This month will bring plenty of action between cold fronts. Of course, the cold weather will dictate what anglers will be fishing for and when.
Grouper fishing will be the main staple for anglers fishing our offshore waters for the next few months. I suggest starting in 70 feet of water after a cold front, then work your way east as the day progresses. We found keeper groupers as shallow as 45 feet this past week. This was a true sign that the bottom was recovering from last year's Red Tide.
Smaller baits such as the squirrel fish could be found on many of the hard-bottom areas, too. These tasty grouper baits are often called "sand perch," since they like to crawling in the sand searching for small shrimp and crabs. Normally if you are fishing on a rock pile and a sand perch eats your intended grouper bait, its time to go to another rock. This tell-tale sign means grouper aren't interested in food, and sand perch feel safe venturing onto the hard bottom to look for food where groupers are residing. This past week, however, we caught grouper mixed in with the sand perch. I believe that these particular grouper were traveling over to our spread of bottom baits, attacking both the schools of sand perch and our hooked baits. This is a normal sign of grouper on the move and not yet settled. They might have been 100 yards or more away from the rocks before investigating.
Their strength has been quite impressive due to cooling water temperature. Sometimes our 50-pound line is not enough to stop their mighty pull, dragging us into the rocks. Pulling tight on the line, then strumming the monofilament like a guitar string will often annoy the grouper, making it swim out from the hole. It doesn't work all the time, but it's worth a try on every fish that "rocks" you. Another trick is to free-spool the reel, letting all the pressure off the line. The fish will often leave on its own to go to a more comfortable hole. If you feel the fish swim out, reel quickly to catch up on the line and try to pull the head back. Once you feel that the grouper has been pried from the bottom, it's time to slow down your reeling and smooth out the fight. Often the line will have small cuts and abrasions on it from rubbing against the rocky hole. This method can often keep the fish from breaking free on the way up. We have brought up some huge groupers using this technique in the past few weeks. Normally it's the biggest fish of the day, so it's always worth a try.
If water temps stay tolerable (over 65 degrees), we can still have a decent kingfish run. Many years in the past have produced banner catches of the big mackerels until Christmas. The key to finding the kings this time of year still centers around bait. Many times small Spanish sardines will huddle over the wrecks in 60 to 80 feet of water during December. That's where you'll find the kings. Even though the baits are small, about 3 to 4 inches, they will get devoured. The kingfish aren't picky and will attack any sardine. We will often troll the wrecks if they hold bait. Monitoring the sonar will dictate the depth of downrigger deployment. Putting the downrigger ball just above the bait school will get extraordinary results. Most of the time the bait school will be huddled along the bottom, especially as water temps get cooler. Sometimes the surface baits will never get hit, only the downriggers. This often means that water temps are much cooler at the surface, forcing the fish deep.
This time of year water temps will always be a little warmer farther out. The temps you see in the newspaper and on TV are read from places such as the Clearwater municipal pier and the Skyway Pier. These close-to-shore locations are more susceptible to each cold front because they cool the shallower waters faster. Offshore, we should hold a decent temp of 68 degrees for most of this month, even if it gets frigid in close.
By monitoring these shallower locations, anglers can often squeak out a few days of shallow-water kingfishing if temps teeter above 65 degrees for a week. These fish are often huge and will also be quite aggressive. Some of our biggest fish ever landed were in early December. We call these the "end of the caboose fish." This means bigger fish are always at the end of the run.
Mullet makes a great bait, since many schools are heading out of the passes during their spawning season. If water temps rise a bit, you could find thousands of mullet herded up along the beach with 40-plus-pound kings attacking.
Dave Mistretta captains the Jaws Too out of Indian Rocks Beach. Call (727) 595-3276, e-mail email@example.com or see www.jawstoo.com.