This is the time of year where one can sweat profusely well before daybreak and water bottles outnumber fishing lures. Thunderstorms are a delight just because the rush of cool air they bring is so nice. This is a typical summer day on the North Suncoast, but if you think you've got it tough, consider this: You can always head to your air-conditioned vehicle; the fish have to tough it out as best they can. But there's no need for pity. Instinct provides a seasonal playbook that tells fish what to do and when to do it. This time of year, one of the most popular plays is the deep route.
Nights and predawn hours offer the coolest conditions, but during long summer days, inshore fish must find ways to fill their bellies without overheating in the process.
Depths of 1-2 feet may suffice during fall's pleasant weather, but when surface temperatures reach into the 90s, it's time to head for the cooler reaches of 4 to 6 feet.
Sea grass still grows in this range, so predators have a place to hide — for safety and ambush feeding. Some will roam the edges between grass and sand holes, while others belly into the dense carpet. All will be watching for something to eat.
Dawn finds many of these fish roaming throughout the water column, so floating live shrimp and scaled sardines ("whitebait"), or casting jigs, spoons and jerk baits often tempts feeding predators before they settle in for another long, hot day.
Jump-start the action
Once the fish go deep, the game is not over. You just need a bunch of baitfish but probably not the kind you would think.
Normally, anglers wrinkle their brows, shake their heads and look elsewhere when they spot schools of juvenile threadfin herring or sardines. These "fry baits" are too small for standard inshore fishing tactics, and they turn full-size castnets into a tangled mess when hundreds of these minnows get stuck in the mesh.
A smaller net with a quarter-inch mesh, however, will gather these tiny baitfish by the thousands and provide the key ingredient for the highly-effective blanket chumming.
Most of the recently hatched baitfish will feed predators within a month of their emergence. That's exactly what makes them so valuable to the deep grass strategy.
Fry baits huddle in dense schools, so you will rarely need to chum. Just ease across a shallow grassy area, like the east side of Anclote Key, and sling the net when you see the telltale surface dimpling.
Storing your tiny chummers is easy — just dump them into a five-gallon bucket, and carry them to the deep grass beds.
Dead fry baits are actually preferable for this game, as they will sink slowly and remain on the fish's radar. Live chummers will quickly scatter, which decreases the enticement.
Use an ice scoop to toss chummers, and the sound of tasty nuggets hitting the water will grab the predators' attention. Once the fry sink, the sight of all those little bodies twinkling through the water column really flips the feeding switch.
The first handful will wake up those napping in the grass, but subsequent appetizers usually create an instant frenzy of white-water aggression as bluefish, trout, ladyfish, jacks and the occasional Spanish mackerel greedily gobble the sudden snacks.
What to throw
Even with free food available, the fish won't spend much time in the hot surface water. They will feed voraciously for a couple of minutes, then return to the cooler depths.
As long as you keep the freebies flying, you can draw strikes with topwater plugs. Speed- and retrieve-style don't matter: the fish will hit anything they see.
Even after the topside show wanes, the fish will swarm lower in the water as they look for more food. This is when a quarter of an ounce white or chartreuse bucktail jig can turn in a big performance.
Fly fishermen will often bend the skinny rods by tossing clouser and glass minnow patterns on 8-weight outfits with sinking line. When toothy mackerel or bluefish abound, a short piece of wire leader will minimize your losses.
However you choose to fish, consider that fast action can easily cause you to lose count of how many fish you toss in the cooler. If you are keeping fish for dinner, designate one person to keep an official count of what goes into the box.
Fishing deep grass offers fantastic summer action. but observe all size and bag limits and carefully release all other fish.