Fishing Sarasota Bay, tips and techniques
Anglers fishing Sarasota Bay have the opportunity to catch over 20 saltwater fish species. Multiple techniques are effective. Sarasota Bay can fished all season long.
This article will get anglers started fishing in Sarasota Bay. Sarasota Bay is on the West Coast of Florida. It runs northwest to southeast and sits south of Tampa Bay and North of Charlotte Harbor. Sarasota Bay is roughly 10 miles long and 3 miles wide and is fairly shallow. It has many acres of submerge grass beds which hold fish. Other excellent habitat includes mangrove shorelines, creeks, and passes. Sarasota Bay can offer excellent fishing all year long!
Capt Jim has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. Anglers who are interested in purchasing the equipment that he uses and writes about in his articles can do so on the PRODUCTS page.
This fishery actually extends another 10 miles or so south. Roberts Bay and Little Sarasota Bay are narrower. The character of these bays is a bit different as well. Grass flats are less plentiful while oyster bars are the primary habitat. Docks in both the bays and in residential canals and creeks offer fish sanctuary as well.
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Sarasota Bay is home to many inshore saltwater species. Snook, redfish, speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, pompano, jack crevalle, ladyfish, cobia, sharks, tarpon, red and gag grouper, mangrove snapper, sheepshead, Key West grunts, flounder, black drum, whiting, catfish, and black sea bass are some of the more popular species.
Tackle used for anglers fishing Sarasota Bay is pretty basic. A 6 1/2 foot to 7 foot medium action spinning rod with a 3000 series reel spooled up with 20 pound braid or 10 pound monofilament line is the best all round rig. Anglers then attach a 24 inch piece of 30 pound fluorocarbon as a shock leader. The lure or hook is then attached to the end of the leader.
Sarasota Bay fishing seasons
While every year is different, seasonal patterns hold up over time. A cold winter will find fish in the deeper holes as well as in creeks and residential canals. Fish on the grass flats tend to be a bit deeper, in a to 10 feet of water. Several days of warm weather may have them up on the shallower flats.
Residential canals and creeks will hold a lot of fish in cold weather. They also offer anglers some refuge from the wind. Docks in these areas will attract and hold fish. They offer shade, structure, and forage. Anglers fishing live and frozen shrimp under docks will catch sheepshead, black drum, snapper, snook, redfish, and jack crevalle.
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Anglers targeting snook in jacks will do well in the upper end of canals as well as several creeks in the area. Phillippi Creek, Hudson Bayou, Whitaker Bayou,Bowlees Creek, in the grand Canal on Siesta Key are but a few of these types of areas. The best approach is to cast a search bait such as a shallow diving plug. Trolling the same plugs can help locate fish.
As it warms up in the spring, fish will move out of these deeper sanctuary waters and scatter out over the flats. They will be active, aggressive, and in the mood to feed. All of the deeper grass flats in 4 feet of water to 10 feet of water should hold speckled trout, ladyfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, pompano, and more.
Snook, redfish, jacks, and large speckled trout will be found on the shallow grass flats, around oyster bars, and along mangrove shorelines. Artificial lures are usually the bait of choice as they allow anglers to cover a lot of water in search of these game fish. Live bait can certainly be used as well.
Both Big Sarasota Pass and New Pass are very productive spots in spring. Anglers fishing Sarasota Bay passes will find the sheepshead schooled up heavily on structure. Mangrove snapper and gag grouper will be mixed in with them. They show up in late February and usually stay until April. Pompano, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, and ladyfish will be caught in the passes themselves.
Summer offers anglers fishing Sarasota Bay outstanding action! Many visiting anglers are surprised to learn this, as many times fishing slows down in the heat of summer. The key to the summer action in Sarasota is the abundance of live bait. Small forage fish such as scaled sardines and threadfin herring are plentiful on the grass flats near the passes.
Anglers fishing in summer do need to get up early. The best bite is first light and it gets hot awfully fast. The deeper grass flats provide great action on a variety of species during the summer. Anglers can use live bait or artificial lures. Night fishing is another way to catch fish while escaping the heat of the Florida sun.
Snook will migrate into the passes and out along the beaches and summer. Anglers can sight fish snook on all of the Sarasota beaches. Structure in both passes will hold plenty of fish as well. Live bait is usually the best approach for fishing for snook in the passes. Tarpon provide anglers a world class fishing experience!
