What's hot: Mackerel are practically everywhere. We've caught them from the Sunshine Skyway bridge to well inside Tampa Bay. They are within 2 miles of shore from Clearwater to Anna Maria Island, and we ran into some in the 3- to 5-pound range Thursday about 10 miles off Pass-a-Grille in 42 feet of water. Though we have caught only a single kingfish so far this fall and it's too early to target them, we're only a cold front or two from increased activity.
Big numbers of mangrove snapper that we've chummed to the surface in 40 to 48 feet of water southwest of St. Pete Beach have become a bit more wary in the particularly clear water. Mangrove snapper have keen eyesight, and if you can see them, they can likely see you. Minimizing tackle may be required to trick them into eating. Eliminate the swivel, use 10-pound-test fluorocarbon if necessary, use a No. 1 hook or smaller, and at times a small chunk of bait will work better than a whole one.
Gathering bait: Whitebait have been abundant and easy to cast-net on flats and along the gulf beaches. Many can be seen "raining" on the surface. If they are not, diving birds will help give them away. Gather some live pinfish also. We've managed a handful of keeper grouper on each of our last several trips. With the water still warm, grouper have preferred the big live baits over frozen sardines or any dead stuff.
Tips: A variety of tackle is recommended. You'll want light spinning gear for the mackerel and mangrove snapper on the surface. About 20-pound tackle works well for snapper on the bottom, juvenile grouper, grunts and occasional flounder that are among the bycatch. In the clear water, we're getting more bites on stout grouper rods, using 30-pound line and 50-pound fluorocarbon leader over anything heavier.
Jay Mastry charters Jaybird out of St. Petersburg. Call (727) 321-2142.