An inside look at the crucial process of evaluating new waters for inshore gamefish.
Modern marine electronics (chartplotter, foreground) brought these anglers to an attractive oyster reef. Now it’s time for eyes on the water to verify fishing prospects.
How would you handle fishing for one particular kind of fish, hundreds of miles from home, on a random calendar date?
What would be your strategy? What resources might you use? What tackle would you bring?
These are the kinds of questions tournament fishermen routinely answer. And often as not, those answers involved strategic compromises. It was an eye-opening experience for me recently, to spend a few days with veteran competitors on the Inshore Fishing Association, or IFA, Redfish trail. Dewey Holloway, of Fort White, Florida, and Kelly Causey, of Macon, GA, had spent the past few seasons competing against each other in the co-angler divisions of the IFA. For the IFA Punta Gorda event, in March, they teamed up on the same boat.
Both anglers own their own boats. In Kelly’s case, a Ranger Banshee shallow-water poling skiff. Dewey runs a 22-foot Skeeter bay boat with a 250-horse Yamaha. One of the first decisions they had to make was sim-ply, which boat to bring? Each man faced a tow greater than 250 miles. Talking it over, they decided range would be more important than shallow draft. Skinny-water skiffs like the Banshee offer access to very shallow flats and creeks, where redfish sometimes move to escape fishing pressure or receding tides. On the other hand, a bay boat would be better suited for making a long run across Charlotte Harbor from the tournament marina in Punta Gorda.
Dewey’s rig had something else, too: Some tracks and waypoints already loaded in his Humminbird 1198 fishfinder/chartplotter combo. Also in there, a Navionics Platinum chart card, complete with detailed navigational charts and the option of aerial photography. Dewey had fished the area before, wisely recording his tracks on the Humminbird in different colors, for future reference.
Understanding how to use these kinds of systems gives anglers a huge advantage, whether they’re fishing a tournament or merely poking around for a day of relaxation. Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound feature mostly clear water and a network of reasonably well-marked channels. This region is much easier to navigate than, say the Louisiana Delta, where Dewey, Kelly and many other IFA competitors enjoy fishing. Still, there are oyster bars in places where you might not expect them, as well as broad stretches of shallow water which can thin precariously on a low tide. These features are attractive from the standpoint of holding redfish and other species, but for anglers unfamiliar with the area, they can pose big hazards.
A very good example came during our second morning fishing together. We’d planned to get on the water at sunrise, but there was no sunrise at all. An impenetrable fog hung over Pine Island. Motoring out of the channel at Pine-land Marina, we saw one boat already on plane and speeding into the gauzy white. The boat was quickly out of view—but the risk was obvious.
Waiting for the fog to lift, Dewey Holloway made a few casts near the marina, and found what he was looking for.
“Not much we can do,” Dewey said. “You almost don’t want to slow down in the channel, thinking someone might run up on you in this fog. Let’s try a spot close by, out of the channel, wait till things clear up.”
Dewey’s Navionics card offered us a clear route to an archipelago of islets and oyster bars not far from Pineland. The fog, which stuck around much later than expected limited visibility into the water. We could barely make out potholes amid the seagrass bottom. But, the low tide clearly showed the perimeter of the bars. That structure gave the two fishermen a useful frame of reference. Casting to an oyster bar point rippling with mullet schools, Dewey caught an upper-slot spotted seatrout and then a good, tournament-grade red-fish on his bone-colored Super Spook Jr.
The guys were obviously pleased. The day before, fishing from Cayo Costa down through Captiva Island, reds had been scarce. “We like to hit several spots, see if we can find fish,” said Kelly. “If we find them, on tournament day we’ll put in our time there. We heard some guys are on schooling reds up off Burnt Store, but those schools are here one day, gone the next. We really like finding resident fish.”
Indeed, as the fog lifted, we discovered a few things about the archipelago. The mostly uniformly sloping, patchy grass bottom we began fishing transitioned into a deep, 4 to 5 foot trough which wasn’t clearly marked on the charts. And: In that trough was a school of pumpkin-fat redfish, lying low on the bottom of the tide. We didn’t hook any, but that wasn’t really the point. Dewey and Kelly added a good new spot to their list of waypoints.
Looking at the labyrinthine oyster bars nearby, I remarked that those reds might move in there on high water.
Shallow-water search lures, from top: Johnson Silver Minnow;Rapala Skitterwalk; Bass Assassin Die Dapper.
“Bet you’re right,” said Kelly. “They can go on in there with the tide and eat, then come out here in the deeper water, where it’s safe.”
Our ruminations highlighted an important aspect of the pre-fishing game: The trick is learning not only where the fish are at some particular point in the tide, but where they are likely to move at other times.
The day before, Dewey took us to a cove on Cayo Costa that had some of the prettiest shoreline you could lay eyes on: Points of land jutting out with bright green mangroves; downed timber lying helter skelter. Deep pockets close to shore. It looked like fish-city—and it was, for snook. While Dewey and I pitched a topwater and Bass Assassin swimbait toward the shoreline, Kelly threw his ¼-ounce gold spoon in the opposite direction—out into what appeared to be featureless open water.
“There are potholes out there—that’s usually where the reds are in this spot,” Dewey said. “When we get to the real-ly good area, I’m going to fish out there, too. First I want to get a snook!”
