Crustacean colors plastics (weighted or unweighted), Bucktail Jigs, Gold Spoons, and topwater baits work great during the spring time but because the water is still really clean, I’d advise fishing the smaller size to entice the bite.
Speckled Sea Trout will begin their spawn in the Spring as they have concentrated in large groups over hard bottom in the winter before making this happen. With scaled sardines being available, it’s not uncommon to have a 100+ fish day. Most of the fish that are ready for spawn are going to be in the slot or over (15-20″) and will be full of roe. There will still be some larger fish up shallow on the cooler days of spring but expect them to look for deeper water when the temperature climbs above 70 degrees. They start to look for deeper grass flats that receive a lot of tidal flow or just inside the pass/bridges. Typically, if we’re fishing under 2 feet of water, a 1/8 oz jig will suffice, but any deeper and it’s necessary to go to a 1/4 oz. or heavier depending on the strength of the tide. Fish on the flats will prefer a suspended jerkbait or topwater bait on cloudy days, or around sunrise/sunset.
Tarpon start to make a showing as the water climbs above 72 degrees inside of Tampa Bay, and some fish work there way in from offshore or from our river systems. They can be found in areas where there are large concentrations of food, where they’ll gorge and stage before they begin their migration in May. Targeting them at night is our best option for multiple hook-ups and baits like the D.O.A. Bait buster or the Hogy Original 10″ work phenomenal, but can require a little tweaking with the terminal tackle to increase hook-ups.
There is enough water for them to get there, and only really put the feed bags on and tail in the evenings when the low incoming tide is timed with the sunset. The best way to catch a lot of fish this time of year, is to dead-stick a Ladyfish chunk on the mangrove points that stick out off the shoreline, and setting up so the smell from the chunk is moving down the shoreline and away from your position. Artificial’s for sight fishing would need to be weedless, because the grass is incredibly long and typically, there is a lot of it on the surface as well in the hot months. Weedless spoons and heavy weighted weedless soft Jerkbaits are some of my favorite, because you can cover a ton of water and still effectively sight fish with them when the opportunity presents itself
There is nothing like coming to Florida and catching a shark, but they aren’t just a crazy blood thirsty fish that eats anything! They are finely tuned as to what they do, and can be quite difficult when we want to target them. Sharks not only have a great sense of smell, but their ability to feel is outstanding too. We all know they have teeth, so we have to use a wire leader. That way they don’t cut us off. The kind of wire we use can make a difference. Single strand wire and multi strand wire are what’s on the market today, and they both have their place.
But for our application, single strand has less of a profile in the water which helps get more bites when targeting sharks. Another trick is freshly caught bait, because they do know the difference between the stuff that’s been dead for days, weeks, and sometimes months. Mullet, Ladyfish, Mackerel, and Bluefish all work phenomenal, because they naturally have more oil in them. The hook size should also be matched to the size of the bait being used. Location, and the direction of the tide is without a doubt, the most important variable of the entire equation because we want the scent from our chum and bait being carried into an area we know or suspect there to be sharks, but it always needs to be deeper water.
Fall is short lived here in the state and we don’t really experience a dramatic weather change until November, but the queue is really the shortening of our days. With less light, the water temperatures do start to fall slightly and our tropical species know it’s time to transition. Others know it’s time to spawn. October-November can provide some of the best fishing year round for Snook and Redfish.
Snook will have moved off their summer time grounds and transitioned closer to where they’ll spend their winter. They will be feeding with authority the next couple months. Large concentrations of fish will be at the mouths of the creeks and rivers along with a ton of fish on open flats, just adjacent to deeper water. Here is where they’ll be able to seek warmer water as the cold fronts begin. Scaled Sardines are the bait of choice, and it’s not uncommon to have a 50+ fish day. Topwaters like the Rapala Skitterwalk or Heddon Spook work great at sunrise/sunset or on all overcast days. A Mirrolure Mirrodine in the larger size will get a ton of attention. Tidal flow is imperative for Snook fishing, and they love to set up on points where the water has to “wrap” which can create a “riffle” or look like the water is disturbed. Butt in fact, it’s the water being sped up, and it acts like a conveyer belt with food being delivered non-stop.
Redfish are in huge groups and spawn in October, so look for the birds on the flats that often times give up their location. Most of the time during winter, they’re mixed in with Jack Crevalle which are destroying everything and stimulates a feeding frenzy or blitz. Another giveaway would be the size of the wake, or the amount of water the school of fish is pushing as they move on and off the flat. There could potentially be a bird flying over causing them to move, but either way, the approach is everything. It’s so easy to get excited and push in too quickly which could result in a blown or spooked school. There are a lot of eyes, and lateral lines in the school that could detect anything out of the norm. So figure out the direction they’re moving/setup makes all the difference, along with a quiet stalk. Low tides are easier to locate their position, as they don’t have the whole flat to roam and are confined to a smaller section. Any artificial bait that imitates a baitfish that can be thrown a long distance will suffice, because the competitive nature of a group comes out when food is presented. Look for them to return to their normal behavior in November after they spawn.
The ever rotating weather patterns and changing of seasons ultimately dictates what we can target on our flats of Tampa Bay, and how we are going to do it. We don’t always have perfect conditions or the fish can be spooky enough to force us to change our technique, method, and approach, but the best part is we have an outstanding year round fishery!
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