|Sight-fishing for tarpon occurs in the northern reaches of the Bay.
I've lived in Florida for 30 years and have fished most of the better waters of the state. But over that time I'd pretty much written off Tampa Bay. Too many people in nearby overcrowded cities was one bash against the Bay. Lots of water, but pollution and loss of key habitat, such as grass beds and mangroves was a knock against it, too.
But that was then, and this is now. Times have changed significantly for the better in this part of Southwest Florida. Tampa Bay is back from the edge of oblivion, and just like many other fishermen, for too long I'd overlooked the great angling available in the big Gulf-side bay (Florida's largest open estuary at 400 square miles) on the doorsteps of Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Tampa Bay has cleaned up its act. Its grass beds are flourishing, and its mangroves are bright-green and healthy. Gone are the devastating commercial gillnets that destroyed baitfish and gamefish. Size, number and season limits on the sport-fish harvest preserve the populations of such prized fighters as snook, seatrout, redfish and others. Water quality is improving, as environmental advances have had positive impacts throughout the Bay region.
The results have been surprising, much to the delight of area anglers who have been singing the Bay's praises the last few years.
"I can go out almost any day and find good numbers of snook, and baitfish are abundant and healthy," said Captain Billy Nobles. "The water looks great and there are healthy grass beds in places where I've not seen them in years. Tampa Bay is offering better fishing now than at any time I can remember, and I've lived here all my life."
Nobles lives on a canal just off the Bay, near the town of Ruskin. Recently we were out on the water at first light. We motored a short distance and started fishing docks and back ends of canals within sight of his house.
"Canals and creeks all around Tampa Bay are loaded with snook, and there are some huge fish - 20-pounders at times," he said while firing a soft-plastic jerkbait under docks and tight to canal breakwalls. "Dawn, dusk and night are prime times for snook. But I catch canal fish all day. Big jack crevalle, ladyfish and even an occasional tarpon are in canals, too."
|(Clockwise from top left) Redfish, snook, trout and tarpon comprise half of a remarkable variety of fish species available to Tampa Bay anglers.
Photos: Bob McNally
We spent an hour working canal docks, and while we had several fish hooked, all were lost, including a heavy snook that wove my fishing line through pilings like a spider spinning its web.
"Tide's right for working creek mouths a short run from here." Nobles said as he stowed rods and fired the Yamaha on his skiff. "Let's ride."
We motored out of the canals into calm Tampa Bay. The city skyline loomed across broad water to our north, as we ran fast southwest and parallel to shore. That portion of the bay front is largely undeveloped. The bank is a maze of mangrove creeks and islands curiously reminiscent of wilder Florida places in the Ten Thousand Islands. The clear water was inviting. Vibrant-green grass beds mottled the bottom.
At a creek mouth just 20 minutes from the canals, Nobles slowed his boat and idled into the mangrove-lined stream. He shut off the outboard, moved to the bow and slipped into a falling creek tide with his electric motor.
The tide was pulling strong, and far up the creek we spotted stout snook striking near mangrove points with one good fish ominously cruising near banks. It was a happening snook spot.
For the next two hours we were into linesiders, casting grub jigs, soft-plastic jerkbaits and shallow-running MirrOlures. While none of the fish were big, most weighing three to eight pounds, we saw several heavyweights that refused everything we tossed to them.
When the tide and our fishing went slack, Nobles eased out of the creek mouth, running farther south toward the mouth of Tampa Bay and the open Gulf - a place, incidentally, where Spanish and king mackerel abound. Nobles slipped into a nondescript spot along an unmarked bank. A small shell bar rose up from submerged turtle grass in about four feet of water.
"Ought to be a few redfish here, maybe a snook, too," Nobles said as he fired a gold weedless spoon to the shells.
On the first cast his rod bowed under the weight of a four-pound redfish. And I barbed a fish with my first cast as well, though mine was a two-pound seatrout. We followed with another redfish and several snook and trout.
"Time to run," Nobles said after a dozen fruitless casts to the rock pile.
He ran back northeast, toward the canals where we'd started our day.
"I've been seeing a few nice cobia in the shallows, usually just haphazard fish following stingrays," he said above the outboard blare. "But there's a rock pile I know where we just might see some cobia."
