Before this week's stormy weather caused us to cancel trips or return to port, the fishing was above average. Spanish mackerel were noticeably absent in their usual territory within a mile of the beach and especially near the passes that enter into the gulf. In past years the mackerel would wait to ambush prey washed out of the bays on an outgoing tide. A few can still be caught near shore, but the best fishing has been occurring on the structure of the artificial reefs and the adjacent limestone areas. Troll small gold spoons behind No. 1 planers, small shallow-running plugs and jigs.
Kingfish are still around in waters deeper than 60 feet and are best targeted as an incidental catch by using a stinger rig and a live Spanish sardine, hardtail or threadfin while bottom fishing for grouper and snapper. One exception is the Pinellas No. 2 artificial reef, which is home to the Blackthorn and Sheridan wrecks. Kingfish, bonita, barracuda and amberjack have been caught by both live baiters and those trolling hardware in that area.
Divers have reported better-than-average visibility in the 60- to 80-foot depths, and many of the smaller ledges harbor sizeable gag grouper, large mangrove snapper and some hogfish.
Bottom fishing for red grouper, gag grouper, mangrove snapper, triggerfish and white grunts has been consistent for those anglers willing to make several stops to locate fish.
Red grouper can be caught over flat limestone bottom in depths ranging from 80 to 120 feet. Before the Red Tide a few years ago, catching squirrelfish was a good indicator that you were near the rock but not directly over it and that re-anchoring would be necessary. This year we have been catching red grouper and squirrelfish side by side. We stay on a spot until we believe no grouper are present. Observation, both by diving and fishing, through the years has taught us that the presence of triggerfish is one of the best indicators that gag grouper are also present. Triggerfish are grazers, actually feeding on reef material along with crabs, shrimp and small fish. They inhabit only live ledge areas, the same as gags. This is also what makes them such great table fare. Use a 2/0 two-hook bottom-weighted snapper rig baited with small pieces of squid or frozen sardine.
We recently went to the mitigation reefs that are within 100 yards of shore. These areas were devastated by the Red Tide, but now they are on the way to full recovery. Many types of growth have re-established themselves and are thriving. This should hold true for the shallow-water winter gag grouper areas and the fish are likely to return to them in the fall.
Dave Zalewski charters the Lucky Too out of Madeira Beach. Call (727) 397-8815.