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Sardines schools signal the fall frenzy

Published September 30, 2006

Fall is in the air, and good things are happening along the Nature Coast.

A few miles offshore, schools of small sardines have shown up in large numbers. The arrival of these tiny minnows is the catalyst for a wide range of changes below the surface. Spanish mackerel, bluefish, jack cravelle, bonito, and kingfish all follow this nomadic food source.

Recent trips off Bayport and Hernando Beach have shown frenzied swarms of these game fish ravaging the pods of bait. Many of the mackerel have been exceptional in size, with 5-pounders common, and 7- and 8-pounders mixed in. Simply pulling alongside the school and casting small, shiny jigs or spoons into it usually produces an instant hook-up. One cast may produce a mackerel and the next a bluefish, but the action is definitely fast paced. Most of this excitement has been in 15 to 30 feet of water. Flocks of birds, which feed on the scraps left by the hungry fish, usually accompany each bait pod.

If you find this kind of activity, there is a chance there is a big kingfish lurking nearby. The early arriving kingfish seldom weigh less than 25 pounds and 40-plus-pounders are taken each fall. Last year I speared a 32-pounder while free-diving in just 13 feet of water off New Port Richey. Greg Freeman landed a 45-pounder on light tackle in the same spot the year before. The conditions were the same then as they are right now; cooling weather, early signs of bait and mackerel activity, and an occasional sighting of an airborne king.

To target the big kings it is important to use large baits. Since the Spanish mackerel run so large here, normal kingfish baits such as threadfin herring and sardines are often intercepted by mackerel. When there is an abundance of Spanish mackerel in an area, they are one of the top kingfish baits. Have a stinger, or double stinger rig ready, then, when you land a lively mackerel, hook it on the wire rig quickly and troll it around the area. This technique has produced many tournament-winning kings.

The minnow migration is also key to the arrival of gag grouper along inshore rocks. Over the years, the gags' movement into shallower water has coincided with the arrival of these prolific baitfish. It is likely that many actually follow the minnows to the rocks or structures where they both settle.

When targeting the nearshore gags in the early fall, the presence of bait is crucial. Fishermen will discover that even the best rock pile will hold few grouper if the bait is not there. Conversely, even a small rock with a stack of tiny minnows hanging above it may hold a pack of active gags. By closely monitoring the depth recorder for signs of bait while idling over a potential hot spot you can skip the duds, and keep moving in search of the prime feeding stations. On calm days you may also notice the 1-inch baitfish dimpling the surface. Some of the bait pods are on the run and not holding on any particular bottom feature, so the bait alone is not necessarily a sign of grouper. When you do locate a school holding over a rock pile or ledge, that is where you want to drop a line to the bottom.

The brief fall run of cobia is in full swing right now and usually ends by mid-October. Unlike the spring run, most of these fish stay off the flats and move south along the reefs and rock piles in 20 to 75 feet of water. The bigger wrecks and ledges produce the best, but a straggler may be encountered just about anywhere for the next few weeks.

[Last modified September 29, 2006, 20:44:10]

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