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Date of Issue: March 20, 2010

Snook freeze, officials extend closed season

Gary Jewel, with grandson Tony, holding a 12-pound grouper caught trolling inside Tampa Bay with Capt. Marc Howard.

State officials have extended the closed snook season statewide until Aug. 31.

The recreational harvest of snook had been open in April and March in the Gulf of Mexico, but the recent fish kill that devastated the local snook population prompted the extended closure.

Locally, there were numerous reports of belly-up snook in canals.

The FWC also issued Jan. 15 an executive order that prohibits the harvest and possession of bonefish and tarpon in all waters through March 31.

As water temperatures warm, many anglers are looking for an explosion of bites this week.

Fish that were lethargic and slow to bite during the freeze should feed heavily as they recover.

The best inshore species to target is sheepshead. The prison fish can be found over inshore docks, around bridge pilings and various rock piles. They primarily feed on crustaceans. Some anglers are known to scrape off barnacles from pilings and use them for bait. Barnacles can act as chum, and bring sheepshead into a group.

Always use small hooks, around a No. 4, when dealing with the small-mouth sheepshead.

Capt. Zach Zacharias of the DEE JAY II out of Parrot Cove Marina said as soon as the bad weather broke, with water temperatures barely breaking 50 degrees, fishing improved.

He reported redfish being particularly ready to eat. The reds were going after live shrimp and grub-tail jigs.

On Friday he said his charter could easily have caught and released 50 redfish, but his anglers got a little bored catching them and opted to leave. He said the reds were running between 14 and 22 inches and were bunched up under docks along with sheepshead, flounder and black drum. He said one trip produced some fat, sluggish trout that were found in deep water.

Zacharias reported the best action between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. during a major solunar period with good tides in various locations in north Sarasota Bay. He said they had no luck getting pompano to cooperate, but did see some in 5-7 feet of water drifting between Sister Keys and Tidy Island.

“If we continue to experience milder weather, it shouldn’t take long for the pompano and trout to head back to open water,” Zacharias said. “The Gulf reefs should start to give up good snapper, sheepshead, gray trout and flounder when the water clears a little more. There has always been a debate over why grouper show up fairly close to shore in the winter. Some claim they move in closer from deeper gulf water and others contend they are bay grouper that head out to the nearshore reefs and wrecks. I am beginning to be a believer in the latter scenario. Until the water warms substantially, you would be best served to sleep late and hit the water in the afternoon when the sun has had a chance to warm things up a bit.”

Capt. Larry McGuire of Show Me the Fish Charters said he recently went out 35 miles offshore of Anna Maria Island, fishing in 120-130 feet of water for gag and red grouper, mangrove snapper and amberjack.

He said he was baiting with sand perch, grunts and big pinfish, and using jigging spoons for amberjack. “They seemed to hit those better than live bait,” McGuire said. “Sometimes they’re finicky, sometimes they’re hot. Some days they won’t hit anything.”

McGuire said that in cold water temperatures, the deeper an angler fishes the better. “And as it warms,” he said, “start fishing in closer again.”

Danny Stasny from Island Discount Tackle at Catchers Marina said he’s been hearing about sheepshead along local docks and trout in deeper pot holes. And when you do find the trout,” Stasny said, “there will be a lot of them. What’s kind of been the deal is Berkley Gulps and live shrimp, working them with a slow presentation.”

Stasny said he saw a couple schools of redfish last week, but he said the reds have been very spooky. “So you’ve got to find where they are, or expect where they’re going to be and sneak up on them,” he said. “Throw a bait like they’re already there. The water is very clear so you can see them from far away. Be really slow and stealthy.”

Stasny said offshore he’s hearing about a good grouper bite between 20 to 30 miles. Most of the grouper he’s hearing about are 25-30 inches long.

He added that there’s a good porgy bite in the same areas. “You’ve got to get through the porgies before you can get to the gags,” he said. “If you like fish stew or chowder, you can load up on porgies, which are great to eat.”

Rocky Corby from Anna Maria City Pier said there’s been an occasional sheepshead caught, but not much else. “There’s nothing,” Corby said. “I haven’t even seen any dead fish floating. Not even sharks have been caught.”

Tom Cassetty from Rod & Reel Pier said anglers were catching mostly black drum on oyster crabs and shrimp. A few sheepshead are around the pier as well. Cassetty said he expects a swarm of sheepshead around the pier by March, as well as some redfish.

Capt. Mark Howard of Sumotime Charters also predicts the fish will turn on as they recover from the freeze. He said to target redfish and sheepshead in deep water. “That’s what I’m concentrating on,” he said.

Capt. Warren Girle said he has been seeing a lot of dead pompano, snook and hundreds of dead mullet in various Longboat Key canals. “I wonder if someone netted them and threw them away,” Girle said.

Girle reported catching redfish, black drum and sheepshead, and he expects the fishing to be on fire once the water warms.

“It’s going to be a slow bite,” Girle said. “So you’ve got to crawl the bait right in front of their nose.”

Girle said he’s seen a lot of snook just under the water surface, barely alive, apparently trying to get some sun. “A couple actually swam right up to the boat,” Girle said. “They were just curious.”

Capt. Steven Salgado of the Compleat Angler said if water temperatures rise, he expects the redfish bite to improve. But don’t expect fishing to improve quickly, he said. “There’s been so many days of abnormal winter,” Salgado said. “We had really, really cold days for almost two weeks.”

For sheepshead, Salgado recommends chumming with piece of shrimp and baiting with small pieces of shrimp on a No. 4 hook. He suggests looking for areas where a dark, grass flat drops onto a ledge. Fish the dark, shallow flat by the ledge, he said, “and wait for a good tide when the sun is at its peak. “A good current keeps the water at a steady temperature.”

He said anglers should forget fishing at dusk and dawn, and instead fish between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the water has had a chance to warm.

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