Sarasota Bay Fishing Question and Answer!
I am working on a writer for an article in a magazine on fishing Sarasota Bay. He asked a lot of questions, and I thought the exchange would make for an interesting post. My name is Capt Jim Klopfer and I run fishing charters in Sarasota, Florida.
Q: Do you know the night before a charter what your game plan is for the next day?
Q: What different factors determine your fishing strategy for a particular day?
A: There are several factors that come into play pertaining to a game plan for a particular charter. Some are fishing related, which include tide, weather (mostly wind), time of year, and what has been biting. There are also client considerations that include the type of fishing they want to do, their experience level, and if they are looking for keepers or we are catch and release fishing.
Q: What is exceptional about Sarasota Bay?
A: In my opinion the most noteworthy thing about Sarasota Bay is the diversity. This is true in both species as well as the environment. On my best day, clients on a six hour charter caught 23 different species. Also, in a relatively small area anglers can fish the inshore open bays, mangrove shorelines it back Bay areas, creeks and residential canals, two major passes, as well as the inshore Gulf of Mexico. Anglers can easily hit several of the spots using multiple techniques in one day.
Q: What is the status of Sarasota Bay with regard to fish stocks and water quality?
A: This can be a tricky and complicated question. Fish stocks can be cyclical and I do not know the reason for this. Spotted sea trout have bounced back very well after the 2019 red tide. It just seems like the fish gods give and they take. Last year was pretty tough for Spanish mackerel and false albacore out on the beach which I love to do. Sheepshead fishing was a little off as well. However, trout numbers are extremely high and redfish seem to be bouncing back as well. As for the water quality, just for my untrained eye, it seems to be fairly stable over the last decade or so.
Q: What I admire about your outdoors writing is its clarity and practicality, whereas a lot of fishing articles get readers’ juices up, but readers come away without basic how-to knowledge. As a fishing guide, do you see yourself as an educator?
A: Most definitely. As you mentioned, I have written many articles pertaining to fishing in this area as well is all over the country. They are all “how to” in nature as opposed to stories. I have even published posts and videos showing my best fishing spots. Also, I get quite a few charters where the goal of the client is to learn a certain technique or area as opposed to just going out and catching as many fish as possible.
Q: Do you ever get burned out or tired of fishing?
A: I just turned 60 and I make it a point not to book so many trips that I do get burned out or cranky. Clients actually find it amusing when I tell them that I not only fish on vacations, I often hire guides. The only time I really feel the grind is during the height of tourist season when the boat ramp and traffic are a nuisance. Also, the extremely hot months of June or July 10 to tire me out more than they used to.
Q: What is your favorite species for clients, and then for you when you are fishing by yourself?
A: This is a tricky question as well, since angler skill and experience when it comes to clients comes into play. I love casting plugs (the Rapala X-Rap is my favorite) for snook, particularly in creeks and rivers in the wintertime. I think when it comes to clients, fishing the inshore Gulf of Mexico when conditions are right is tough to beat. Even anglers with very little experience can catch a large fish such as a shark or king mackerel and experienced spin and fly anglers enjoy the challenge of chasing false albacore around.
Read more about fishing for snook
Q: When fishing by yourself, do you prefer artificials or live bait?
A: I almost never fish with live bait when fishing on my own. In fact, even on charters I am using artificial lures and flies more and more. While live bait certainly has advantages in certain situations, I find lures to be more fun to fish and more rewarding when the catch is made. There are inherent advantage over live bait is the ability to cover more water.
Q: I read something by you—maybe it was a fishing report in a newspaper—about “shallow reef” fishing in Sarasota Bay. What does that refer to?
A: Sarasota Bay itself rarely exceeds 10 feet other than in the passes. There are a handful of artificial reefs that were created and these are clearly marked and easy to find. There are also some natural reefs that are a bit more of a closely guarded secret. These reefs hold your typical bottom fish such as sheepshead and snapper and will also attract Spanish mackerel, jacks, ladyfish, and even tarpon.
Q: What is the best month to fish Sarasota Bay?
A: This is another very difficult question to answer. It really depends on the definition of the word “best”. Clients are often surprised to learn that some of the most productive days when it comes to numbers of fish occur in the hottest months of July and August. However, for me taking into account other factors such as being comfortable and lack of boat traffic and fishing pressure, I would choose October. Rarely is the boat ramp crowded or there more than a boat or two on each spot, the weather is comfortable with very little rain, and the fishing options are extensive.
Check out my Sarasota fishing calendar and forecast!
Q: If you had to skip a month of fishing in Sarasota Bay, which month would that be, and why?
