It's the start of a new year, and fishing conditions are far from normal.
Unusually warm water temperature has summertime fish hanging around. You can still find good numbers of mackerel and bonito working the bait pods inside Tampa Bay. Normally gone this time of year, these pelagic fish are feeding on the schools of small spawn still in the bay.
The grouper run inside Tampa Bay is strong. Most can be found along the edge of the ships channel and the rubble of the old Skyway Bridge. The best way to locate them is to troll large plugs and jigs. My two favorite rigs are the gold broken-back bomber behind a No. 3 planer and a Bubba Jig with a chartreuse tail run from a downrigger ball.
Troll the bomber at 1,500 rpms and the Bubba Jig as slow as possible. When trolling the channel work the top edges, not the bottom. The top edge should be 26 to 30 feet deep. Around the Skyway rubble, troll the edge.
If you troll over the rubble you'll snag your gear because the rubble runs 2 to 6 feet off the bottom. When you locate grouper, you'll want to troll that area a few more times to see if you can pick up a few more grouper.
Trout season in the South Zone opened Thursday. You can keep four trout per person between 15 to 20 inches. One of the four can be more than 20 inches. If you want to help restock the trout population, let the female breeders over 23 inches go. They usually stay in the area.
Sheepshead are moving closer to the beach as they get ready to spawn. Look for them around the docks and bridges closest to the beach. Chumming the area with pieces of diced shrimp can fool them. The diced shrimp will get them feeding and a chunk of shrimp on a free-lined rig will likely draw a strike. They may be hard to clean, but they are the best-tasting fish in our waters.
Great grouper action offshore can be found in 20 to 60 feet of water. Most of the keepers are being caught on live pinfish. Guides working 40 miles out are reporting large grouper, kingfish and tuna in the 140 foot depths. The kings and tuna are being caught on a flat line rigged with a live Spanish sardine while bottom fishing for grouper.
Doug Hemmer charters out of St. Petersburg and can be reached at (727) 347-1389.