Spanish mackerel have taken over the near-shore reefs and areas of hard bottom.
Vast schools have been smashing the scattered pods of sardines offshore. Birds such as terns, gulls and gannets help point out the location of the action as they dive in to grab wounded or airborne minnows.
Normally, these baitfish will school tightly around larger bottom features such as wrecks and rock piles, but so many macks have appeared that they have forced their prey into open water.
Once they isolate a bait school, the mackerel slowly circle it. Since none of the minnows wants to be on the outside edge of the pod, they squeeze together until they become a dark, dense "ball" of bait. Then, all the gamefish have to do is dart though the middle to grab an easy meal.
The macks typically eat them one at time, often cutting the sardines in half then circling for leftovers. Larger fish such as grouper and sharks are attracted to these swimming snack bars, and will rush in and gulp them by the mouthful. The larger the bait ball, the more likely you are to find additional species joining the action.
Kings, bonito, tarpon, cobia, huge gulf redfish and jacks are some of the species anglers may encounter when the bait schools are under attack.
Since these fish are feeding, hooking them usually is simple. A live sardine cast or slow trolled along the outer edge of the bait ball is as close to a sure thing as you will get. You may need to modify your tackle depending on what happens to be eating the baits.
If the kings or sharks are there, anglers will need to add a wire leader and use a medium to heavy rod. For the mackerel, an 8-10-pound spinning outfit with a long shanked hook and a few feet of flourocarbon leader works best.
If something grabs the bait, runs to the bottom then "rocks you up," keep tension on the line but do not break it off. Grab a heavier rod and drop a big pinfish in the same location. Since grouper often gather in an undercut or a hole in the limestone bottom, a "rocked-up" fish is an ideal indicator of precisely where the sweet spot is.
One captain reported catching 10 keeper gags by fishing where something had taken his surface-trolled blue runner to the bottom. If the area is hot, you could even tie a small marker float to the rocked line, clip it at the rod and anchor next to it. There always is a new trick, and the innovators occasionally are rewarded with great catches.
The king run has hit full stride, with many fish 20-plus pounds being caught. Since floating grass has been a problem in North Suncoast waters, slow trolling has been difficult. Most of the big kingfish have been landed while anchored. By setting up over hard bottom and chumming, anglers increase their chances of capturing kings and grouper.
There has not been a magic depth for kingfish. Some have been caught in less than 20 feet and others in 60 or 70. Our plan has been to keep one flat line out while bottom fishing, then adding more if there is a good run or a nice king is reeled in.
There have been a few cobia lingering, but most have been below the 33-inch fork length minimum size requirement.
Sooner or later, winter will rear its ugly head and put a damper on our great fall fishing. For the moment, however, the unusually mild conditions have been a blessing - particularly when compared to last year's prolonged bitter cold.