Sarasota Trolling Techniques

Sarasota Trolling Techniques

Trolling on Sarasota Fishing Charters

There are many productive methods of catching fish.  Sarasota trolling is a technique that every angler should add to his or her arsenal.  Sarasota trolling techniques will help put more fish in the boat.  Anglers can find my current fishing report HERE.

Trolling is a technique that has proven to be extremely effective in saltwater fishing for a very long time.  Most anglers envision a large sportfishing boat out on the open ocean, trolling for tuna and marlin.  But trolling can also be deadly using fairly light tackle on inland waters, too.  I am a fishing guide and troll on fishing charters in Sarasota Bay, the Myakka River, and Lake Manatee.  During the cooler months, rivers, creeks, and residential canals offer anglers the chance to catch snook, jack crevelle, tarpon, and other species.  Flats and passes can be productive all year long.  Trolling produces in the Inshore Gulf of Mexico in the spring and fall.  Crappie, bream, and bass will hit trolled lures in freshwater lakes and rivers.  Trolling is a great technique to both locate and catch quality fish. 

Trolling in creeks and rivers

Rivers, creeks, and residential canals abound all throughout the state of Florida and provide good fishing at one time or another.  As the flats cool off, fish will migrate into these areas as they offer protection from the elements.  The best rivers and canals will provide fish the sanctuary of deep water as well as abundant structure.  The entire coastline of Florida offers these opportunities for anglers.

Snook took a big hit in the winter of 2010 as a prolonged cold snap dropped the water temperature into the upper forties.  I believe that if it wasn’t for the deep holes in the rivers where snook spend their winters, the damage would have been MUCH worse.  Numbers of smaller snook are on the increase while larger fish are regularly landed.  These are great signs and while snook were opened to a limited harvest, I still release all of them, even if a slot fish is landed in season.  Snook are magnificent gamefish, it would break my heart to kill one.  There are plenty of other good-eating fish to target, let those big girls go!

Sarasota trolling techniques

Anglers have been catching snook by Sarasota trolling for many years.  Back in the 50s the Spoonplug was the hot bait, and it still produces to this day.  I enjoy trolling shallow diving plugs and Rapalas are my personal favorite.  Rapala X-Rap Slashbaits in sizes #8 and #10 in, depending on the depth of the water and the size of the available forage, and Jointed BX Minnows work very well trolled as well as cast.  Firetiger, Gold Shiner, and gold are proven colors.  These lures have a great built-in action and strong, sharp hooks.  Most fish caught trolling will be hooked in the mouth, resulting in most being released unharmed.  Another advantage with these plugs is that they float, therefore when the boat is stopped they rise to the surface instead of sinking and getting hung up on the bottom.

Tackle and rigging for Sarasota trolling is pretty straightforward.  I use the same rods and rigging for trolling as I do when casting the same baits.  A 7’ spinning or baitcasting rod and reel with 40 lb braid and 30” of 40 lb fluorocarbon leader is all that is required.  Then it is simply a matter of letting back a hundred feet of line and driving up the river or canal at idle speed or a touch above.  Florida rivers tend to undulate; the depth will change quite often.  Many times the fish will lie on these breaks or edges, waiting to ambush bait; fish-holding structure is not always visible.  It is surprising how many big fish will bust a plug right out in the middle, giving the angler a good chance to land it.

I have my clients on Sarasota fishing charters hold the rod when trolling, for several reasons.  First off and most important, it is more enjoyable as they get to feel the strike.  Also, the lures I use don’t dive very deep, so having the client keep the rod near the surface maximizes the depth that the plug will run.  These plugs “vibrate” and if a piece of debris is picked up the angler can usually feel it and then clear the bait.  And finally, it can be a bit tricky removing a rod from the holder when the boat is moving and the rod is bent double!