Fall is a great time for anglers to be fishing Sarasota Bay. The kids are back in school and the tourist traffic in Sarasota is low. The weather is usually quite reliable in the fall as well. Spanish mackerel will be migrating back south. Fishing the flats will pick up as water temperatures drop.
Snook, redfish, and jacks will be found in the same places as they were in the spring time. Shallow flats, mangrove shorelines, docks, and oyster bars are good places to target these fish, particularly in Roberts Bay and Little Sarasota Bay. As fall comes to a close and it gets cold, fish will move back to their winter haunts and the pattern will repeat itself.
Sarasota Bay fishing techniques
Deep grass flats
Anglers fishing Sarasota Bay who seek action and variety will do well to target the deep grass flats. By “deep grass flats”we are reference submerge grass beds that grow in water between 4 feet deep and 10 feet deep. These grass beds hold bait fish, shrimp, and other crustaceans that the game fish feed on. When the water is clear, these areas are easy to see.
The best approach when fishing the deep grass flats is to drift. These can be large areas without any specific structure. Therefore, fish will roam about on the flats in search of food, anglers drifting cover more water and have a better chance of locating feeding fish. Speckled trout are the primary species targeted on the deep grass flats. However, Spanish mackerel, pompano, bluefish, jacks, ladyfish, and other species are encountered regularly as well.
Both artificial lures and live bait are very productive when drifting the deep grass flats. Anglers fishing Sarasota Bay who prefer live bait will do quite well using live shrimp. Shrimp are available at bait shops all season long. A live shrimp under a popping cork has produced a lot of speckled trout over the years. The technique uses a noisy cork or float to attract the fish. Once the noise draw them in, they eat the live shrimp dangling there. On the deeper grass flats, free lining the shrimp often works better.
Live bait fish are used on the deep grass flats as well, particularly in the warmer months. A live 3 inch pin fish or grunt floated out behind the boat under a cork will catch some of the larger trout as well as perhaps a stray cobia. Live bait chumming is incredibly effective in the summer. The bait well is loaded up with live baits than they are used to attract game fish behind the boat.
The number one artificial lure for anglers fishing Sarasota Bay is without a doubt the jig and grub combo. It is a simple, cost-effective, and effective lure. It consists of a lead head jig. This is a hook with a piece of lead near the eye. The weight provides both casting distance and action to the lure. One quarter ounce is the best all round size. White, red, and chartreuse are the most popular colors.
Some type of plastic body is then put on the jig hook. These grub bodies come in endless colors, sizes, and styles. They all imitate either a crustacean or a bait fish. Shad tail baits are very popular as a have their own built in action. Paddle tail and shrimp tail baits work as well. 3 inch to 4 inch baits are best for anglers fishing Sarasota Bay.
Jigs in Sarasota Bay
The jig and grub can be worked in a couple different ways. The best approach is usually a “jig and fall” retrieve. The lure is cast out, and allowed to sink several feet in the water column. It is then brought back in by twitching the rod tip sharply then adding some slack. This results in the jig jerking up quickly than falling helplessly back down. This action triggers a lot of strikes. Jigs can also be cast out and reel steadily back to the boat.
Plugs and spoons are also effective lures on the deep grass flats. These lures work very well when “breaking fish” are seen. These are schools of fish that are feeding on helpless bait fish on the surface. They can be seen splashing about as they feed. Bird activity is often a great indication of breaking fish. A fast, erratic retrieve usually works best.
Anglers fishing Sarasota Bay on the deep grass flats can also troll. This technique works well on days when there is little wind to provide a drift for the boat. It is also a good technique for novice anglers and children with perhaps less than ideal patience. Plugs work very well for this. The lure is simply cast out a ways behind the boat and then the boat is idled along until a fish bites.
Anglers fishing Sarasota Bay in search of snook, redfish, jacks, and gator trout will do well to target the shallow areas. It perplexes some anglers to learn that the largest fish are often caught in the shallowest of water. For the most part, these fish are loners. While the smaller fish are not comfortable in the shallow water the larger fish are.
Tactics are different for anglers targeting fish in shallow water. These fish can be spooky and a quiet, a stealthy approach is required. Anglers that lighten up their tackle will be more successful. Long, accurate casts are often times required. Most anglers choose to use artificial baits in shallow water. Lures are easier to keep out of the grass and are more effective when searching for fish.