There were, indeed, cobia on the rocks, which is where we hooked a double-header - a pair of 18-pounders. There were six or eight cobia in a loose school, and they moved in a wide, irregular pattern around the rocks. It was difficult to see them, as the wind had come up and clouds covered the sun from time to time. But when we would spot feeding cobia and made good casts to them, we had instant hookups. We had four or five fish on and landed, the best being our 18-pounders.
Big Bay Cheat Sheet
|Trolling motors help fishermen slip silently into creeks and mangrove points.
Photo: Bob McNally
While my morning on Tampa Bay with Nobles was good by any measure, it's by no means an isolated event. Plenty of area fishermen have been scoring regularly on the Bay's abundant fish for years. Many guides earn a good living off the Bay these days, too, which shows that the water is healthy and sport-fish abound.
"Tampa Bay's redfishing is excellent, especially in spring and fall," says Captain Dave Markett, a longtime area resident and regular on the redfish tournament circuit, which holds events in the Bay area. "Reds can be found all over the Bay, but naturally anywhere there are shell beds is prime. Some of the small islands due south of St. Petersburg, near the open Gulf, are especially choice red drum spots."
Tarpon are making a strong comeback, too. Shallow-water sight fishing for tarpon is available every summer in the far northern "upper" reaches of Tampa Bay. Tarpon can be found way up in bays, feeder rivers and back-bay pockets, usually on flats. They'll hit streamer flies, live baits and jigs. A one-ounce black-and-silver DOA Bait Buster is a favorite local tarpon lure. The Bait Buster looks like a small marine catfish, which is a delicacy to tarpon.
In addition to catfish, Tampa Bay tarpon feed heavily on small bay anchovies (locally called krill) and menhaden. The abundance of bait - particularly sardines - in the Bay undoubtedly has had a positive influence on the number of tarpon available during summer. Bait stocks have increased dramatically, say Bay fishermen, since the Florida net ban went into effect 11 years ago. Tarpon also gorge on 12- to 18-inch long ladyfish, at times herding them into pods and crashing them like schools of mullet. There are more ladyfish of that size now, too, because the nets are gone.
Tampa's tarpon season begins in mid-April around the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the lower Bay, as 76- to 78-degree water temperatures draw in bait and silver kings from the open Gulf of Mexico. Tarpon (30- to 130- pounders) hold around the deep-water bridge, and fishermen catch plenty there until July when blistering hot weather scatters schools. This sends tarpon to the upper reaches of the Bay - past downtown St. Petersburg and into downtown Tampa. Upper Tampa Bay splits into Hillsborough Bay and Old Tampa Bay, and tarpon can be found throughout the area.
Boat ramps are available at many locations around Tampa Bay. Most are shown on NOAA charts and on the Florida Atlas & Gazetteer (DeLorme Map Company, (207) 846-7000). For visiting anglers who want a marina with good facilities, the Mariner's Club Bahia Beach Island Resort & Marina ((813) 645-3291) in Ruskin is a good choice. It caters to fishermen and is near top-notch Bay angling.
Sutton Channel, near the Convention Center in downtown Tampa, is loaded with tarpon. Almost any summer morning fish can be found there rolling. The waters around Davis and Harbor islands, right in Tampa, are also good and so is the nearby Hillsborough River, which cuts the heart of the city.
One of the more remarkable and largely overlooked fisheries in Tampa Bay is for permit - the same fish so famous for snubbing the offerings of anglers in the Florida Keys and elsewhere. Captain Jim Lemke enjoys outstanding big permit fishing near the mouth of Tampa Bay. Much of his best fishing is off beach areas, around sandbar edges near the Gulf of Mexico. The Anna Maria Island and Fort Desota areas are especially good for permit, he says.
Sight fishing for beach and sandbar permit is great in the Gulf, and fish can be huge. They average 20 pounds, but Lemke has seen 50-pound giants.
Live crabs are deadly, and sometimes live shrimp work. Lures are not as effective as bait, but jigs catch some permit, too. Permit begin showing along Tampa Bay area beaches in April, and the fishing stays good through July. Permit often are found right with tarpon during the run of heavy silver kings.
Tampa Bay is a flats- and bay-boat anglers' dream, even in regions near the open Gulf. But the Bay is big and shallow (averaging just 12 feet deep), and it can get rough in a hurry. Wise anglers therefore tend to fish leeward water, usually grass flats, shell bars, rock piles, canals and mangrove areas. And because there are plenty of launch ramps spotted around the bay, there's no reason to run across big, open water in small boats designed for no more than a light chop.
Besides, the fishing is too good in Tampa Bay to leave.