Dave Dennison is a patient angler. He will sit, watch and wait for the redfish to show themselves. The Brandon-based charter boat captain has been fishing Tampa Bay for more than 20 years and has learned one thing: rushing around the flats chasing reds is the sure path to failure. "The fish are here," Dennison said, as he readied a piece of cut bait. "They just need to find the bait."
Redfish are opportunistic feeders, and during this time of year they congregate into large schools, in part for protection, but also to help spook food sources, such as crabs and small fish, up from the protective shelter of the grass beds.
In some areas of the bay, a school might only include 15 to 20 fish. But in others, the giant pods of reds can include 100 to 200 fish; easily spotted, even by an untrained eye. In fact, the school might even look like dolphin pushing up a wake.
But while large schools of redfish might look like easy pickings, casting into the middle of the moving mass will only spook the fish.
So Dennison approaches the situation like a hunter, carefully setting a trap that the redfish can't pass up. "These fish are lazy," he said. "They don't want to work too hard for food."
Redfish will hit topwater plugs, gold spoons and a variety of soft-plastic baits as well as live bait, including everything from shrimp to threadfin herring. But veteran guides, Dennison included, will tell you that if you want to catch redfish, under a variety of conditions, toss out a chunk of cut bait.
"Once the scent gets into the water column, it doesn't take long for them to find the bait," he said.
Most charter captains have a "secret" bait they turn to when the fishing gets tough. Some like chunked mullet, others ladyfish. But on this warm fall afternoon, Dennison took a few scaled sardines out of his livewell and sliced them up.
His strategy was sound. If the cut bait did not work, he still had a well with live offerings if the fish proved to be particular. Dennison let the baits sit for about five minutes and then repositioned them closer to the mangrove shoreline.
He sat and watched as a large school of mullet moved through the sea grass bed. Mullet are herbivores, but their very act of feeding will often disrupt the predatory habits of carnivores, including blue crabs and grass shrimp.
"That's why the redfish follow the big schools of mullet," Dennison said. "The mullet scare up everything in the grass. The reds just swim along and eat everything that pops up."
Now if Dennison had lost his cool and tossed an artificial lure into the mass of feeding mullet and redfish, it would have been game over. But he knew it would only be a matter of time before the scavenging reds found the sliced-up sardines resting on the bottom.
"Got one," he said as a redfish grabbed the bait. The fish tried to run for the protection of the mangroves. But Dennison lifted the rod tip, turned the fish's head, and then handed the fishing pole off to his customer.
Then a second rod bent under the pressure of a fish. Dennison looked around the boat, "Who wants this one?"
Dave Dennison can be reached at tampainshorefishing.com. Terry Tomalin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (727) 893-8808.