A: This will probably surprise a lot of people, but my answer is June. As our weather changes, this has become in my opinion the hottest month. There is a length of time before the daily rains start and this usually occurs between Memorial day and Fourth of July. Water temperatures approach 90° and it is brutally hot and uncomfortable out on the water. Many of the guides are out tarpon fishing on the beach this time of year, which is something I don’t do anymore.
Q: What is the best kept secret about Sarasota Bay?
A: I would say that most visitors are impressed by the amount of fish and species that can be found in such a highly developed area.
Q: What advice would you give to someone going after snook?
A: The best approach when chasing snook is to think of them as a saltwater version of largemouth bass. They are and ambush predator with a largemouth in a broad powerful tail. Most of the top snook lures are stronger versions of proven largemouth bass lures. Anglers just getting into snook fishing will probably do best free lining a large live shrimp or medium sized pin fish, grunts, or scaled sardine around some type of structure. Outgoing tides are generally best, especially early in the day, late in the day, or at night.
Q: Same question about redfish? A) full disclosure, if I have one hole in my resume, it is redfish. I think really in order to be successful catching redfish on a regular basis, and angler has two fish for them often and stay on top of fish locations and movements. One of the issues with fishing for redfish, especially in the warmer months, is that they tend to school up. This means that they can all be in one spot, which can require some searching. I catch most of my redfish while fishing for other species in the cooler months. If you told me I had to go out and catch a redfish today, I would work docks in water between four and 8 feet deep with a large hand picked live shrimp.
Q: Do you have clients who want to target shark?
A: Rarely. If I know that they are around and I think we have a good chance to catch one, I may suggest it. I most often do it when I’m out on the beach fishing for Spanish mackerel and false albacore where I will cut up I mackerel and float the fillet out behind the boat. There are often so many sharks that they can actually be a nuisance. Also, and less they are small and I can easily pick it up with one hand, I never bring them in the boat and I never kill them.
Q: When will you cancel a fishing trip?
A: The vast majority of trips that I have to cancel simply involve weather. I tend to be a fair weather fisherman and really just don’t enjoy fishing in a hard-driving rain. What’s the wind gets up over 15 kn, it can be challenging as well. Part of the decision also depends on the clients and their experience level. I never mess around and take a chance regarding lightning. Occasionally and only in extreme circumstances such as after a bad red tide or if it has been exceedingly hot or cold will I cancel a trip because fishing has been tough. However, in the call that I make the afternoon before the trip, I am always 100% honest with the client regarding conditions and expectations.
Q: Best time, location, and techniques for sheepshead?
A: The last few years the sheepshead bite in the passes has been incredible and late winter from mid February to early April, though it was a bit off in 2022. This really is as easy as it gets. All an angler had to do was put a shrimp or piece of shrimp on a hook and lower down to the bottom near any type of structure in and around both big pass and new pass in order to catch a fish. I have a spot and big pass I jokingly call “the grocery store” as it was extremely reliable. I find it best to fish the passes during periods of lesser current flow. It can be difficult to fish and anchor when the tide is screaming. Some anglers get creative with fiddler crabs and such, but fresh or frozen shrimp will catch plenty of sheepshead. Any standard bottom fishing rig will work fine. We have all pretty much moved to circle hooks which I believe Florida now requires for all reef fish, even in the bay.
Read these sheepshead fishing tips!
Q: When I was in Alabama, most fishermen wouldn’t dream of fishing a jig and plastic without a noisemaking float? Do you have your clients do the same?
A: I will occasionally fish a soft plastic lure under a noisy float, and it can be effective. I do it sometimes with kids and other inexperienced anglers who are having trouble detecting a bite while just using the jig and soft plastic. However, the reason it is more prevalent in that part of the Gulf Coast is the clarity of the water. This is especially true in the Mississippi Delta. The water streaming in from the river is often quite dirty. The noisy float definitely helps attract fish to the bait. The same principle applies here, but with our water being much clearer it is not nearly as necessary as in those other areas where the water is not as clear.
Q: Best time, location, and methods for mangrove snapper?
A: Another question that has a more complicated answer is mangrove snapper are one of the more migratory species in Sarasota Bay. In the summer time, July through September, mangrove snapper are usually fairly abundant on the deep grass flats. The best way to catch them is anchor and chum with live or fresh dead sardines or threadfin herring. In the spring in the fall, mangrove snapper are found in the same structure in the passes as sheepshead and just about any dock throughout the area may produce snapper. A medium sized live shrimp is tough to beat.
Q: Best time, location, and methods for speckled trout?
