Every year during the spring and fall, changing water temperatures draw migratory baitfish such as Spanish sardines, threadfin herring and scaled sardines (known locally as whitebait) into the Nature Coast area.
These vast shoals of bait prefer the post-summer and pre-winter temperatures. During this transitional period the bait schools can be immense, both near the coast and miles offshore. Not far behind this nomadic food source are the pelagic gamefish. A wide variety of sport fish such as kingfish, Spanish mackerel, cobia, sharks, bonito and even sailfish follow the bait migration. In the spring this typically starts in March and runs until the beginning of May.
The fall run takes place from early October until Thanksgiving. In other words, we are right in the middle of the fall run right now.
Check the wrecks
Perhaps the best places to hunt for these migrating fish are the offshore wrecks. Massive schools of bait often gather around the large structures, seeking shelter from the hungry fish that escort them.
During a trip last week to one of the Pasco County artificial reefs, we timed it just right. At first the water seemed lifeless with no bait visible on the surface, few birds and a slow tide. We anchored near a piece of the reef and tossed a net full of live sardines overboard to see if anything came after them.
Almost immediately 3- to 6- pound Spanish mackerel came rushing out of the depths and attacked the helpless minnows. As soon as our baited hooks hit the water we had a triple header of the big macks.
Continued chumming drew more and more fish close to the boat and soon we were in the middle of a swirling mass of mackerel, kingfish, barracuda, bonito and sharks. Next a dense school of bait rose up from the bottom. We got a bite almost every cast for hours.
At one point we had a 30-pound class kingfish on a light spinning rod. It made several runs far from the boat then came closer. After another 50-yard run, an 8-foot shark launched halfway out of the water and ate the smoker king.
Farther offshore, in 80 to 100 feet, the action can be similar. Schools of big amberjack rise to the surface, big cobia have been abundant and kings of varying sizes are on nearly all the wrecks. We have also seen sailfish and mahi-mahi at 80 feet within the past two weeks.
Closer to home
Even just a mile off the beach, the migratory fish have been on a tear. Early in the morning frenzied packs of mackerel and bonito, with a few kings mixed in, can be seen as they foam the water. They attack the baitfish in waves.
There will be a five-minute melee, then nothing. A moment later they will pop up a hundred yards away and do the same thing. Catching them consistently requires a run-and-gun approach. They will only bite when they are in the frenzies. Pull up to one, cast a live bait, shiny spoon or jig, and then retrieve it quickly.
As the actions stops, hold your cast and be ready to move the boat within range of the next wave.
Even on the flats, mackerel and bluefish have been gobbling up free-lined sardines intended for trout and snook.
The key to success
To experience the best that the fall run fish have to offer, carry lots of live bait.
Since baitfish are used for both chum and hook baits, you simply cannot bring too many. We typically pack the well to capacity, somewhere around 2,000 minnows, before heading out to do battle.
Once on the spot, crippled chummers are deployed, and the action begins, or doesn't. If the pelagics do not show up quickly, move to another spot. There are so many in the area, you are much better off looking for the big score than trying to scrape out a few fish in a spot that just isn't holding fish. In many cases, the action is wide open just a half mile away.
The toothy fish passing through our waters bite off a lot of tackle. Be sure to carry lots of long-shank hooks, a box of extra strong trebles, several coils of light wire and a spool of 40-pound test fluorocarbon.
The macks bite better on the flouro but when the big ones are around, the can bite off every other hook or more. If this becomes a problem it is time to switch to a short piece of wire. When the big kings show up, a wire stinger rig is required to land them.