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October 26, 2001

Too Many Fish, Too Little Time

Tampa Bay's variety forces anglers to make tough decisions every day.

How would you define the ideal fishing destination? Several important criteria quickly come to mind:
* Easy access, allowing you to travel without enduring international flights and customs checkpoints;
* Enough qualified guides so you could shop around and find one to suit your style and budget;
* Long seasons that offer many windows of opportunity for high-quality angling throughout the year;
* Fish of every shape, style and size --- such a wide variety of species that you'd have trouble deciding how to rig up and where to make your first cast.
Tampa Bay, on Florida's west coast, qualifies as just such a paradise. You might think I'm nuts to rate this area as a world-class hot spot, but I'd say you're crazy to ignore its qualifications. Served by an international airport, the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area (population: 2 million plus) offers easy access and a wide selection of comfortable hotels beginning at $40 per night. More than 50 professional guides work the bay's waters in boats ranging from 18-foot skiffs to 38-foot sportfishermen, and it's possible to catch quality fish any day of the year.

Slam 'Em Inshore
While fishing southern Tampa Bay's Bishop Harbor with Capt. Chet Jennings last October, Sport Fishing's editor-in-chief Doug Olander says he found the area "surprisingly pristine." Clear water, lush grass beds, thick mangroves and plenty of bait - mostly finger mullet and greenbacks - made the distant St. Petersburg skyline seem out of place, in Olander's opinion.
The Florida net ban of 1995 has improved the bay's recreational fishery for a number of reasons, according to Jennings. "Three or four years ago, there were virtually no mullet, and now we see them everywhere. Besides killing fish, gill nets also destroyed habitat by pulling up grass beds. Now grass beds are thicker and the area looks healthier," he says. The many Tampa Bay guides I spoke to echoed Jennings, saying the proliferation of baitfish has led to increased game fish populations. Capt. Rodney Martin, who's been fishing the bay all his life and guiding full-time for two years, has witnessed this revival and now uses variety to his advantage. Rather than relying on a single target species, Martin says he "can offer anglers several options in a single day, and they often catch inshore slams of snook, trout and redfish."
Seatrout populations have rebounded to the point that Jennings routinely catches and releases as many as 30 "specks," as seatrout are termed locally, while waiting for a tide change to put snook in a feeding mood. "Nearly every deep grass line you see will hold good-size trout," says Jennings, who tempts them with plugs, jigs or live shrimp fished below popping corks.
Redfish present reliable sight-fishing opportunities for skinny-water anglers on a nearly year-round basis. Speaking from five years of experience in Tampa Bay, Capt. Marty Martin (no relation to Rodney) affirms, "Every flat in the bay holds redfish. Finding them depends on the time of year, wind direction and tide stages."
Winter offers very good action: "From October through March, 95 percent of my charters are for redfish," says Martin, who specializes in fly- and light-tackle fishing. "We have fantastic fishing for tailing reds on winter tides. The water falls and gets so skinny on the flats that fish get up there and tail during the slack time before an incoming tide." And Martin says the lack of copper flags later in the season doesn't mean the redfish have disappeared. "They follow the same feeding pattern in the summer, but bigger tides push about an extra foot of water on the flats, and you can't see tails."
Tampa Bay's numerous flats, mangroves and oyster bars provide ideal habitat for snook, a species that challenges anglers to present baits properly, then rewards them with savage strikes. Capt. Mark Bennett employs a run-and-gun strategy to locate snook. "There are no secret spots in the bay, but you may have to cover a lot of territory to find fish," reveals Bennett. After quietly moving into an area, he looks for the deeper channels and follows them while rapidly working artificials in a search pattern. "I mainly use 6- and 8-pound spinning gear, which lets me make long casts to cover more ground," he says. "Big baits catch big fish, but I prefer medium-size lures because they produce a wider variety of fish, like snook, redfish, trout and jacks. My favorite is a propeller lure such as the MirrOlure 5M."
Top-water baits work best in the summer; during cooler months, Bennett switches to gold weedless spoons or, as a last resort, jig-and-grubtail combinations. Jigs produce excellent results, but Bennett, who describes his fishing style as "hyper," would rather use "faster" lures whenever possible. "No matter which lures you use, look for 'live' areas," advises Bennett. "Don't waste time fishing where no baitfish are present."

