Slam! The rod arched toward the water in a violent spasm. The drag sang in chorus with the stiff autumn breeze as it whistled across the line drawn tight as a banjo string. It was a wonderful tune. The reel screamed in protest as the fish stole yard after yard of line from its spool, with no apparent intent of ever returning it.
"What is it?" someone shouted. "I don't know, but I know it's not an AJ. It's not running to the bottom. could be a cobia, bonito, or a king from the way it's stripping line."
A few minutes into the battle we got our first silhouetted glimpse of the fish below. "Looks like a shark," someone yelled, "Or maybe a giant catfish!" But, I knew what that telltale cocoa brown shape meant. Cobia!
The fish had taken a chartreuse Bagleys Stretch 25+ slow trolled on an 8 pound test spinner in about 35 feet of water. That fish came to the boat and said "good-bye" again a total of eight times in about 25 minutes before finally feeling the gaff. She turned out to be 18 pounds, 9 ounces. Talk about light tackle fun!
That trip also yielded some large flounder, lots of black seabass, and some grouper. All were taken on the trolled Stretch 25 in different colors. that day we were fishing just a couple of miles offshore of Sarasota, Florida. The lesson here is that when the weather cools down, nearshore and offshore fishing can really heat up. And you don't have to go far to feel the heat.
Fall is the time of year when many of the offshore fish are moving south along the coast to their winter quarters. They're likely to scarf anything in their path as they gorge themselves trying to expand their waistlines with winter fat reserves. The fall run means bonito, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, and cobia nearshore. It also means grouper are moving into shallower water. In years past we've had lots of keeper sized red and black grouper literally just off the beaches in 25 to 30 feet of water. Well offshore you can catch everything mentioned, plus the amberjacks should also be hungry.
Fall and winter brings the fish in close. That means you can get to them in just about any kind of boat. If your boat is small, just wait for a good day when the winds are down. I would have no qualms about going 2 or 3 miles offshore in a jonboat on a good day. Just make sure you have the proper safety equipment and at least a portable radio in case you do get into trouble.
Once you're on the water there are a couple of ways to locate mackerel and bonito. Trolling is probably the most effective way because you can cover lots of water in a relatively short time. While you're trolling keep your eyes and attention on the water around you. Look for birds, and kind of seabirds. Birds will often give away a school of macs or bonito as they dive into the bait that is driven to the surface by the feeding fish. Sometimes you won't see birds. Rather you will see an area of rippling or disturbed water caused by the bait lying right on the surface.
Once you've found a likely looking school, I'd advise you to approach quietly. If you are going to cast to the school, I suggest you use your trolling motor to make your final approach. Don't run into the school Stay on the outside, about a cast's distance away. Cast all around the school with your spoon, jig, or plug. A standard issue white jig from 1/4 to 1 ounce is probably the best choice for bonito. You're likely to take the larger fish from around the outside of the school. If you don't have a trolling motor on your boat position yourself upwind, and let the wind bring you in quietly.
Many fishermen use wire leader to keep from getting cut off. I have never like wire, and personally think you'll get more strikes if you use a short piece of 40 to 50 pound monofilament. You may still get cut off once in a while, but you'll have a lot more fun. Also, try to avoid using shiny hardware in the line. Use line-to-line connections where possible, and black swivels when it's not. You don't want mackerel biting you line in two.
If you're trolling, don't run across or through the school. Rather work around the outside edges. I usually try to put out several different sizes of Reflecto spoons. I'll also use planers to put them at different depths until I figure out what's working. I also like to drag one deep-running plug while I'm trolling for mackerel and bonito. the deep runner often turns up nice flounder, seabass, grouper, or cobia. Bagleys makes a bait that will dive to 45 feet when slow-trolled on light tackle.
If you're more interested in trolling for grouper, cobia etc., you may want to change your strategy a bit. Look for the depressions that are often found offshore in water 35 to 40 feet deep. These depressions are usually only a couple of feet deeper than the surrounding waters, and will often be marked with a string of crab trap buoys. Yes, the crabbers often put their traps along these ledges, and they make an easy route for you to follow.
If it's kings you're interested in, they can usually be found in water as shallow as 40 to 45 feet this time of year. You'll have to use heavier tackle than you were using for Spanish, unless you were already using king sized tackle. You can troll to find the kings with spoons, King-Getters, or large Bomber lures. One of the most popular colors is gold.
Once you've found a concentration of kings, you may want to switch to live bait or plug casting tackle. For live baiting, of course, large shiners can't be beaten. Some like to use wire leader and a stinger hook. I prefer a short piece of heavier 80 to 100 pound mono tied to a long shank hook, and joined to a 30 to 40 pound shock leader with an Albright Special or equivalent. No hardware in the line. For casting plugs or spoons, I prefer baitcasting tackle spooled up with 14 to 20 pound test Silver Thread.
Another good method is to fish the many inshore reefs that dot our coastline. These reef can really heat up in the cool months and hold all kinds of surprises. You can troll around them, cast over them, or live bait them. If I'm going to work a reef site, or want to fish a particular piece of bottom, I'll drop a Suremark marker buoy on the spot for easy reference. Then I'll anchor or drift the marker depending on the kind of fishing we're doing. If you don't have on of these marks, I suggest you get one. they are manufactured in Sarasota, Florida, and are the most foolproof marker system I've yet seen. They offer great visibility from long distances even on rough days.
The best place to target cobia is probably around the nearshore reefs. Cobia aren't too fussy about depth or bait. They'll readily take live baits, and will take a variety of artificials, too. My favorite color is chartreuse. They'll hit anywhere from right on top to down on the bottom. Cobia are curious, and not very spooky. they'll often come to check you out while you're fishing for something else. I suggest you keep a baited rig ready to go in case a nosy cobia show up to check you out. Be ready to throw something as soon as you see those brown shadows under your boat.
If you want to target amberjack you'll have to be willing to run to deeper waters. The reefsites typically designated as D (distant) in most places, and other reefsites along the coast that are about the same distance offshore are the best choices for AJ's and big cobia. Of course, you can catch just about anything else out there, too. You can find location maps for all of the reefsites at most of the area tackle shops in coastal areas. The maps will give you distance and loran numbers for each reef.
Well, there you have a quick rundown of what you can expect on Florida's west coast, and in many other coastal waters when the weather starts to cool. If you don't own a boat, there are plenty of area guides that will be happy to take you out to chase your favorite species, as well as headboats for those who are on a budget. Come join the fun.
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