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September 21, 2007

Rip-Roaring Reds

Battling strong currents and even stronger redfish, anglers fishing the rips of central Florida's inlets get all the action they can handle.

"Just some reds at Sebastian." It was Captain Andy Novak's standard response whenever I asked him how the day's charter had gone. He always managed to pass off his reply with polite indifference, as is common among fellow guides. After all, we were both backcountry pros who took our own particular brand of fishing with a time-worn grain of salt. I figured that these "Sebastian reds" were nothing to get excited about, nothing I hadn't seen before in my home waters around Fort Lauderdale.

Then one day Captain Andy invited me along on a busman's holiday with fellow captain Brian Sanders. It was an experience that gave me a very different idea of what my friend's redfish trips were all about.

The action started practically at the boat ramp. Shortly after launching in the Indian River, we began hooking Spanish mackerel on the Sabiki rigs we were using to catch pinfish baits. The mackerel made a mess of things, but hooking ocean fish in the shallow Indian River gave me the distinct feeling that things were different here.

Sebastian Inlet, Florida
Athough Sebastian Inlet serves up fast-paced action with a host of species, anglers must pick their days according to sea conditions. When an east wind blows against the outgoing tide, the inlet can be too dangerous to fish.

After filling our live well and racing across several miles of grass flats, Andy turned the skiff towards the inlet. His order of "zip your slicker and stow your camera," had an ominous ring to it. I sensed that both captains were taking a perverse pleasure in what was about to happen. When we rounded the corner and I got my first look at Sebastian Inlet, I saw why. The wind and outgoing tide had turned the inlet into an inverted egg crate of boiling humps and valleys.

"Um, where are we going to fish?" I inquired sheepishly.

"Just past the jetty, in that rip," Brian answered nonchalantly, barely suppressing a smile. "But don't worry, we haven't lost anyone yet."

For the next few minutes, Andy and Brian worked to position us near the rip, a tricky business in the sloppy seas and powerful current. Eventually they dropped anchor on a sunken rock pile in 15 feet of water off to the side of the main channel, about 100 yards from the tip of the jetty. This allowed us to fish our baits in the current seam while avoiding the rough water of the main channel.

Simple Rigs

As we drifted into position, Andy slid a handful of live pinfish down the deck and we baited up. We were using basic "knocker" rigs, made by slipping a one-ounce egg sinker over a two-foot length of 60-pound mono leader. The sinker is allowed to rest directly against the eye of a 4/0 9174 Mustad hook. Depending on current speed, live baits can be hooked either through the upper jaw or under the tail.

Other than one eight-pounder, all of the reds caught on the author's outing were too large to keep under Florida  regulations.
Other than one eight-pounder, all of the reds caught on the author's outing were too large to keep under Florida regulations. Photo by Mike Knepper

"When your sinker hits bottom, keep your reel in gear and your line tight. That keeps the bait down," Brian explained as he free-spooled line, then paused to set the hook on the first fish of the day. Andy and I quickly followed suit. These first fish turned out to be small jacks and bluefish, which didn't put up a great fight on the 15- and 20-pound outfits we were using; however, we soon found ourselves pitted against more serious opponents.

First Andy, then Brian, hooked heavy, deep-running fish. This time I could hear their drags slipping, and after several minutes of give and take, both anglers managed to land a pair of nice redfish. From then until dusk we had double- and even triple-header redfish action, with a smattering of larger jacks and blues mixed in. Andy even released a small jewfish. Except for one "small" red of about eight pounds, the rest were too large to keep under Florida regulations. This included a 30-pounder Brian released just before dark.

And It Gets Even Better!

On the way back to the ramp, my companions evaluated the day's action. "The fishing was okay, but usually it's much better," Andy remarked. "Sometimes you'll hook your first one and the entire school comes up. Then the water turns red. When that happens, you can catch them on anything."

Double hook-ups are exciting enough, but Sebastian Inlet throws rough water into the mix to make for some unforgettable fishing.
Double hook-ups are exciting enough, but Sebastian Inlet throws rough water into the mix to make for some unforgettable fishing. Photo by Steve Kantner

Andy and Brian have fished the Central Florida inlets since their youth, and they've seen some incredible things over the years. According to both men, the same sort of action we enjoyed at Sebastian takes place at Ft. Pierce Inlet, as well as at Stuart and Jupiter Inlets farther south, when conditions are favorable.

"To start with, you want an outgoing tide," Andy explains, "but not one so strong that it's dangerous to fish or impossible to get your baits down."

He adds that wind speed and direction are also important. If the breeze is out of the north or east, Sebastian Inlet can be too dangerous to fish on an outgoing tide. Other inlets have their own idiosyncracies, and it's only through local knowledge and careful observation that anglers can safely take advantage of the winter action.

When it Happens

The main trick to fishing the inlets is going when the fish are there. Andy and Brian feel that January and February are the top months at Sebastian, since this is when large fish from the Indian River congregate in the deeper water of the inlet to feed on bait flushed out with the tide.

Because of the current and the size of the fish, medium to heavy tackle is in order. Andy and Brian use 15- or 20-pound spin and baitcasting gear and heavy-action rods. They either bait up with live mullet, pinfish or thread herring, or with one-ounce bucktail jigs tipped with iridescent curly-tailed grubs. Whether using bait or jigs, they cast out behind the boat and allow their rigs to bounce along the bottom through the rips.

All winter inlet trips require planning. Weather, more than anything else, determines the quality (and safety), of the day's outing. Since most of the action is confined to the outgoing tide it's important to be anchored in the prime spot at the right time. On this note, it's essential to anchor outside of the main channel so as not to interfere with boat traffic or expose yourself to the full force of the current. (Note: a breakaway grapnel or wreck anchor is a must in this fishery, due to the rocky bottom and dangerous currents.)

Along with tide data, area tackle shops carry the fresh shrimp and block chum needed to attract and catch the so-called "hard" baits such as pinfish, pigfish and sugar trout. These baits can be caught on tiny hooks and cut shrimp by anchoring near channel markers or at the edges of shallow grass beds in the river or Intracoastal prior to heading out to the inlet.

Local shops can also supply up-to-date information on sea conditions. Remember, if a sea is running, many inlets can become dangerous or downright impassable. If that happens, you can always fish inside for seatrout, bluefish and other light-tackle favorites.

Guides and Gear

Fishing the inlet with a local guide is a good idea, especially if you've never done it before. Five good charter captains in the Sebastian Inlet area are:

Capt. John Royall, (321) 254-3403
Capt. Charles Fornabio, (561) 388-9773
Capt. Gus Brugger, (561) 589-0008
Capt. Brian Sanders, (954) 802-0868
Capt. Andy Novak, (954) 525-2592

For bait, tackle and local information on tides and inlet conditions, stop by the Wabasso Tackle Shop, located at the corner of SR510 and US 1. You can also call the store at (561) 589-8518.

And speaking of variety, redfish, bluefish and jacks aren't the only game fish that work the inlet rips. Permit and tarpon often show up, especially during late-afternoon ebb tides. The tarpon are partial to the same baits that score with reds, while permit search the rips for drifting crabs.

So the good news is out: When temperatures on the flats drop to unfishable levels, the ocean inlets of east-central Florida are packed with big reds - and more. As long as you're flexible and willing wait for the right conditions, you could enjoy some the hottest fishing of the year.