Jigs, spoons, and plugs are all effective baits on the shallow flats. Light jig heads in the 1/16 ounce to 1/8 ounce range are best. Anglers can use buck tail jigs as well as a jig head with a soft plastic body. Longer trailer such as a six-inch jerk worm tend to work well. Jigs remain relatively weedless as a rod with the hook up.
Weedless spoons are a staple of shallow water anglers all over the country. These lures cast a long way, run shallow, and are fairly weedless. They are particularly effective for redfish. Spoons are great search baits. Gold is the preferred color in 1/2 ounce is the most popular size.
Passes connect Sarasota Bay with the Gulf of Mexico. Pass is just another word for an inlet that they use on this coast. Anglers fishing Sarasota Bay can experience excellent action in the passes. Ladyfish are often times thick right in the pass itself. This is great fun for children and novice anglers as the action can be virtually nonstop. Pompano, mackerel, bluefish and other species can be taken in the middle of the passes.
Vertical jigging while drifting the passes works very well. It is also quite simple to do. The angler simply drops the jig down to the bottom, engages the reel, then gives the jig little 1 foot hops as the boat drifts along. Most of the fish in the passes will be feeding on crustaceans on the bottom. This jigging action mimics a fleeing crab or shrimp and is very productive. A jig head with a live shrimp can be used as well.
Structure in both Big Sarasota Pass and New Pass hold fish all year long. In the winter and early spring, sheepshead will school up thick in the passes. A live or frozen shrimp fished on the bottom will catch them, as well as other species such as grouper and snapper. In the summer, snook will school up in the same rocks.
Docks and bridges in Sarasota Bay
Docks and bridges are basically inshore artificial reefs. Anglers fishing Sarasota Bay target them for a variety of species all year long. Most anglers use live or frozen bait when fishing docks and bridges. However, artificial lures can be used as well.
The most productive approach when fishing a dock or a bridge is to anchor up current from the structure about a cast or so away. The bait is then cast out towards the pilings and allowed to sit. Live shrimp, frozen shrimp, cut squid, cut bait, and live bait fish can all be used. Sheepshead, snapper, drum, grouper, flounder, snook, redfish, and other species will be taken.
Anglers using artificial lures to fish docks have success using both plugs and jigs. Plugs allow anglers to cover a lot of water fairly quickly. A lure that dives down 3 to 4 feet is perfect. 3 inch to 4 inch baits in olive and white match the local forage. Shad tail baits on a 1/4 ounce jig head will produce as well, though they cannot be worked quite as fast.
Fly Fishing Sarasota Bay
Anglers fly fishing Sarasota Bay have several different options. They can fish the deep grass flats for both action and variety. Targeting snook and redfish is more challenging. This will appeal to more experienced fly fishers.
Sarasota offers visiting anglers some exciting fly fishing opportunities. Clients fly fishing Sarasota Bay catch speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, jacks, pompano, and ladyfish on the deep grass flats. Oyster bars, flats, and mangrove shorelines hold snook, jacks, and redfish. Anglers fishing the creeks in winter catch some nice snook and jack crevelle. Spanish mackerel and false albacore are available spring and fall in the inshore Gulf of Mexico.
Action and variety fly fishing Sarasota Bay
We were fly fishing Sarasota Bay and Candice was distracted by several bottlenose dolphin that were playing a hundred feet off to the right.
“You need to start stripping or your line is going to hang up in the grass”, I instructed her.
She gave me a sheepish grin and began to retrieve the fly back in. On the fifth strip the line got tight and shot off to the side. The fish did not leap as of the water as the several previous ladyfish had, making me wonder if perhaps she had hooked a different species. My hunch was confirmed as several moments later a two pound pompano came to the net; an unexpected but most welcome surprise! Ironically, the dolphins were responsible for the catch, their distraction enabled the fly to sink all the way down to the bottom where they typically feed.
Candice is an East Sarasota country girl who loves horses, mudding, shooting guns, but most of all fishing. Although fairly experienced with spin fishing, she was intrigued by the idea of fly fishing Sarasota Bay, yet had no idea where to start. After an hour of casting practice and another hour of fishing, she hooked and landed a half-dozen ladyfish and that nice pompano! This article is aimed towards other anglers that are interested in trying fly fishing but are overwhelmed by the prospect.
Sarasota Bay fly fishing tackle
The primary difference between spin fishing and fly fishing is that in spin fishing the lure or bait provides the weight and the line is the connection between the hook and the reel. In the fly fishing the line is cast as the fly weighs next to nothing. Keeping that in mind, the tackle is similar but with some significant differences.
