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June 11, 2007

Bountiful Biscayne Bay

Pros share secrets for fishing South Florida's famed lagoon

Side Lines
Snook may be one of the most difficult-to-locate species in the bay. "They're so hard to see, you can pole right up to them, never knowing that they're there until you blow them out," Smith says.

When Smith fishes the flats and potholes for snook, he usually throws a black-and-silver Rapala Skitter Walk. He casts to areas where he doesn't anticipate a bonefish strike but that might hold a laid-up snook. "I love to see the explosion at the surface that snook create when they hit a topwater bait," he says.

Look for snook to lie in a hole or over sandy bottom near turtle grass. They may be absorbing sun or waiting for an unsuspecting baitfish to cruise overhead. Sometimes they "shower" bait as sailfish do to ballyhoo on offshore reefs. But this spectacle occurs in just a couple feet of water. Occasionally, anglers see snook cruising the banks, especially in areas where a sandy bottom creates contrast below the moving fish.

That's where we spotted a likely linesider during our February trip. Already on the bow, Sutton cast his shrimp and missed the fish slightly aft. Loaded and ready to back him up, I took a shot. My line and shrimp found too much air, and - you guessed it - boink! I hit the fish right on top of its head.

Tarpon on the Move
A few miles north of our snook drop in south Biscayne Bay lies Government Cut at the Port of Miami, where anglers can usually count on numerous shots at tarpon. Some fish reside near the cut; others pass through during the winter shrimp run.

Most captains believe the migratory tarpon are moving south toward the Keys. Biscayne Bay lies between the island chain and Government Cut.

Some fish follow the oceanside shoreline of Elliott Key south of the cut as they move south. Anglers often see these tarpon daisy-chaining in schools of five to 10 fish.

Valverde prefers to pole areas with light-colored bottom so he can spot fish on the move. "I like to see the fish off in the distance, even up to 300 yards away, so I can position my boat to intercept them for the best possible presentation," he says. Valverde adds that it's quite common to see permit following or even mixed in with tarpon.

Once in position, cast a shrimp or crab well ahead of the fish, and retrieve it slowly across the tarpon's path. After hookup, quickly crank the engine and chase the fish; they can rapidly cover some distance. In addition, many obstructions, such as rocks, sea fans, sponges and (probably) a deepwater channel, lurk nearby.

Inside the bay, along the mainland shoreline, tarpon also move south during winter. Stake out on a flat next to the deeper water that runs north and south, and watch for dark shapes.

Daisy-chaining fish may show at the surface. If not, drop a bait deeper. A finger mullet with a split-shot weight placed above the leader should reach the strike zone. Keep a crab and a shrimp rigged as backup offerings. Target these tarpon with 12- to 15-pound tackle, and pin your liveys on circle hooks for the best chance of a successful outcome.

When tarpon migrate along the bay's west side, Valverde believes they may become resident fish for a while. "These fish run smaller, in the 20- to 30-pound class. However, they're much more cooperative and eat similarly to those that feed in the cut."

If the tarpon respond and your circle hook hits home, the fun begins. Most fish streak off for deeper water. Captains on the pole find themselves in a dilemma. Depending on the tackle used, some captains wisely choose to power up and follow the fish.

If a tarpon eats on the flat, watch out for active or abandoned crab pots and debris that could endanger your desired outcome.