Trolling inshore

Trolling with light tackle also produces very well inshore.  I do a lot of drifting on my Sarasota fishing charters, both in the passes and over deep expanses of grass.  There are usually other anglers fishing, so courtesy dictates a slow idle back around to make another drift.  Since we will just be easing along, why not drag a bait behind?  My go-to lure is a #8 X-Rap in olive or glass ghost (white), it has been very productive as it matches the bait we have in our area.  Once the treble hooks get beat up, I remove them and add a single 1/0 hook on the rear.  The hook-up ratio remains good and it makes releasing fish MUCH easier.  In fact, some plugs now come with a strong single hook for just this reason.

Again, just let out about half the spool and move at idle speed or just above.  Many times clients catch more fish doing this than they do when drifting and casting.  Spanish mackerel in particular find it difficult to resist a fast moving plug, but bluefish, ladyfish, jacks, trout, and other species will also fall prey to this method.  One technique that often pays off is the twitch the rod tip sharply while trolling along.  This will often times elicit a violent strike!  Fish find the little pause where the plug drops back to be irresistible at times.

Sarasota trolling is also a good technique to employ when fish are scattered about over a large area.  The best approach is to move into the tide or wind and when a fish is hooked the boat is stopped.  Anglers can then cast jigs, plugs, or spoons as the boat drifts back over the school.  As action drops off, resume trolling again until another bunch of fish is found.  One benefit to this is that the same lures that are great trolling baits are also equally effective cast out and retrieved back in; there is no need to have separate trolling and casting outfits.

Sarasota trolling will produce at the same spots inshore as other methods.  Grass flats in four feet to ten feet of water will hold speckled trout, mackerel, bluefish, ladyfish, and other species.  Edges of drop offs are good spots to try as well.  Both Big Sarasota Pass and New Pass are terrific spots to troll for Spanish mackerel and bluefish.  These open sandy areas are large and trolling is a great way to locate fish.

Trolling the inshore Gulf of Mexico

Sarasota trolling techniques

Sarasota trolling has been a staple of anglers fishing the inshore Gulf of Mexico for many years.  Pelagic species such as king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, false albacore, and cobia migrate along the west coast of Florida.  These game fish follow behind the huge schools of bait fish.  This is their primary forage.   A fast moving plug or spoon mimics the prey.  This is a very easy technique than any angler can employ to catch a big fish!

Plugs are a great choice when Sarasota trolling.  The larger the lip on the plug, the deeper it will dive.  Fairly stout tackle will be required when trolling a large plug.  Conventional tackle in the 30 pound class is perfect.  Heavy spinning tackle will work as well.  A plug that dives down fifteen feet or so is perfect to target a large king mackerel.  I prefer to use a 5′ piece of 80 pound flourocarbon leader instead of wire.  Wire will prevent cut-offs but will limit strikes.

Game fish will hold over hard bottom, ledges, and artificial reefs.  Sarasota County has an extensive artificial reef program.  Several are close to shore for anglers with a small boat.  Ledges and good bottom can only be located by spending time out on the water.  Once located, these spots will produce year after year.  Bait schools milling on the surface can be an indication of structure below.

Small plugs can also be extremely effective in the Gulf of Mexico.  Often times the bait is very small.  A #8 Rapala X-Rap is a prefect match for the smaller forage.  White is a very productive color.  Surface activity will alert anglers to the presence of game fish.  Mackerel and false albacore can be seen terrorizing helpless baitfish on the surface.  The best approach is to skirt the edge of the feeding fish.  Do not drive the boat right through the action.  They will go down and may not resurface.

Spoons also produce a lot of fish.  Clark Spoons and other manufacturers make special spoons designed for trolling.  Spoons can be used when Sarasota trolling in a couple of different ways.  Due to boat speeds, some type of device is needed to get the spoon down in the water column.  The easiest method is to tie a trolling sinker to the end of the line.  These are torpedo shaped and come in a variety of weights.  A ten foot long leader is tied to the sinker and then a trolling spoon is tied to the tag end.  This is really quite simple and deadly on Spanish mackerel.

Planers are another device used to get spoons down deeper.  They are effective but are a bit more complicated.  The planer is tied onto the running line.  A twenty foot leader is attached to the planer, followed by the spoon on the tag end.  Planers come in several sizes, but #1 and #2 planers are the ones used in shallow Gulf of Mexico water.  A #1 planer will dive five to seven feet.  A #2 planer will dive down around fifteen feet.