A: Speckled trout are available all year round and other than in the colder winter months, are fairly easy to locate on the deep grass flats. However, I would say that April through June is the best time to catch larger fish, as this is when they are spawning. Live shrimp under a popping cork will practically guarantee trout. Soft plastic baits on a jig head are very reliable for anglers who like to cast artificial lures. A 3 inch live grunt fished under a float is by far the top bait to catch a trophy speckled trout. In the winter, trout seem to move down into the portion of Sarasota Bay between Stickney point and Blackburn point. In the warmer months, all of the grass flats around the passes and in the North Bay should hold trout. The flats off of Ringling mansion and but what Harbor are very good spots.
Q: Best time, location and methods for pompano?
A: Pompano can be encountered just about any time or anywhere. I routinely catch them casting soft plastic jigs on the deep grass flats. However, the most reliable pattern for catching them is to vertically jig in the passes in the spring and the fall. This would be March and April and again in October and November. Small heavy jigs that sink down to the bottom and can be worked in an erratic manner work well. Pompano have a small mouth and therefore a smaller jig and hook work best. The banana style jigs, with the dock scooping jig being a very popular example, work extremely well and that is what I use most of the time. It is used in conjunction with a little teaser that looks like a fly. The best technique is to lower the jig to the bottom and jerk it sharply up and down using 1 foot hops as the boat drifts along. Each time the jig hits the bottom it will kick up a puff of sand, resembling a fleeing crab. This will also catch plenty of ladyfish as well as bluefish, mackerel, and some years we even get juvenile permit.
Q: When is the best time to catch cobia?
A: Spring and again in the fall. While they do come into Sarasota Bay, most cobia are caught in the Gulf around some type of structure. The three inshore artificial reefs off of Lido Key produce a lot of cobia.
Q: Are you familiar with individual (and/or named) dolphin in Sarasota Bay?
I can’t say that I am. There was one dolphin years ago that had a disfigured fin that I could recognize, but otherwise I can’t think of one now.
Q: What is the biggest threat to Sarasota Bay?
A: Short answer would have to be over-development. When I moved here in 1986 University Blvd. going east was a dirt road that went to the Polo grounds. Now it’s one of the largest plant communities in the country. I think all in all Sarasota has done a halfway decent job dealing with it, but at some point the environment is stressed too much. All of that sewage and other type of man-made waste has to go somewhere as evidenced by the recent Piney point situation.
Q: You’ve been guiding here for almost 30 years: what changes have you noticed in the ecology of Sarasota Bay?
A: 31 years actually, LOL. I think the biggest thing that I have noticed is the complete elimination of grass and what we guides call “the little Bay”. This is the area from the point bridge down below Blackburn point bridge. This area used to have extensive grass flats near many of the oyster bars that held a lot of trout and other species. For the most part, this is gone. Also, there is really one pristine area of undisturbed shoreline a grass flat left, and this is the area north of Longboat are to tidy island. There is a large development being built now, and I worry about what its effects will be. There are also some areas in North Sarasota Bay that are devoid of grass, primarily the spot we used to call the moorings which is just south of bishops point. However, there are other areas that seem to have more grass, so this may just be a naturally occurring thing.
Q: What changes have you noticed in the fish stocks?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I think some of the change in fish stocks is cyclical. I noticed this in Maryland when I was young bluefish. Right now there are as many spotted sea trout in the Bay is I ever remember. However, I would say that snook are harder to catch and redfish are definitely spookier on the shallow flats. The run of sheepshead several years ago was phenomenal, though it is tapered off at bit. Spanish mackerel tend to be more hit or miss as well. It really is a hard question to answer with just anecdotal evidence. There are also years where certain fish just show up in big numbers one year and then are gone the next. This happens occasionally with silver trout and happened a few years ago with black Seabass. I recall one year 10 or 15 years ago where we were catching 5 to 10 flounder a trip. Now they are quite a rarity.
Q: Have you, with or without clients, ever been caught in a bad storm? Describe conditions.
A: Yes, a couple of times. This mostly occurred as a fast-moving front moved across the state. In the summer, storms are not uncommon, but they are generally easy to see coming and avoid. The storms that are associated with fast-moving fronts in the cooler times of year are a bit more unpredictable. It is a bit unnerving to see the Bay kick up into four and 5 foot waves! However, most of the time during these times of year we are fishing in areas where we are never more than a couple minutes away from the bridge or some other type of cover and it is simply a matter of waiting it out. I have definitely had some interesting trips back to the boat ramp, when the wind turns Northwest it gets pretty lumpy out in front of the Centennial Park boat ramp
Q: What changes would you like to see with respect to saltwater fishing regulations.
