Capt. William Toney poled his 23-foot custom Tremblay across the glassy, gin-clear flats near the mouth of the Crystal River. As he edged ever closer to a rolling school of 60-pound tarpon, Sport Fishing editor-in-chief Doug Olander and I crouched low in the bow. “Aim for the lead fish,” Toney whispered as Olander and I both fired soft-plastic jerk baits ahead of the school. Unfortunately, the fish were spooky, the result of trailing bull sharks, we surmised. Despite several tries, no takers.
Yet just as we were giving up, an incoming text brightened our morning. Managing editor Stephanie Pancratz had just landed her first tarpon — a 50-pounder — only 3 miles to our north while fishing with Capt. Dan Clymer aboard his custom 24-foot Pro-Line Bay.
Tarpon fishing opportunities in the Crystal River region of Florida’s Gulf Coast often get second billing to the legendary silver king fishery in Homosassa Bay to the south. Yet the Crystal River area offers great fishing for tarpon in its own right, according the fishing guides who know this area best.
We decided to see for ourselves. Using the Plantation on Crystal River resort and marina as a base, the Sport Fishing staff spent three days this past June sampling the angling opportunities of this picturesque region — and we had a ball.
Beyond tarpon, we caught redfish and seatrout around the myriad islands, reefs, grass flats, and channels fed by the idyllic Crystal River and its tributaries. But that’s not all. We also ventured offshore and discovered outstanding fishing for grouper and more.
A vast network of grass flats extends west — as well as north and south — from the mouth of the Crystal River, and these are prime habitats for spotted seatrout, particularly in spring and fall, according to Crystal River-based guide Capt. Don Chancey, who fishes with a customized 24-foot Carolina Skiff, Flats Chance. “In February, March and April, we get some quality trout,” Chancey reveals. “These are fish in the 18- to 20-inch range.”
Our midsummer trip was not timed to the peak of seatrout action, but we still managed to catch and release some decent specimens using a variety of methods. Chancey likes to use an egg-shaped Cajun Thunder popping cork with a 2½-foot leader of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon and a quarter-ounce lead-head with a soft-plastic bait such as a MirrOlure 4-inch Soft Minnow in pinfish or mullet patterns.
His method is to drift over the flats as anglers cast and chug the cork poppers, targeting sandy potholes and the edges of the grass beds. “The idea is to give it a pop, and then wait 3 to 5 seconds before popping it again,” he explains. “The trout hear the commotion, and then attack the lure hanging below it.” Chancey likes to use medium-action 7-foot spinning rods, with reels filled with 10-pound-test braid, tied to the upper end of the popping cork. Chancey will sample a number of flats in depths ranging from 2 to 6 feet in a day of fishing until he finds the schools of trout.
Other guides eschew poppers when fishing the same types of soft plastics, or turn instead to shallow-running, lipped crank baits. Such was the case when targeting trout with Toney, who focuses more on channel edges than grass flats to find the bigger trout. One of hottest trout lures on our trip was a Yo-Zuri Pins Minnow in the chartreuse-silver pattern.