The planer must be “set”.  This is done by slowly lowering the planer into the water after the spoon is let out.  With the ring up, water pressure will pull the planer down.  The planer is then let out behind the boat to the desired length.  The rod is then placed in a holder.  When a fish hits, the planer will “trip”, allowing the angler to fight the fish without the drag of the planer.  Plugs can be used with planers, but they must have a small lip.  Large lips will trip the planer.

Trolling in freshwater

Speckled perch (crappie, to our northern friends) are a favorite of Florida anglers and trolling for them has become a very popular.  The basics are the same, but the technique is a bit different.  As in other applications, trolling allows an angler to cover a lot of water in a short amount of time.  Jigs are most often used, but Beetlespins are also effective.  The Blakemore Roadrunner is a very productive bait that combines both a spinner and a jig in one lure.  Some anglers use spider rigs and other elaborate set-ups to get as many lines in the water as possible.  I prefer to keep it simple; once again having my client hold the road and enjoy feeling the strike.

Sarasota trolling techniques

On deeper lakes with distinct contour changes, the best approach is to very slowly troll back and forth over edges where the bottom changes depth, crappie will often hold in these locations.  Changing speeds on the turns will cause the lures to rise and fall, triggering strikes.  On shallower lakes, just drive around, skirting the edges of weedlines or over submerged vegetation until the fish are located.  On the flat, shallow Florida lakes, even the slightest depth change can make a huge difference.  Locating a trough or hole in a featureless lake will result in a reliable fishing spot.

So, the next time you are idling along on your favorite lake, river, or inland bay, try dragging a lure out behind the boat.  You never know what might eat it!

Sarasota snook surprise!

Sarasota Snook Fishing

Sarasota snook surprise

I have been running a bunch of family fishing charters this summer.  Most of these trips include children and novice anglers.  This limits the kind of fishing that I can do.  It is difficult to snook fish with four anglers.  However, the other day my client received a Sarasota snook surprise!  We were chumming with bait fish for speckled trout in six feet of water in the open bay.  Mitch got a bite and the fish dumped the spool!  I fired up the engine, pulled the anchor, and chased it down.  I thought it was a shark, but turned out to be a big snook!  They are rarely caught in open water like that.  Snook are schooled up pretty thick in the passes and out on the beach.

Sarasota snook surprise

Weekly Sarasota Fishing Report

Fishing was steady once again on the deep grass flats in Sarasota Bay.  It seemed like every flats with submerged grass in five feet to eight feet of water held speckled trout and other species.  Along with the trout, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, jack crevelle, gag grouper, mangrove snapper, sharks, ladyfish, catfish, and other species kept the rods bent for happy clients.  The best approach was to cast jigs for the first hour or two, then when the fishing slowed, switch to live bait.  Pilchards and threadfin herring are on the grass edges near the passes.  However, a lot of the bait is small.  Small bait clogs up the cast net and is harder to cast.  But, the fish don’t care, they are feeding on the available forage.  The Sarasota snook surprise was just the icing on the cake.

Finding clean water is also important.  We have started getting our afternoon rains.  That cools the water off, which is great!  However, it does add some “color”.  Some areas of the bay have clearer water and these are the spots to target.

Sarasota Summer Snook Fishing

Candice headed out on Sarasota Bay on a Sunday afternoon with her step-father to do a little tubing, a little fishing, and enjoy the afternoon on the water. The tide was running out hard and pass crabs were all over the surface. So, they netted a few up, dropped them to the bottom near some rocky structure in Big Pass, and before long she had her hands full with a large Sarasota snook! It was a tough battle in the swift tide, but Candice subdued the fish, hoisted it up for a quick photo, and released her unharmed to go make babies. She landed several others as well.