A: Again, this might be a question best left to scientists with real-world data, but I’ll share my opinions. I would be absolutely fine with snook and redfish being catch and release only. I would also like to see spotted sea trout obtain game fish status. I am not sure how commercial fishing affects fish numbers, but I hate to see boatloads of Jack crevalle and ladyfish being killed.
Q: Do you prefer fresh or saltwater fishing—not for clients, but for you as an individual?
A: I probably do more freshwater fishing on my own these days, but that has more to do with the fact that we recently bought a place in North Carolina go up there quite a bit. I am relearning to catch trout and smallmouth bass! I’m going to split the baby so to speak, and say it is a little bit of both and that my favorite type of recreational fishing is to go into the brackish rivers and cast lures or fly fish. I find this type of fishing to be relaxing with great scenery and the chance to not only catch saltwater species such as snook and jacks but also largemouth bass, Gar, and other freshwater species.
Q: What gear would you recommend a new saltwater angler acquire?
A: The best all round rod and reel combination in my opinion is a 7 foot medium rod with a fast action (this means that it is stout in the butt section and tapers to a limber tip) and a 3000 series spinning reel. I would small the real with 10 pound monofilament line or 20 pound braided line. Braided line has its advantages but does cost more and can be more difficult for the novice angler. In either case, I use a 24 inch piece of 30 pound fluorocarbon shock leader between the line and the hook or lure. I use a number 3/0 circle hook for 95% of my live bait fishing. A reasonable selection of sliding egg sinkers, swivels, split shot sinkers, and floats complete the tackle needed to fish with live bait. When it comes to fishing with lures, it can be much more involved. The jig and grub combination is by far the number one artificial lure all along the Gulf Coast. I prefer the Bass assassin 4 inch see Shad and almost always fish it on a 1/4 ounce jig head. A 3 inch gulp shrimp would be my second choice. A 1/2 ounce silver spoon is another very versatile lure that cast well and is easy to use. I very much enjoy fishing with plugs with the #8 Rapala X-Rap Extreme Action Slashbait being my favorite. I will jump up to the number 10 size at times. However, these lures are expensive and treble hooks can be much more dangerous than a single hooks found in jigs.
Q: Someone is looking to buy a boat to fish Sarasota Bay primarily—-what type and model do you recommend?
A: There is a reason that bay boats are so prevalent in all types of saltwater fishing situations these days. They are very versatile and will allow anglers to fish fairly shallow as well is running out into open water on a nice day. A 20 foot to 24 foot bay boat is an excellent all round choice. Anglers who fish alone or with one other person and like to fish shallow water will probably do best to opt with a bay boat in the 20 foot range while those who fish with families or like to go offshore a bit will be better suited with a larger boat. I chose a 2160 Stott Craft bay boat. It is very light and floats quite shallow and runs fine on a 150 outboard. It is a simple uncomplicated boat that is easy to keep clean and work on. It is a bit flat on the bottom and doesn’t ride as well and a heavy chop, but I do my best to avoid that situation.
Q: Do you fish any artificial reefs in Sarasota Bay?
A: I will occasionally fish the artificial reefs in Sarasota Bay, mainly for sheepshead, snapper, and Spanish mackerel. If it is in the summer time I often anchor up current and chum with live bait to get the snappers in a feeding mood. This works well for snapper too. Bottom fishing with shrimp will produce sheepshead in the winter.
Q: Do you ever do night fishing?
A: No, for several reasons. I stay pretty busy fishing mornings. I like going to bed early and getting up early, so this is really just my personal schedule. If I stay up late one night fishing I am “off” for a week or so. Also, night fishing pretty much involves fishing lighted bridges and docs for snook and other species. The problem with this is that if it is not going on, there really is no plan B, unlike daytime fishing where there are several other options available. Finally, I just think that half of the enjoyment of fishing is being out on a pretty day, and you don’t get to experience that at night.
Q: Where were you born and raised?
A: I was born in Washington DC and grew up in Maryland just outside DC. My home waters were the Potomac River and its tributaries creeks. Once I got old enough to drive, I started fishing Chesapeake Bay.
Q: Who taught you how to fish?
A: I pretty much taught myself. My dad was a city boy from DC and had never fish in his life. When I was around 10 years old, I had a couple buddies take me fish and to a local park pond and was hooked for life! I devoured everything on fishing that I could get my hands on, which at that time was magazines such as outdoor life, Field & Stream, E TC. I also read every fishing book at the library.
In conclusion, this question and answer article on Sarasota Bay fishing will help anglers achieve more success!