Saltwater fishing in North Florida takes advantage of one of the richest, and most diverse areas for fishing in the world. The list of available species includes tarpon, cobia, sea trout, redfish, flounder, sailfish, snapper and grouper, bluefish, jack crevalle, an occasional snook, and many others. There is really no bad time to fish this area, although some species are more available on a seasonal basis than others whether they are inshore, near shore, or offshore game fish.
MOSQUITO LAGOON REDS
This shallow waterway comes alive with the first hint of fall. “With the tail end of the hurricane season we normally have slightly higher water levels, and those first little bumps of north wind get the reds bunched up and heading to the tidal creeks,” said Capt. Scott Tripp. Tripp’s favorite creeks are those on the northern end of Mosquito Lagoon from Shotgun Pass to the Three Sisters. His favorite pattern is simple.
“Follow the creeks in, fishing the deeper bends as you go,” he advised. “Look for the smaller open bays inside. Some may not be more than 25-yards wide, and those that have grass in them are normally best. In the cool morning the reds tend to hang in the deeper bends, but as the sun gets up they fan out and tail in those shallow bays just off the channels.”
There is little tide movement in this area, but even a 6- to 8-inch falling tide moves the fish off of the extremely shallow flats and makes them accessible to boating anglers. Tripp prefers the falling tide and notes that a key to look for in these bays are deeper white sand holes in the grass.
“The reds find these on a falling tide,” he said. “But don’t be surprised to find a 6- to 10-pound trout parked in the middle of one.”
Moving north on the First Coast, the area from State Route 206 south to the Pellicer Creek flats also gets a boost from both cooling temperatures and masses of mullet.
“There is a major mullet run this month” said Capt. Tommy Derringer “and the reds are keyed to it. This is the forage they’re after and they climb as shallow onto the flats as the mullet run to get to it.”
The normal tide in this area is about 3-feet, although a hard east wind raises it. Derringer’s approach is simple.
“A high tide pushes mullet and reds right up onto any flat along the ICW,” he said. “The ones I want to fish are those with Spartina grass lines on them that have a two to three-foot depth at high tide.”
Catch those conditions on a high tide and Derringer recommends topwater plugs, and notes that while dim light is an asset, anglers can stay with them throughout the high tide this time of year
PINE ISLAND TROUT
The next stop northward is the Intra-Coastal Waterway from the St. Augustine Inlet, north to Pine Island.
“The mullet run is in full swing and they’re heading south along the ICW until they dump out of the St. Augustine Inlet,” said Capt. Larry Miniard. “Trout are keyed on this mass of bait, and they are going to be where they can feed on them most easily. The striking activity we get this month is some of the best we see all year.”
Normal tides in this area run 4 1/2 feet, but with northeast wind they can run to 6 feet. That is a lot of water moving through this area, and the baitfish follow that water. Miniard plans his day accordingly.
“On the early rising tide I want to be along the main ICW where a shallow flat abuts a Spartina grass line and has a sharp drop to deeper water right next to it. Big trout, and we catch fish over 8-pounds every October, move into just a couple of feet of water if they can corral baitfish and shrimp against a solid wall like Spartina grass. But, they don’t want to be more than a tail flip or two away from a deeper water haven “.
The rising tide can be a hunt and peck affair, since many such depth and cover situations dot the ICW. When the tide falls, the game changes.
“Those trout follow the tide and the baitfish up into every creek along the ICW and then into the feeder creeks that lead to the flats,” Miniard said. “When the tide falls and the flats go dry, they have to come out.”
One of the quickest ways to tie into serious trout fishing this month is to enter the main creeks on the last half of the falling tide, and hit the mouth of every small intersecting creek that leads from the flats. Among those creeks that are invariably productive are Casa Cola, Sombrero, the Guana River, Pancho, Robinson, Stokes Creek, and the Seaplane Basin. If the bait is there, and the tide is dropping, you can count on trout.
Further north this area has a well-deserved reputation for producing some of the heaviest spotted sea trout in the state, and October is one of the premier months to target them.
“All of the mullet and shrimp that have spent the summer months down river are now heading north to pour out of the Mayport Inlet,” Capt. Tony Bozzella said, “and those big trout are right behind them.”
Eight- to 10-pound trout are not uncommon in this area, but they can be widely scattered during warmer weather. The fall mullet migration tends to concentrate them into several productive areas.
Among those that are traditionally productive is the back end of Mill Cove after the tide has risen several feet. Those big trout push into the shallow grass and oyster cover, where topwater plugs can provide exciting action.
Another is the sharply dropping coast along the dock-laden Fort Caroline shore. On a rising tide the trout push right up to the shoreline bulk heads to corral mullet. When the tide falls, and it moves fast along this stretch, they slip into the eddy behind dock pilings where they can nail any passing mullet. Topwater plugs and jerkbaits can be deadly on the rising tide, while jerkbaits and plastic-tailed jigs get the nod on the ebb.
The Fort George area is another excellent bet.
ST. AUGUSTINE TARPON
The massive October movement of mullet makes for hot action on trout and reds in the ICW. But, it also fires up the tarpon around the St. Augustine Inlet.
“You’ve got mullet pouring out the Inlet, and you also have big schools migrating south along the beaches,” Capt. Dennis Goldstein said. “There have been tarpon feeding behind the shrimp boats in 35 to 60 feet of water all summer, and if the water temperature stays in the mid-to-upper 70s — which it usually does this month — they are now exploding on those beach mullet pods.”
The migrating mullet schools normally run 200 to 400 feet off the beach and can be found within four or five miles north or south of the Inlet. They’re not hard to find.
“I normally kick my boat up onto a slow plane and run the beach,” Goldstein said. “You can see the mullet schools rippling right along the surface and the ones that have tarpon working them aren’t hard to spot. You see massive surface strikes and even tarpon cartwheeling in the air. It’s a very visual thing.”
Getting in on the action is easy. The first step is to cast-net a dozen mullet and get them into the livewell. Goldstein prefers those in the eight to ten inch range. His preferred rig is a heavy action 7 1/2-foot spinning rod spooled with several hundred yards of 65-pound braided line. A Cajun Thunder rattling cork is tied onto the braid and a 4- or 5-foot, 80-pound fluorocarbon leader runs off of that with a 6/0 circle hook forming the business end, with a live mullet hooked through the nose.
“Sometimes,” Goldstein noted, “when a tarpon blows up in the middle of a mullet pod they leave a big ‘hole.’ If you can get your bait into that hole, you probably hook up. But, there is almost more than one tarpon in a mullet pod. You can even have schools of them, so just get your bait into the middle of the pod and let that Cajun Thunder cork work for you.”