Sarasota snook surprise

An over-slot Sarasota snook caught at 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon? Yep. There is no doubt among anglers along the west coast of Florida that snook have made a rousing comeback since the big cold-water fish kill in 2010. Some anglers credit several mild winters for the increase in snook numbers while others feel the strict management of the species is responsible for the great action. Whatever the reason, snook are pleasing fisherman throughout the region.

As a guide in Sarasota, I am out on the water around 250 days a year. Clients on Sarasota fishing charters caught more snook this spring than they had in years, and in places that would not normally be associated with snook, especially open grass flats. Many of the snook are “schoolies” in the 16” to 24” range, but there are plenty of big fish around as well.

Local snook migrations are pretty basic. They move into creeks, rivers, and residential canals in the winter to escape the extreme temperature fluctuations of the flats. As it warms up they migrate out into the inshore areas to feed up, then by early summer most fish are in the passes and out on the beaches in preparation of spawning. The pattern the reverses itself as the fish move back into the bays and eventually back into the creeks if it gets cold enough.

Passes all along Florida’s west coast are full of snook of all sizes right now. Outgoing tides early or late in the day and at night are prime times to tame a linesider. Live bait will usually produce the most fish. Large pilchards are a prime bait, but hand-picked shrimp, 3” pinsfish and grunts, and as Candice proved, even crabs will entice a hungry snook. Stout tackle is required when fishing in heavy current and around structure. Diving plugs and soft plastics bumped along the bottom will fool wily snook as well.

Beach Snook Fishing in Sarasota

Sight casting for snook on the beach is great fun and lighter tackle can be used. Snook will cruise the surf line within a few feet of shore in search of a meal. These fish will spook, so a delicate presentation is required. Small white bucktail jigs are very effective, as are shrimp imitations and small plugs. Fly anglers score with white minnow patters such as the D.T. Special and Clouser Minnow.

Sarasota snook surprise

Most fly anglers find the idea of spotting a 28” fish in foot deep gin-clear water, quietly stalking it, presenting a fly and watching the take to be the pinnacle of fishing. Does it really get any better than that? That opportunity does exist from Tampa Bay all the way south to Marco Island. Best of all, very little gear or travel is required and a boat is actually a hindrance!

Sight fishing for Sarasota snook along area beaches is not a secret among local anglers, but it is not widespread knowledge throughout the country. But, that fact is that anyone with a little stamina to walk, a fly rod, the ability to cast 40 feet and a bit of patience can enjoy this experience. As in all fishing, there are nuances that will help fly caster be more successful.

Snook begin migrating out of the back bays and onto the beaches in April, especially in the southern region, and are usually thick by June. They are out there to spawn, but will certainly take a well presented fly. In fact, fly fishing is probably the most effective approach as these fly lands so softly and the fish are in quite shallow water.

The general weather pattern in the summer is for the wind to lay down around midnight, and blow lightly out of the ease or southeast in the morning. The beach should be calm with relatively little surf. Too much chop will stir the water up, making it very difficult to spot snook. By noon the sea breeze will kick up and it will continue to pick up throughout the afternoon.

The technique is relatively simple. Get out on the beach around 7:30, no need to get there too early as it will be too dark to see any fish. Choose a section of beach that has few swimmers, though that usually isn’t an issue that early. The best fishing will be walking north, with the wind and sun at the anglers back. Armed with a 7wt to 9wt outfit, a long leader with a 25lb-30lb tippet and a #2 white D.T. Special, Crystal Minnow, or any small pattern, the angler heads out, walking 15 feet or so away from the water, with 40 feet or so of line coiled in his hand, ready to make a quick cast. This will give a good vantage point to spot fish. Most snook will be seen right in the surf line, withing a few feet of shore. There is very little structure on most beaches, therefore any rocks, pilings, or other structure can be very good spots. The same goes for beaches near passes, they can be fantastic places to fish.

Snook will range from loners to quite large schools, but mostly commonly will be seen in groups of several fish. The angler needs to determine which way they are heading. If they are coming towards the angler, he needs only stop, wait for the fish, and present the fly ahead of them. Subtle strips work best. If the fish is heading away, most of the time they are moving slow enough that the angler can walk around and get ahead of them, then present the fly. As in all fly fishing, there will be refusals, but plenty of takes as well. Many of the fish are “schoolies” but there will be some trophy snook fish as well! Anglers may occasionally encounter redfish, jacks, msackerel, and other species as well.