Matching fly tackle is very easy as rods, reels and lines are designated by “weight”. That number appears on rods and lines as the abbreviation “Wt”. It is always best to match the line, rod, and reel with the same weight line. For most inshore saltwater applications, an 8 weight (8wt) outfit is ideal. Fly rods also come in different actions, a “mid-flex” is the most forgiving and is the best choice for a novice angler. Most of my equipment is Orvis fly tackle.
Best fly fishing reels for Sarasota Bay
The reel in fly fishing is not used all that much; it basically just stores the line, unless a larger fish is hooked and the fish starts taking drag. The fly line is manipulated by hand for the most part. The best choice would be a large arbor saltwater reel with a good drag system. Fly reels are “single action”, which means that there is no gear multiplication as with a spinning reel. Also, the reel will spin backwards when a fish runs, so keep your knuckles clear!
Fly lines are an extremely important part of the system and a quality line is well worth the cost. Lines come in weights as rods and reels do, but there are also a variety of types of lines. Basically, they are either floating, intermediate sink tip, or full sinking. Intermediate sink tip lines are the most versatile for fishing the relatively shallow depths on inshore Florida waters. One mistake that visiting freshwater fly anglers make is trying to use full floating lines. They are easier to cast but will not allow the fly to sink down far enough into the water column. Two hundred yards of 20 lb test “backing” is spooled up behind the fly line.
Fly fishing leaders and flies for Sarasota Bay
Fly selection can also be overwhelming and confusing to a beginning fly angler. Much like spin fishing, there are a myriad of choices in color, size, and style. Most flies mimic either a baitfish or crustacean. One of the most popular and effective fly patterns is the Clouser Deep Minnow. It consists of a hook, small weighted lead eyes, and some bucktail or synthetic dressing. Sound familiar? It should, it is basically a bucktail jig, a lure that has proven itself over time. It is a good idea to have unweighted flies as well, and Lefty’s Deceiver is a great choice. White is a good color to start with but using a fly that matches the colors that are locally productive should produce.
A leader is used between the end of the fly line and the fly. In freshwater fishing the leader is very important, tapering down which allows the small fly to “turn over” and land softly. Tapered leaders really are not required in saltwater fly fishing. Most saltwater flies have a little weight and will extend the leader out. In most cases, a 6 piece of 30 lb fluorocarbon will be sufficient.
In summary, heading to a local fly shop and purchasing an 8wt rod in a mid-flax action, matching reel spooled with 200 yards of backing, intermediate sink-tip line, a spool of 30 lb fluorocarbon leader, and a small selection of Clouser Minnows and Deceivers (the shop can help with locally productive patterns) will prepare a novice fly angler with the equipment needed to get started.
Sarasota Bay fly fishing techniques
Once the proper equipment is acquired it is time to go fishing. Well, not quite! Before heading out to the water some casting practice will be required. It is best to become a bit comfortable and proficient in casting and managing the line BEFORE heading out to fish. There are many good resources out there but one of the best options is to take a class given by a local shop, guide, or outfitter.
Now that the tackle is in hand and the angler has the ability to cast forty feet, it is time to go fishing! As previously mentioned, the fly is manipulated by hand rather than with the rod and reel. The fly is cast out, allowed to sink to the desired depth and then retrieved back using short “strips” with the rod tip low and pointed at the fly. When a fish takes the fly, the line is pulled taut with the stripping hand and once tension is felt, the rod tip is raised up high.
This is called a “strip set”. Resisting the urge to set the hook or jerk the tip up will result in more hooked fish. Smaller fish can be brought in using smooth strips, coiling the line below the reel. With larger fish, use the stripping hand to feed line back out while manually applying some tension. Once all of the slack line is taken up, the fish is “on the reel” and can be fought using the rod and reel. If no bite occurs, the line is picked up and cast out again.
Best approach for novice anglers fly fishing Sarasota Bay
The best approach when starting off is to target species that will provide action and variety, it is better to “practice” on the less challenging species. This will give the novice angler both experience and confidence. The good news is that local knowledge that is already possessed will produce for fly anglers.
Any fish that will hit an artificial lure can be taken on fly. Here in Sarasota that means drifting the deeper grass flats in search of speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, ladyfish, and other species. As with spin fishing, casting in front of a drifting boat can be very productive. It will take some time to learn to manage the line while casting, fishing, and catching, especially when it is a bit breezy. Anglers will also be successful wading and fishing from shore.
