The cold fronts will approach our area with regularity from now on. Each one will drop the water temperature until it gets to the point where the baitfish and pelagics will leave us for warmer water. So the grouper fishing will get better, as most of their food will have left, and they will be less wary and more willing to attack baits.
Before the last cold front moved in, the fishing was as good as it gets. The kingfish and Spanish mackerel were caught by anglers willing to search and try different methods until the right combination was found.
For us, the nearshore artificial reefs, such as the Madeira Beach and Treasure Island reefs, appeared to be devoid of both baitfish and our targeted species. The South County reef held some bait, as evidenced by the fish finder, and both live baits and spoons worked well on the "Tug Orange" spot because the bait could be seen suspended in the entire water column. Moving south to the end of the Egmont shipping channel, a large mass of fish and bait could be seen on the bottom machine hugging bottom. Switching to No. 2 planers to get the baits near the fish quickly produced multiple hookups and kingfish limits (two per person, 24-inch fork length).
Gag and red grouper, white grunts and mangrove snapper also fed heavily in the 40- to 50-foot depths. Gag grouper activity began in as shallow as 22 feet, but better catches of both red and gags were the norm at deeper depths. Keeper red grouper are usually not found in numbers in the shallower depths, but they seem to have joined the gags in their annual fall migration. The key to catching them is to target structure, either ledges or rocky outcroppings that harbor baitfish. The grouper are feeding heavily in anticipation of the lean winter months. Start with frozen squid and sardines to get the feeding started, then switch to live pinfish, squirrelfish, or sardines once the activity slows down.
Large schools of amberjack in the 24- to 26-inch range became a nuisance several times, gobbling up every bait intended for the bottom fish. Greater amberjack have to be 30 inches fork length with a bag limit of one per person. Some keeper amberjack have been caught on wrecks, the Pipeline and large ledges in water as shallow as 70 feet. Blue runners, large pinfish and other large baits at the right depth in the water column will produce back-breaking action. A less frequently employed, but sometimes effective, method is to troll large deep-diving plugs or large jig heads with curly tails over the same spots that are targeted with live bait.
Dave Zalewski charters the Lucky Too out of Madeira Beach. Call (727) 397-8815.