While the equipment requirements are minimal, there are a few things required to be comfortable and achieve success. A had, good polarized sunglasses, sunscreen, and water are a few essentials. Comfortable shoes that are still comfortable when wet are important as well. A fanny pack is practical for toting water, sunscreen, leader material, and some flies. Some anglers fin a stripping basket to be an invaluable tool, keeping fly line out of the surf and not under foot. While the walk back may be into the sun and wind, keep a sharp eye out. It is amazing how fish will suddenly appear!

While sight casting to Sarasota snook is the most glamorous opportunity, fly anglers do have options during other times of year, particularly in the spring and fall. A couple days of east wind will result in calm, clear water along the beach and this will bring in the bait and of course the gamefish. Spanish mackerel, bluefish, jacks, ladyfish, and other species will come within range of a decent caster. Clouser Minnow and D.T. Special patterns are solid producers.

Sarasota snook surprise

Spin anglers are not to be left out when trying to catch Sarasota snook off the area beaches.  Point of Rocks on Siesta Key and the mouths of both New Pass and Big Sarasota Pass on Lido Key are prime spots.  As in fly fishing, a subtle presentation is important.  Small white lures such as bucktail jigs, soft plastic baits, and plugs all work well.  Anglers who prefer live bait will do well on Sarasota snook using large shrimp, pilchards, and pinfish.  Keeping bait alive in the summer can be challenging.

Seasonal Snook Migrations

Most anglers are aware of the fact that many species of fish migrate along the Gulf Coast and are generally caught at certain times of the year. Spanish and king mackerel along with false albacore and cobia move through in the spring and again in the fall. Tarpon make their big push in the warmer months, starting in early May. Sheepshead are thick in late winter and spring. But, resident fish also make local migrations and none more distinctly that perhaps the most popular inshore gamefish in Florida; snook. So, let’s go through the annual snook migration pattern.

The cycle begins in the winter, when snook have migrated up into creeks, rivers, and residential canals to escape the harsh conditions on the shallow flats. The more severe the winter, the more pronounced this movement will be. The water in these areas will normally be significantly warmer than the open bays, due to deeper holes, protection from the wind, and darker “tannin” stained water. I prefer casting shallow diving plugs for snook in this situation, they allow anglers to cover a lot of water fairly quickly and elicit exciting strikes!

As the water warms up in the spring, snook will move out of the creeks, rivers, and canals and scatter out over the inshore bays. They will set up in their typical ambush spots that offer cover, current, and opportunities to feed. Mangrove shorelines with a depth change, grass flats with potholes, sloping oyster bars, docks, and bridges will all hold snook. At this stage snook can be taken using a variety of techniques; live shrimp and baitfish, plugs, soft plastics, and weedless spoons are all effective baits. Outgoing tides early and late in the day and at night are prime times.

Sarasota snook fishing

By early May, Sarasota snook will be staging heavily in the passes and at some point will move out onto the beaches to spawn. This is one of the easiest times of the year to catch snook, especially a trophy! Live pilchards are extremely effective, especially if a few freebies are tossed into the structure to get the fish excited. Live pinfish and large shrimp are also deadly. Artificial lures can be used successfully as well, though live bait really shines in this situation.

By mid summer the beaches should be thick with snook. Areas with some type of cover such as rocks or pilings will be hold good numbers of fish. This is a fantastic opportunity to sight cast for snook using light spinning or fly tackle. Small baits that can be presented more delicately will draw the most strikes, white bucktail jigs and flies are a great choice. Live bait works very well, too.

As it starts to cool, the pattern reverses itself as snook move back into the inshore waters and then eventually back into the rivers, creeks, and canals once it gets cold enough. Anglers who take the time to learn and understand local fish movements will enjoy success on a more consistent basis.