Thinking about giving fly fishing Sarasota Bay a try? If so, give it a chance, but be prepared to be “hooked” for life!
More on Sarasota fly fishing tackle
The intention of this chapter is to simplify the tackle and techniques used in fly fishing to encourage anglers to give the “long rod” a chance. Fly fishing can be confusing and overwhelming, but it does not have to be. In spin fishing the lure or bait provides the weight for casting and the line just follows behind. With fly fishing, the line provides the weight, fishing flies weigh practically nothing and would be difficult to cast any distance by themselves. This is the fundamental difference. Of course, this means that the tackle is different, too.
Fly rods are designated by “weight”. The smaller the number the lighter the rod. This delineation is located on the rod near the handle and written as such: “7wt” for example. Fly rods also come in different lengths and actions. The best choice for a novice fly angler fishing the inshore salt waters would be a 9 foot 8wt outfit.
Fly lines also come in “weights” and need to be matched to the rod. Lines come in different varieties; floating, sink tip, and full sinking. The best all-round line is an intermediate sink tip line. This will get the fly down on the deeper grass flats but can still be worked quickly, keeping the fly near the surface. One mistake many freshwater anglers make is using a floating fly line for all applications. Floating lines are easier to pick up and cast, but the fly will not get deep enough when fishing in deeper water.
Fly lines also are not straight, they taper with the forward section being heavier. These are designated “weight forward” or “saltwater taper” and greatly assist the fly angler when casting heavy or bulky flies. Fly lines are generally around 100 feet long. 200 yards of “backing” is spooled under the fly line. This adds diameter and is crucial when fishing for larger fish that make long runs. Fly lines usually have a loop at the casting end to facilitate leader connections.
A quality saltwater fly reel will have a smooth drag and corrosion resistant parts. They are “single action” which means that there is no multiplication when reeling; one turn of the crank equates to one revolution on the spool. Also, the handle is fixed which means when a fish makes a run against the drag the handle will spin backwards. Keep the knuckles out of the way!
Fly line is thick and easily seen, therefore a leader is used between the end of the fly line and the fly. Leaders are “tapered” meaning the butt section (the end of the leader that attaches to the fly line) is thicker than the fly end. This helps the leader extend out, also known as “turning over” and is helpful when using unweighted flies. A “bite tippet” is required in most saltwater applications. This is a 20” piece of florocarbon, usually 20lb to 30lb test. Leaders can be purchased or made individually in sections. Most commercially made leaders have a loop at the butt end, which makes it very easy to attach to the fly line.
Flies come in a wide variety of styles, colors, and sizes. Most flies are tied to imitate either baitfish or crustaceans, which is the primary forage of gamefish. As with all fishing, fly patterns should resemble the available prey. The Clouser Deep Minnow is a very popular and effective fly pattern that will mimic shrimp, crabs, and baitfish. It is a simple fly with weighted dumbbell eyes and some dressing of natural or synthetic hair. Weighted flies sink and dance seductively when stripped in.
Another versatile weighted fly is the Crystal Minnow. Tied Primarily to entice snook, these patterns will produce in a variety of angling situations. The D.T. Special is a terrific unweighted fly. It works great casting to breaking fish as well as in the surf. The venerable Lefty’s Deceiver is a great unweighted fly as well and has been producing fish for both freshwater and saltwater anglers for decades.
This may sound like heresy, but the fly pattern is often over-emphasized by anglers. Fly selection does matter, but it is not nearly as important as location and especially presentation. Along those same lines, anglers that tie their own flies often use too much material and “over tie” the flies. “Less is more” can be a good approach.
A 9 foot 8wt medium action fly rod, matching reel with backing, an intermediate sink tip line, several saltwater leaders, and a couple dozen flies ( a mix of #1 Clousers, #1 D.T Specials, and #4 Crystal Minnows in white, chartreuse, and pink ) along with a fly box will provide a novice saltwater with the basic outfit to get out and catch some fish. Local fly shops are the best resource as they will usually spend the extra time with customers and even let them cast a rod or two before the purchase. As in all fishing, purchasing the best equipment that one can afford will make for a more enjoyable experience.
In conclusion, I hope this article on fishing Sarasota Bay helps anglers experience success. Please contact me if you are interested in a Sarasota fishing charter! Anglers can find Florida fishing regulations on the FWC site.
Capt Jim Klopfer
1059 North Tamiami Trail Sarasota, Fl 34236