Tarpon Time
"You'll find tarpon just about everywhere: under bridges, on flats, in deep water, in moving or still water," says Capt. Bill Miller of his favorite quarry. This magnificent game fish is another species that's also made a comeback in Tampa Bay, apparently due to the increased baitfish populations. Miller especially enjoys the visual excitement of pursuing tarpon on the flats with a 12-weight fly rod. "Look along the deeper edges of flats," he says. "Sometimes tarpon face the current; sometimes they move with it. The important thing is to present your fly naturally."
The natural presentation of live bait is hard to beat when tarpon lurk around bridge pilings. According to Miller, night fishing at the Gandy, Howard Frankland or Sunshine Skyway bridges calls for a 7- or 8-foot rod, 50-pound line and 100-pound leader. Place a live pinfish, sardine or jumbo shrimp on a size 5/0 hook, free line it with the current back into the shadow line caused by the bridge lights, and hang on!
Capt. Rodney Martin catches plenty of 80- to 100-pound tarpon at the Gandy bridge but feels the Howard Frankland more frequently holds larger fish. He prefers fishing on incoming tides and looks for baitfish activity to locate tarpon. "When I see ladyfish near the surface, I know they're after white bait or shrimp, and the tarpon will be there, too," Martin says.

Down and Out
Fall and spring migrations add king mackerel to the Tampa Bay hit list. While most stay out in Gulf waters, some kingfish follow shipping channels into the bay. The common recipe for success involves rigging live baits on 20-pound tackle and slow-trolling zigzag patterns along the channel edges about 6 miles outside the bay.
Channel edges inside the bay hold grouper throughout the year, though gags seem to be more abundant during winter. Martin targets grouper with Bubba jigs (8-inch grubtails) behind downriggers or trolls Mann's Stretch 30 plugs, concentrating on areas where his depth finder indicates structure along the edge of the channel in 30 feet of water. "You definitely want to be bumping bottom," he says. "A downrigger is ideal, but planers do the job, too. Try a number 3 planer on 50-pound line with a 70-pound leader." Martin has also noticed that Tampa Bay grouper bite best on a southerly wind.
Anglers who get out to "bump cans" find cooperative cobia patrolling buoys and channel markers during the summer. Baitfish around a buoy is an almost sure sign of predators below: Drop a jig or free-line a livey as close to the can as possible, then be ready for the unmistakable thump of a hungry cobia. You'll soon find hooking them is easier than keeping these bulldogs away from structure; constant pressure and quick boat maneuvers help prevent cutoffs.
Sight-casting to cobia hitch-hiking behind rays becomes an exciting prospect when fish seek the comfort of warm water flowing into the bay from Gannon and Big Bend power plants. These stations generate electrifying action near Apollo Beach and downtown Tampa when other areas seem to have settled in for a winter nap. Gangs of jack crevalle typically slam lures at daybreak, then turn the spotlight over to tarpon, snook, cobia, pompano, blacktip sharks and other species.

Time Permitting
Born and raised in Tampa, Cliff Martin (Marty's father) spent 25 years guiding in the Keys before returning to his old stomping grounds six years ago to open Tampa Bay Outfitters fly shop and guide services. Cautious optimism describes Martin's feelings about permit fishing in the bay. "We sometimes give that option to our clients as a bonus," he explains. "If conditions are right and fishing's been good for other species, we may give permit a shot, and occasionally we catch one."
The right conditions, according to Martin, include sandbars and flats covered by clean water. Winter offers better permit fishing, especially when an outgoing tide combines with a north wind to blow water off the flats. Permit in the 8- to 10-pound class then come up to feed along the edges of flats in the southern end of Tampa Bay around Bishop Harbor and Cockroach Bay.
"Few other places in the world offer the variety of fish we have here," Cliff Martin says without boasting. And word is getting out. He has clients coming from all over the globe to fish Tampa Bay, "and they're not staying for a day or two - they're staying to fish four or five days at a stretch." Due to its size and tremendous diversity, you can enjoy fishing the bay for a week without visiting the same spot twice. When faced with so many options, your most important question ultimately becomes, "How soon can I return?"