TAMPA — Like most fishing guides, Tim Whitfield gets his share of questions at the boat ramp. Folks want to know what's biting and where.
And like most charter boat captains, Whitfield won't share his secret spots, but he will tell anglers where to find their own.
"I try to explain what to look for when you are out in the bay," explained the 39-year-old Tampa man. "You can't just go out and expect to catch fish at the first spot you drop anchor."
Whitfield, a featured speaker at this weekend's Florida Sportsman Expo, had to learn the hard way.
"I grew up fishing in freshwater lakes," he said. "It was a whole different ball game out there in saltwater."
But red drum, spotted sea trout and snook — the big three on the local flats fishing scene — have a lot in common with the largemouth bass.
"All three are very aggressive species, just like bass," he said. "Many of the artificial lures that you use in freshwater, especially the top-water plugs, will also work in the bay."
With water temperatures cooling, Whitfield has been targeting redfish in the shallow waters of Upper Tampa Bay. September and October are prime months for big reds, especially for purists who prefer artificial lures.
"This time of year the trick is finding them," Whitfield said. "They could be in one spot today, but tomorrow, they could move 100 yards and you will never see them."
The red drum is a particularly hardy species. Found from Massachusetts to Key West and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, redfish can measure more than 40 inches and weigh more than 40 pounds in local waters. Fish on Florida's east coast tend to be a little bigger than their west coast counterparts.
Young redfish live in sea-grass meadows and over muddy and sand bottoms in inshore estuaries such as Tampa Bay. Slot limit reds (18 to 27 inches) are considered juveniles and not yet sexually mature. Adult redfish are usually found in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.
Redfish travel in large schools often containing 100 fish or more. When the wind is light and the sea is calm, these giant herds are easy to spot.
"You have to learn how to read the water," Whitfield said. "It could be something as simple as keeping an eye out for jumping mullet."
For where you find mullet, redfish won't be far behind. The carnivorous drum travel with the herbivorous mullet, because the latter "spook" critters such as shrimp out of the sea grass.
"Watch a school of mullet move across a flat and you can see the shrimp skipping out of the way," he said. "The redfish know this means an easy meal."
Once you find the reds, the next challenge is presentation.
"When you see a mullet jump and it leaves that little cloud of sand in its wake, throw you bait right there," Whitfield said. "That is where a redfish will be looking for something to eat."
Redfish eat just about anything but prefer crustaceans, pinfish and small "finger" mullet. This fish will hit top-water baits (repeatedly, and often without success), but its favorite method of feeding is head down, nose in the grass as it roots around for crabs and other critters.
Veteran guides such as Whitfield know they can always get a redfish to eat by tossing out a chunk of cut ladyfish, but some anglers are more interested in sport than fillets.
"Many of my customers fish exclusively with artificial lures," he said. "And I could spend an hour telling you what color and style works best under different conditions."
And that is what Whitfield plans to do when he takes to the Florida Sportsman Expo's main stage (3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday), along with nearly a dozen of the state's top fishing guides, to talk about everything from targeting tripletail and cobia to zeroing in on snapper and grouper. Artificial aficionados won't want to miss Mark Nichols, the man behind D.O.A. Lures, at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The Expo, in its 20th year, has something for everybody. A fan favorite has always been the Riggin'it Right Academy, providing hands-on instruction on how to rig everything from ballyhoo to a favorite MirrOlure topwater plug.
Attendees can also learn how to throw a cast net in just five minutes or cast a flyrod in a 100-foot indoor pond. Kids will get a kick out of the hookless spin-cast pond and the free "can't lose" prizes from Zebco.
. fast facts
What: Florida Sportsman Expo
When: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Florida State Fairgrounds, Tampa
Price: $8 for adults; children 12 and under are free
Information: Go to FloridaSportsman.com