What's hot: Just before Gustav disrupted our weather, the mangrove snapper bite was outstanding along the ships channel in Tampa Bay. On our last couple of trips, we caught more than 50 along with a couple of keeper grouper and a bunch that were too short to keep. Whitebait and juvenile sardines offered on 20-pound test tackle, a 1/0 hook, a 2-ounce egg sinker and 30-pound test leader did the trick. Heavier stuff is required for larger grouper, and gathering some pinfish before you go is worth your while.
Tidal flow didn't seem to make a lot of difference as long as it was moving. On one trip we wrecked them on the incoming; on the next it was equally productive on the outgoing. There are many areas of hard, rocky bottom along the stretch of ships channel. Sometimes a large school of mangos settles in for a couple of weeks or more. More often, however, they tend to roam the channel. On a recent trip we went from catching a handful to a cooler full by moving down the channel a couple of miles.
Finding bait: Each passing storm tends to scatter bait schools. It takes only a couple of days of better weather for them to bunch back up and return to their dependable haunts. On Labor Day, I was surprised to observe as much bait as I've seen at the Bay Pier on Fort De Soto.
Jay Mastry charters Jaybird out of St. Petersburg. Call (727) 321-2142.