Monday, February 9, 2015

Surf Fishing Southwest Florida


Fish are exothermic species, meaning cold blooded.  When you've lived most of your life surf fishing water that's 45-75 degrees in the Mid-Atlantic region, you get used to a certain regularity of action.  That's a nice way of saying "sitting still for hours and waiting for one giant fish to wake up, get motivated, and bite."   Sometimes, action on smaller fish like croaker, spot, and undersized flounder can make up for the lack of bites on bigger fish like drum, sharks, and striped bass.  That minor good mojo can just as easily be broken by such phenomena as "catching three 14 inch sharks on three consecutive casts," and "Look, Giant Stingray...incoming!"


Everything in the water is different in Southwest Florida.  "Bad days" here can rival "pretty good days" in the Mid-Atlantic.   The "worst days" end up with catches of delicious permit, sheepshead, and flounder.  Sounds horrible, doesn't it?    The best spots on islands like Boca Grande are relatively packed with anglers on the good days (favorable moon, wind, and tide), but my experience has been that people are pretty pleasant, unlike the attitude of Mid-Atlantic surf anglers during striped bass runs.  Here are some major differences between surf fishing islands like Boca Grande / Gasparilla and what you're accustomed to in the Mid-Atlantic or chilly North Atlantic.

1)  Your luck.  "Can't kill 'em from the couch!" is an especially apt motto for really any hunting, fishing, birdwatching, kayaking, or anything outdoors in Florida.   If you're prepared for the conditions (and insects), you're probably in for a pretty great time.  For surf fishing, this means you're probably going to catch fish.  Choose a decent spot at a decent time of day/tide, and based on my experience, your odds of getting completely skunked are almost zero.   In my limited time surf fishing the outer islands, I rarely ever set my rod down.   I had bites (and much stolen bait) on nearly every cast on some days.  Were they 54" redfish? No, but it beats sitting in the sand all day with no bites, waiting for that 54" redfish.

2) Casting distance.  If you're like most North Atlantic anglers (i.e. my father), you have developed a highly skilled technical "running down the beach and hurling a 6oz pyramid weight into the sea towards oceangoing vessels" approach to surf casting.    Of course, this is done to overcoming the multiple sandbars and rolling waves up to 100 yards out to sea.  And since Southwest Florida is full of transplants from the Northeast, guess what, they brought that technique with them, which is still as funny to watch as it was when I was 10 years old.

However, the offshore habitat in Southwest Florida is quite different.   Due to very different wave and tide dynamics compared to the Atlantic Coast, many beaches feature underwater grasses, ridges and troughs just yards offshore.   And instead of running in and out of the surf, as fish do in the Northeast, the fish run longshore in these troughs.   Boca Grande's trough is about 10 yards wide, and is 20-30 yards offshore.  No need for the acrobatic "into orbit" cast or the 12' surf rod, huh?  In fact, my most fun surf fishing was done with much smaller gear, rigged for big fish (discussed below).  There's no need to sling your bait out 200 yards into a rip tide.....the big fish are less than 50 yards from shore.

3)  Structure.  There is very little structure nearshore on the Gulf.   There are various pilings, piers, and the odd navigation channel, but as I mentioned above, the majority of the surf fishing is focused on the deepwater trough just a few yards offshore.  There are relatively few living shorelines, breakwaters, and other structures around, and in fact, destructive bulkheads are still legal and being installed on a daily basis.  So unless that changes culturally or legally, your structure fishing is primarily going to be from a boat, not the shore.  It's also worth noting that because of the (usually) calm surf, boaters have no qualms with coming shallow and fishing structure within 20 yards of the beach.  So you'll have competition and a disadvantage.

4) Live bait.   I'm sorry to say this, but due to the average age of many of these island communities (62-69 generally), live bait rules in Southwest Florida.   Fiddler crabs, live shrimp, dead shrimp, and all varieties of small mullet and whitefish, live or cut, serve as very handy, stinky, and effective baits.   During my recent trip, I indulged, using both live and dead shrimp.  I caught fish readily on both.  The worst performance was using live shrimp that had died in the bait bucket...the pre-packaged "stinky dead shrimp" performed far better.

