"Successful Scouting"

Allen Applegarth

Allen Applegarth
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Allen Applegarth is the author of the recently published book, Florida Fishing. He lives and writes in St Pete, Florida
Mid day, blazing sun, cold water, shallow flats, these are the four perfect conditions for catching inshore fishes in the winter months.  Some fish head offshore to deeper water while others stay inshore to seek out warmth.  There may be a standard as to where fish go in general, but there are plenty of strays lurking where they are not supposed to be. Take a day off to do a little scouting and you will see what I mean.
Tampa Bay offers some great winter fishing, whether in the shipping channel for grouper or on the flats for snook, reds, and cobiayou're sure to find a delightful spot that satisfies your craving for excitement.

Last week we decided to scout the areas between the Skyway and Gandy bridges.  We started around 11am on a clear sunny day.  We began running the flats nearest the skyway, working up the St. Pete side to the Gandy.  This shallow stretch of flats runs nearly the entire span between the two bridges, with  occasional breaks for inlets.  Throughout the stretch you will find many deep holes and ledges that hold fish year round.

As we trolled and poled our way up the flats we were smiling quite often.  Not much was going on near the skyway flats, however, from the coquina key's area to and around Weeden Island, we were full of smiles!  Our first encounter was a massive snook that looked to be a 25 pounder, just hovering on the surface in very skinny water.   Along the way, we observed several "bonnethead" sharks cruising the flats and numerous spottings of cruising cobia.   Snook were spotty but were usually found in deeper holes or protruding the surface in very skinny water.  As we neared the Coast Guard inlet, (just as the flats were getting deeper) we observed a school bait fish breaking water.  Closely behind was a slue of line-sliders (snook)  heading out to the flats.  The snook were indeed following the bait fish, however they did not seem too aggressive.  They were probably coming out from the backwater near Mastrys Bait & Tackle.

We continued to the next area of flats which is on the north side of the St. Pete Pier.   As we crossed the inlet to Demans Landing and the Pier, several fishermen aboard a passing boat yelled "grouper are slamming almost any bait in the shipping channel."  Apparently, they were out of bait from all the action.

Not much action was going on until we reached the Weeden Island area. By this time is was about 3:00 p.m. and we decided to stop to have our packed lunch.  We were positioned close to the island, near the Northeast corner that leads to the discharge gates.  As we set there eating and discussing our plans for tomorrows trip, we heard some loud pops and immediately knew the beautiful music of feeding snook.   Our lunches took second priority and we pushed up near the action.  Indeed, we saw several snook cruising the mangrovesreeking havoc on available bait.  Soon the action ended and we went back to eating our lunches.

No more than 5 minutes past till my eyes opened wide and food fell from my mouth.   A train of 10 to 20 pound snook was working their way up the edge of the mangroves.    At least 15 snook passed directly under our boat completely ignoring our movement.  After a brief discussion we came to the conclusion that since the sky was beginning to cloud up, the temperature was dropping, and daylight was slowly burning to the endthe snook must be returning to the warmer water near the discharge gate.   With this in mind, we decided to see just where they were heading.  We went up to the gates and waited near the shoreline.  Several minutes later we saw the same train of snook coming toward us.  The school came to the edge (where the discharge water separates the shoreline) and disappeared in the deeper water.  After seeing the amount of fish heading to the gates for nighttime refuge, we decided to go home and get our gear.

That night we arrived with a full well of large white bait, pins, and shrimp.  My fishing partner (Aaron Grassman) got the first line in, and you bettcha "the first fish."  His cast was a direct hit, right on the edge of the shoreline that drops off to a 3 ft ledge.  Immediately, a 20 inch red was fighting for its freedom!   As we worked surrounding areas, Aaron managed to pull in several other keeper size reds while I got nothing!  I took a second to clear my mind and figure out what the problem was.  I thought back to earlier when we saw the slue of snook heading to the center of the discharge.  Then the recall of my many snags there during past trips.   I put two and two together and slapped myself for forgetting how to find fish in swift moving currents.  I baited up and estimated where the snag magnet (underwater structure) was and dropped in near the gate for a long drift and sink.  I felt my bait hit the snag and roll off, then one hell of a slam and a ripping run!   "It's gotta be a big snook" I yelled!  Bursting out of the water came a beautiful snook, airborne completely (picture perfect)!  We estimated the snook to weigh at least 20 pounds.

NOTE: I was using a custom made rod from Paul Sferrazza.  The rod is made with twisted glass that has great spot casting ability and plenty of back bone.  It seemed as if the rod was going to fold at first, but the more the snook pulled, the stronger the rod reacted.  Great rod Paul, thanks!

After releasing the snook, I noticed about 10 raccoons watching us from the banks. You could almost read their hungry little minds! Twenty minutes later I hooked into a   chubby 10 pounder.  Aaron and I were having a great time, however, I noticed most of our bait kicked the bucket and sent us on a desperate hunt for more bait.

In the meantime, another boat pulled up into our spot with four anglers aboard.   They ran the outboard all the way to the fishing spot.  If that was not enough, they had a row of spot lights that look as if a 4 by 4 truck were gleaming directly into the water.  We were probably a half mile away and could hear every word, and see their every move.  What a group of morons.

We caught our bait and returned to the spot for a short period, only to find everything spooked, including the raccoons.  Still in the fishing mood, we decided to hit a few of the many oyster bars located in the area.  We picked up several more reds from various bars, and ended the night with a 30 pound black drum in our cast net.   That night it seemed as if fish were falling into our hands!

The following day we decided to try our luck on the flats.  Having logged some of the spots where we observed fish the prior day, we hit these areas first.  The first action was a huge snook that I persuaded to chase my bait.  He forced it to the top and watched closely as my bait became dizzy from spinning in circles.  Twenty minutes of this and we were ready to move to a new spot.

Our day produced numerous small snook from  holes, a few cobia that happened to cruise byone 37 pounder, and some reds.

Take my word for it, scouting really pays off if you do it right.  Do not take any fishing gear when you go scouting or you will not be able to resist stopping to try your luck when you see a fish.  They will be there under the same conditions.  Take a log book and write down what you observe so you can return to the same areas.

If you would like more detailed information on scouting, check out my article entitled "Blistering Heat = Good Fishing."  It goes into more detail about summer scouting, however, use the same principles and apply it to winter fishing.  The only difference is that the water surrounding the holes will be cooler in the winter (leaving you a warm hole)  and hotter in the summer (leaving you a cooler hole).  This method allows you to target fish to a certain areameaning you do not have to hope you float your bait over a fish.

Allen Applegarth

Manufactures and Skippers who wish to participate in my new United States Fishing Book, please visit my Home Page.

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