by Captain Tim “SGT” Peterson
With the arrival of the shrimp boats, comes the end of winter on the gulf coast. Like everyone knows, “Shrimping’ ain’t easy”, but it’s a sign of dynamic of our fishery on the Forgotten Coast. Sportfishing is all about the tug, but not so long ago it was all about feeding your community. In the last 100 years, we went from the old man in the yellow rain gear in his small row boat, to military grade electronics. We once relied on nature to predict where the fish were located and when they would be there.
While fishermen are still superstitious, we have technology that tells us what we are thinking is correct, or so we think. We drive on to find that the fish are there, but sometimes not biting. How could we be wrong with all of this data? Migratory fish may not be in high numbers this time of year, but their numbers may start to increase by the end of the month. With your 21st century technology like radar, satellite weather, bottom finders, water temperature readings and even side finders, we have a good chance of finding them. Now we just need to make them strike!
An anglers best bet to catch fish offshore in March is to go for Mangrove Snapper, Key West Grunts, Red Snapper and Gag Grouper just off shore. They can be caught throughout the water column – usually Five to ten miles off shore to be exact. Cooler water temperatures closer to shore make it easy to catch as many Red Snapper as you want this time of year. Gag and some Red Grouper are nearby on wrecks, ledges, or reefs.
Many Shrimpers will be in town when the first full moon is here around the end of the month. Captains have all been saying that this is a weird year as far as fishing goes as a result of Hurricane Michael. In January, the larger grouper seems to have been pushed on into deeper water than usual 40-70 miles out from our ports.
Bottom fishing is not for the lazy. If done right, doubles and triple hook ups are common.
If you don’t get grouper right when you hit the bottom, you need to move a bit to catch them. Snapper can be caught drift fishing around structure or between two larger structure areas, but to catch quality Gag Grouper, you need to be directly over the spot. If you are more than 10ft off, you will only catch grunts and trigger fish all day. Divers see quality grouper living inside chicken coups, hiding out like ninja fish or scuba chameleons.
Rigging - A Carolina rig with a 6 oz lead, 80 Braided line or 100lb mono, a 130lb swivel, large plastic bead (to protect knot from weight) and a 4-6 ft 80 fluorocarbon leader, with a 6/0 to 8/0 red hook is my set up. You risk losing a big fish on rocks, coral, or wrecks if you use cheap tackle. Some use a 5000-8500 rod and reel spin fishing combo offshore, but I prefer the good old-school Penn 4/0 Senator rod and reel combo for bottom fishing. We have caught 13 ft Tiger and Bull Sharks with them. There are many fancier options, but I am old fashioned…it’s what my elders used. You will need about 20 pounds of drag to turn the head on a Grouper diving for its life into sharp coral.
Popular baits include live Pinfish along with fresh flash frozen Lys (Herring), Squid, and Northern Mackerel. Biggest bait gets the biggest fish. The water clarity is a huge factor in getting away with using live vs frozen bait. Because of the rivers, the water clarity can go from minestrone soup, to clear, varying throughout the water column. Don’t be stingy, put plenty of bait on your hooks. People ask me why I often use large hooks. It’s so I can put a ton of bait on the hook. You also have better chance of boating a toothy critter.
I was never a fan of using frozen bait, that is until an old timer with less hair than Michael Jordan told me he caught most of his fish with it. If I have learned anything in my years of mistakes, it’s that it’s best to listen to the old timers who have already paid the price of learning these lessons. Fresh flash frozen bait is key. If you fish with bait that is small, or cut it in half, you will not catch quality fish. Score your bait (without blood is key) to let off more scent. Go big or go home for big fish! With that said, I am sticking with my elders’ way of doing things, except for all my fancy electronics. I won’t leave the dock without them.
Until next month, practice your Fish Jitsu.
Captain Tim Peterson
Captain ‘SGT’ Peterson’s - “More than just fishing”