There’s serious fishing, and then there’s not-so-serious fishing. I was glad to see the IFA guys, while dedicated to their pre-fishing mission, were willing to yield to the same kind of aspirations that drive most anglers. Dewey got his snook, too: An inch-and-a-half short of 28 inch-es, almost a keeper. Kelly had turned to look at just the right moment.
“I saw that fish come up and whack that plug, I could tell it was a good one,” Kelly said. Dewey, whose home is a hundred miles from the nearest snook hole, was mostly speechless as he battled the fish away from the mangrove roots.
I noted that both anglers used the same spinning outfits: 7-foot, fast-action G. Loomis rods rated for 6- to 12-pound-test line and 1⁄8- to 3⁄8-ounce lures. They had 10-pound-test braided line, and about two feet of 20-pound-test Seaguar fluorocarbon leader. The leader may have been on the light side for a snook-specific mission, but it held up fine for Dewey’s fish.
The guys keep a sturdy, folding Stow-master net in the boat to land fish—it’s an essential item, and especially important if you’re fishing light tackle and small hooks. When a big red is thrashing around with a No.6 treble hook lightly anchored in its rubbery mouth, you want to get a net under it quick. Same goes in the event a fish manages to scrape your 20-pound leader around a mangrove shoot, or oyster clump.
As for the light leader and long-casting rigs, in talking to Dewey and Kelly, as well as others at the IFA event, I learned that the redfish in the Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound complex have become a lot more sophisticated than they were when I first began fishing the region in the early 1990s. Little things like low-vis leaders, hooks hidden inside the bodies of soft baits, rods balanced for long casts, can make a difference.
One thing I observed while tagging along was the anglers’ judicious use of the trolling motor. Dewey kept the 112-pound-thrust Minn Kota at about one-quarter power as we made a gentle, horseshoe route through the cove. Dewey worked his plug, Kelly his spoon. Extra rods with soft baits and spinnerbaits were racked in vertical holders. A crisp breeze vibrated the braided lines like violin strings.
“What we’ll do in some situations is put the wind to our back and just drift,” Dewey explained. “You stay quiet, and the wind lets you throw farther, too.”
They were hunting for redfish, yes, but clearly stoked when a good snook blasted a topwater plug.
In the absence of wind, things can get tricky. Late on our second day of fishing, we took advantage of rising tide to inspect a cove near Mondongo Island. But there was no wind to drift on, no chop to conceal our presence, not even a ripple. We could see unidentifiable but tantalizing wakes moving across glass calm water. Each time Dewey adjusted the trolling motor, those wakes some as far off as 80 yards rose and accelerated nervously. They were clearly reacting to the whir of the motor or the tap of the propeller on the grass.
“In a situation like this, sometimes all you can do is Power Pole down and wait for the fish to come to you,” said Dewey. We did just that, dropping the stiff, fiber-glass stake into the bottom to hold Dewey’s boat.
While most of the wakes turned out to be mullet and sheepshead (which is often the case), we did see a few reds mostly just flashes of blue as they hightailed it away from us. Ones that managed to creep into casting range were already on edge. Even the splash of a tiny spoon sent them flying.
Watching this, I decided I would’ve wanted a poling skiff at that very moment something like the Banshee back at Kelly’s house in Georgia. But I kept that to myself. These guys were going to need to work with what they had. If, on tournament day, they weren’t able to connect with reds in other spots, this little cove could produce something.
My own inclination would’ve been to bail out and wade, reducing my profile. Unfortunately for IFA competitors, wade fishing is disallowed in the tournaments. Dewey’s boat was outfitted with a sturdy, two deck spotting platform, custom welded by his father. The elevation is very helpful when looking for fish on big, open flats. But here, in the tiny, glassy cove, that platform was really more of a liability, a tall billboard advertising bad intentions.
Dewey and Kelly acknowledged their struggles with this kind of compromise. “We do like to wear light-colored clothes, do the best we can to blend in with the sky,” Kelly noted. The casting platform was powder-coated white, as well, a plau-sible improvement over the shine of unfinished aluminum pipe.
Our last stop was on the outside bar off Bokeelia, on the north end of Pine Island, the kind of place where a spotting platform is extremely valuable. These long, expansive bars are well known for producing shots at schooling reds. Immediately, we saw the wakes of large fish pushing with the tide. At a distance, it was hard to tell if they were redfish or mullet, but when scouting for tournament prospects, guys like Dewey and Kelly don’t obsess about immediate identification. It’s shoot-first, ask questions later.
“Sometimes, redfish will be right in there with those mullet,” Kelly said. With the high sun, Dewey had switched from his topwater plug to the Die Dapper swimbait. Kelly stayed with his spoon. From the elevation of Dewey’s platform, they fired off rifle distance casts toward the approaching phalanx of fish. I expected an immediate hook up, but all we saw were the fat, black and silver bodies of mullet scurrying along on their inscrutable mullet business, some leaping out of the water. More mullet schools continued making their way along the bar. Watching Kelly and Dewey analyze this challenging sec-tor of Florida’s inshore waters, I could see how valuable their time was on the water. They had a few good spots to work, a couple of backup plans. They had a quiver of appropriate tackle, and an obvious, good natured fellowship. Most importantly of all, they’d put some new waypoints on their charts, and knowledge in the bank. FS
First published Florida Sportsman Inshore Special May 2015