Days are growing shorter, temperatures are falling, and appetites are getting bigger.
Autumn is a time of transition throughout Florida waters, and North Suncoast fish know surviving the winter season means packing on the weight now.
Over the next month or so, every fish with a mouth will be gorging on whatever food sources they can find.
Ride around long enough and you'll likely run into some of this amped-up feeding activity, but fall fortunes often depend on influencing some of those fish to look in your direction. Accomplish this through chumming, the strategy of tempting fish with free samples, or at least, the hint thereof.
Situational specifics (i.e. tides, wind, depth) will define your exact presentation, but these general strategies will get you in the game.
Dropping a frozen chum block into a mesh bag and hanging it from a boat cleat is the simplest form of chumming. As wave action melts the block, bits of ground fish drift into the current.
Most chum blocks include fish oils in their formula, but dispensing a few drops into your scent trail will enhance their appeal.
During this operation, don't overlook the value of stacking up the food chain. Often chum blocks and fish oils seem to do a better job of congregating baitfish schools behind your boat than attracting predators.
Give it time and you'll start to see those baitfish darting and jumping as gamefish attack the easy target.
Fish your hooked baits on the outside edges of the bait school and this appearance of vulnerability will draw a quick strike.
Similar to the chum block concept, anglers often chop fresh baitfish into thumbnail-sized chunks and drop them downcurrent. The resulting trail of scent-laden snippets gives predators just enough taste to spur them onward.
Moving tides are essential for carrying the cut chum far enough to attract distant gamefish. On the other hand, slack tides allow these chunks to fall almost vertically — an effective tactic for enticing snapper, grouper and other reef or rock dwellers.
Office scissors will suffice, but considering the need to cut through small bones, kitchen or gardening shears work best.
In the clearest form of angling appetizers, toss a handful of live baitfish — the same ones you'll use on a hook — toward the area in which you expect gamefish to be holding.
Mostly used for snook and redfish, but also effective for trout and mackerel, this strategy reveals fish location when they smack the disoriented baitfish at the surface. Live chumming can jumpstart the bite when local fish become lethargic in a slack tide, but it will also draw in adjacent fish that respond to the sound of baits hitting the surface.
If you have trouble slinging baits far enough, or if the wind becomes a hindrance, many tackle retailers offer "chum bats" — plastic T-ball bats with the ends cut off to access the hollow center.
Just load a handful of baits into the bat, make a lobbing overhead presentation, and the chummers fly fairly accurately to the target zone.
The simple logic of chumming is this: You want the fish fired up, not filled up. In other words, don't overdo it with the freebies.
Predators won't fill their bellies on chum block bits or drifting menhaden oil, but chum chunks and certainly whole live baits can quickly stuff a fish to the point of turning its back on additional meals.
Chumming in any form will almost invariably attract a variety of species, and the least desirable residents are usually the first to arrive. Whether it's ladyfish, jacks, bluefish or catfish, you can count on a certain element of free-loading.
However, don't speak too harshly at these B-teamers. You may not care to waste time fighting and dehooking these party-crashers, but feeding behavior among one group of fish generally attracts the attention of others nearby.
It's all about activity. Fish find a lot of their meals by noticing when a neighbor chews. Therefore, gathering an audience of any design creates a focal point that is likely to grab the eyeballs of someone worth catching.
The only creatures you don't want to attract are sea gulls or terns.
The problem is twofold. First, screeching birds hovering near the surface will frighten your quarry. Second, you run the risk of potentially hooking the birds if they dive on your live baitfish.
Unfortunately, once you attract a feathered audience, they won't leave until the food stops. Your best bet is to simply fish elsewhere until the birds depart then return to your preferred spot later.