It is the dream of many an adventurous angler: To be in the right place at the right time and discover a full-blown gamefish feeding frenzy. Such occasions are rare but do take place from time to time. Frenzies can occur among a wide variety of species both inshore and offshore. All of them share one common feature: An abundant food source.
Some of the most common inshore fish that create or participate in feeding frenzies are jack crevalle, Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, and bluefish. These aggressive eaters often gang up on schools of sardines or glass minnows, circle them until they are tired and in a dense pod, then simultaneously tear into them.
Since the opportunity can be brief, the fish gobble every thing they can. This makes catching them very easy. Simply toss a similar baitfish or lure that resembles one into the melee for a nearly sure thing.
On some occasions, other inshore fish also work themselves into frenzies. If a dense swarm of baitfish moves into an area where there is a quantity of snook, the linesiders will often shed their inhibitions and work as a team to feed. As the baitfish dodge one fish they run right into the mouth of another.
Such scenarios are common in the late summer along the gulf beaches where juvenile Spanish sardines, threadfin herring, and scaled sardines run into spawning aggregations of snook in the swash channels. The tiny minnows prefer to hang around structure such as jetties, rocks, and fallen trees. This is also where the snook gather, leading to daily fireworks shows along the beach.
The most awe-inspiring mass feedings in all of Florida fishing are the "Hill Tide" ones in Boca Grande Pass during May and June.
During full moon and new moon tides, strong outgoing tides and an instinct within the population of swimmer crabs (also known as pass crabs) causes hundreds of thousands of small crustaceans to ride the current through the big pass out to the open gulf.
The tarpon are well aware of this natural chumline and gather to feed en masse in the natural funnel created by the inlet.
At times the fish swim against the tide, eating as they go until they end up in the east end of the pass in an area of shallow water called "The Hill."
When the crabs flow the most, the typically finicky tarpon rise from the depths and gorge upon crab after crab. For a square mile or more tarpon can be seen slurping crabs from the surface.
Multiple hook-ups are common as long as you throw crabs for bait. Even snook and redfish join in on the free buffet.
Out on the open Gulf, many different frenzies take place. Huge schools of giant redfish occasionally feed on everything in the water. When 400 or more bull reds decide it's time to eat, the resulting melee is very impressive. Fish run down nearly everything that moves, both on the surface and near the bottom. This sends small creatures such as crabs and fish scurrying away only to be gulped down by a hungry red. As the fish rise in the column, the water appears to be red with the backs of so many fish visible at the same time.
We once witnessed a pack of ravenous reds grab and pull down a cormorant that didn't get out of the way in time. The bird eventually flew off but was clearly shaken.
Kingfish and bonito feed in frenzies quite often. They corral their prey, usually sardines or threadfins.
Last week we witnessed a frenzy I had never seen in 19 years as a charter captain. We anchored over a wreck and had a school of large amberjack milling below us.
By dropping live baits we were doing well, catching and releasing powerful jacks. At one point we noticed a dense pod of some kind of baitfish moving in our direction. As they got closer we could see that they were pinfish, which are quite rare 35 miles offshore. At about the same time the amberjack noticed them too. Within moments dozens of amberjack rose to the surface and thrashed into the wayward pinfish. Merely 75 feet from the boat, this thundering feeding frenzy ensued for several minutes.
We cast into it and were rewarded with multiple hook-ups, then just as quickly as it started it was over. Scales from eaten pinners sparkled in the water and several stragglers came to the boat looking for cover. We had been in exactly the right place and got to experience one of nature's great spectacles.