© St. Petersburg Times, published September 27, 2002
Storm slows things down
With a week's worth of weather better suited for surfing than fishing, most offshore action has been put on hold. But calmer seas and improved weather will raise the bar to where it was before Hurricane Isidore.
Mangrove snapper fishing in Tampa Bay is as good as it gets. We anchored over a ledge in an area of the shipping channel 3 miles inside the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Fifty mangos later, we pulled anchor. Dave Laggner's 5-pounder was our largest, but several in the 3- to 4-pound range worked us on 20-pound tackle.
Bait is the key, and right now it's plentiful. Call them what you want -- horse minnows, pilchards, scaled sardines -- but we call them whitebait, and they're simply the best. Other than the few juvenile Spanish sardines mixed with them, every other bait is a distant second.
Much heartier than threadfin herring, commonly known as "greenbacks," whitebait tend to live longer and stay healthy even when cramped in the livewell.
With just enough easterly wind to keep the waters at the mouth of Tampa Bay relatively clear, bait has continued to gather. Schools of 2- to 3-inch whitebait may be found on the flats along the approach to the Skyway on the Pinellas side. These are perfect size. Other areas include the swashes along the barrier keys leading out of Bunces Pass. Both piers at Fort De Soto as of Wednesday had bait stacked beneath them. While the gulf pier won't be open to land-based anglers for another month while lights are being installed, it likely will be well worth the wait. Schools of large and small bait are clinging to the structure, and the new artificial reefs there will get better with age.
When going offshore is again an option, look for mackerel to share top billing. On a trip last week before the blow, we wrecked them. Six miles offshore and south of the shipping channel, we caught more than 100. Anchored near structure and aided by a fast outgoing tide, we were able to keep them going as long as we continued live chumming. Again, whitebait made the difference. Having 30 premade rigs kept lines in the water while the bite was on.
-- Jay Mastry charters Jaybird out of St. Petersburg. Call (727) 321-2142.