5)  Lures.  Southwest Florida is the kind of place where you could rig a hook to a child's action figure or lego mini-figure and eventually catch a fish.  And by all means, knock yourself out.  However, five types of lures will serve you best in Southwest Florida, all up for further discussion in a future blog post here.   All five are reasonable calls for surf fishing in Southwest Florida and places like Boca Grande, though each requires a slightly different technique, obviously.   1) soft shrimp lures in white or brown, 2) paddle-tail lures in chartreuse or brown with a chartreuse tail, 3) gold, white or silver pin minnow lures (2" - 8"), 4) mirror-type suspending/topwater baitfish lures, 5) fat topwater lures in white, black, or silver.

6) Circle hooks.   I don't enjoy using circle hooks, but I enjoy releasing dying, gut-hooked fish even less.  Over the last five years, I've gradually increased my usage of circle hooks for this reason.   It's unquestionably the right thing for the resource.  Florida is ahead of most of the rest of the country in the adoption of circle hook requirements - specifically in-line circle hooks - for certain zones and certain species.   Please, please, please read the regulation book before your trip to make sure that when you decide to target a species that requires inline circle hooks, that you actually have a packet of them in your tackle bag.   On my recent trip, using circle hooks in the surf saved several sharks that otherwise would have ingested an entire J-hook/Aberdeen.  A good look into different circle hook types for Florida reef species can be found in this blog post by Mike Wilson. 

7)  Rigging.  I haven't found a species of saltwater fish in Florida that lacks massive teeth.  Do yourself a favor and rig up with 20lb braided line and a 20-50lb mono leader.   For live bait, a Carolina rig works just fine, and I highly recommend it for these waters with a 1.5 - 3oz weight, no more.  I've seen anglers using the standard east coast 2-hook bottom rig, which is fine but with clear water and actively feeding fish, I'm not sure that two baits are totally necessary. And of course....the tangles.

8) Rod and reel.  I had not bought a new surf rod since the 1990s, so for my recent trip, I hauled a new 10' Tsunami Airwave surf rod and a new Penn Battle 5000 all the way to Florida with me.   In fact, I brought 6 rods and 7 reels with me, which is in addition to the 6-7 rod and reel combos in storage at my in-laws' place in Charlotte Harbor.   So out of all of those rods (Tsunami, Penn, St. Croix, others) and all those reels (Penn, Shimano, Pflueger), the combo I used most for surf fishing was a 8'0" Shimano Terramar Rod ($110, Bass Pro) w/ Shimano Symetre Reel ($100, Bass Pro).  I believe a fishing guide (or salesman) had recommended the custom combo to my father in law.  It was a good recommendation.

This drive to the beach sucks!
9) The beauty.  Aside from the warm water, warm air, and readily biting fish, the most amazing thing about surf fishing in Southwest Florida is the beauty.  I mean, check out this horrible drive to the beach to surf fish! In my case, I definitely felt better about not being able to afford a Bahamas or Caribbean trip because Florida was cheaper, easier, and almost as beautiful as the amazing, world-class destinations we all read about in other countries.  And truth be told, Southwest Florida can still be a world-class fishing destination, if the sportfishing community, commercial watermen, and government regulators can find a way to sustain the populations.



Grass beds like this one in Boca Grande may die
when the watershed upriver hits 10% pavement coverage.
It's at 4% and rising. 
There's a warning in there as well - while Florida holds more saltwater fishing world records than any other country or American state, that list is shrinking.  Only two world record fish have been caught in Florida within the last 20 years, and none have been caught in Florida in the last 17 years.  Southwest Florida in general, and Boca Grande in particular, are spectacular destinations with spectacular fishing.   Whether the angling community and the state and federal regulators can figure out a way to sustain this high quality resource is still to be determined.   For the meantime, the resource as a whole is highly variable but not yet in significant decline.  If you have the opportunity to visit and to toss a line out in the Gulf, I highly recommend it.

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