Fishing conditions have been rough along our coast for the past week. Back-to-back cold fronts have decreased our chances to effectively fish offshore in even somewhat comfortable conditions. But when conditions have allowed us to get out, we have been able to experience great bites.
The gag grouper closure (Feb. 1 through March 31) has required us to change tactics; grouper and America red snapper will be catch-and-release only. The offshore choices this month to target are amberjack, blackfin tuna, triggerfish, white grunts and mangrove snapper.
To increase chances for snapper, triggerfish, and grunts, downsize the tackle and use small live pinfish and small pieces of frozen sardines. Blackfin tuna and amberjack can be targeted over the same locations in 120 feet of water and deeper. Strong tides will help get the tuna to the transom of the boat after putting out a big chum slick. Most of the amberjack structures hold mangrove snapper. A frozen chum bag just off the bottom will attract snapper. Use 30-pound class tackle with just enough weight to get the baits to the bottom.
This time of year it is normal to catch snapper up to 8 pounds. Use small live pinfish with a 2/0 circle hook. Suspend the bait 10 feet off the bottom and deploy a chum bag just off the bottom to get the snapper feeding. Grouper will also be caught doing this; however, the snapper should dominate the bite.
Live bait is important, so always make sure to leave the dock with a few dozen. We use small live pinfish traps.
The cost is worth the effort. Place the traps anywhere along the dock or Intracoastal Waterway and bait them with a dead sardine and reap the benefit of up to 100 baits the next day. At $7 a dozen for pinfish, one trap set recovers the investment in the trap.
The best bet for blackfin tuna is to set up over a spring and start a chum slick. It takes persistence and at least a few hours of chunking and chumming to attract the tuna. Live Spanish sardines work best on flat lines. When the blackfin tuna arrive, keep chumming to keep the action going.
Skyway: The North Skyway Fishing Pier has reported slow fishing; however the bright spots have been some large speckled trout. The silver trout and sheepshead are due to take over the nearshore action this week if history repeats itself. Most of the best pier fishing success this time of year will be at night.
Inshore: Flats fishing has been a challenge, but fishing near Clearwater Harbor in the drop-offs has been producing large speckled trout. The bait of choice has been live shrimp or artificial shad-colored rubber jigs — purple, bone and diamond — with quarter-ounce weights. Speckled trout 18 to 24 inches are being caught near the spoil islands using live black mud crabs. According to Capt. Craig Lahr, speckled trout up to 34 inches are being caught around the St. John's spoil island, north of Dunedin.
Larry "Huffy'' Hoffman charters out of John's Pass, Treasure Island. Call (727) 709-9396 or e-mail him at huffyl @tampabay.rr.com.