Sarasota River Fishing Charters
My Rapala X-Rap landed a foot away from the tree branch and dove down as I began an erratic retrieve. It did not get more than a couple of feet before it just stopped. My initial thought was that I had hung up on the submerged tree, but then the “snag” began to move off. I set the hook and tried to get the fish out of the heavy cover. We had landed a dozen snook that morning, but this felt different. A bulldog battle ensued with the mystery fish making short runs, determined to get back to the safety of the branches. It finally tired and surfaced and I caught a glimpse of green. A bass? If so, it was a nice one. A couple of minutes later that fact was confirmed; it was a beautiful, fat, healthy five pound largemouth! This is what Sarasota river fishing is all about.
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Sarasota river fishing
Florida tidal rivers are unmatched when it comes to natural beauty. They also offer a unique angling experience; the chance to catch both Florida’s premier inshore saltwater and freshwater gamefish in one location; snook and largemouth bass. In late fall the water levels drop and the rivers become brackish and tidally influenced. This, along with cooling water temperatures, results in a migration of saltwater species such as snook, redfish, jack crevelle, and even tarpon up into the rivers where they co-exist with the resident population of bass, catfish, and other freshwater fish. They will stay there until it starts to warm up, usually mid-March. These same techniques also apply to the numerous creeks and residential canals throughout the area.
Most of my days as a professional guide are done in Sarasota Bay. However, I am one of only a couple guides offering fishing charters on local area rivers. This is a specialized type of fishing, best suited to more experienced anglers. Success is less certain than inshore fishing, but the scenery alone makes it worth the trip.
My favorite angling technique is casting artificial lures while drifting with the current. An outgoing tide is favorable, though this can be tricky. There are no tide tables to reference this far up most rivers, so an adjustment is made for the closest location. Experience will help determine the correction factor, but two to three hours is generally a good place to start. The direction of the current will determine fish location and lure presentation. Gamefish will position themselves on the down current side of cover, ready to ambush unsuspecting prey. Lures should be cast to the up-current side and worked back with the flow of water. This results in a natural presentation and triggers the most strikes.
Best lures for river fishing
Soft plastic baits on a light jig head or weighted worm hooks and shallow diving plugs have proven to be the most consistent producers when Sarasota river fishing. Bass Assassin shad tail and 4” jerk baits in dark colors such as “golden bream” and “red shad” on a 1/16 ounce jig head are deadly when twitched along the bottom. If constant hang-ups become an issue, switching to a weighted worm hook and rigging the bait weedless will greatly reduce snags. These lures are a good choice when fish are located or when low water concentrates them in the deeper holes.
Rapala X-Raps in gold/black and firetiger mimic the bluegill and tilapia that are the primary forage for larger fish. Both the slender “slashbait” and wider profile “shallow” plugs in sizes (08) and (10) are very good for both bass and snook. Tossing plugs allows anglers to cover water fairly quickly and produces exciting strikes. The multiple treble hooks also result in a good ratio of hook-ups to bites. Suspending baits such as the Twitchin’ Rap and MirroLure can be very effective when fish are finicky. Trolling plugs in creeks and rivers is a technique that has been catching snook for many years. Since all of these waters require motoring at slow speeds, pulling a couple of plugs behind the boat makes sense.
Spinnerbaits are also excellent lures in tidal rivers. They have the benefits of both plugs and soft plastics. They are also very easy to use and are a great choice for novice anglers. Basically, the lure is cast out, allowed to sink for a few seconds, and reeled back in with a slow, steady retrieve. ¼ ounce baits with a gold blade with either a chartreuse or golden bream shad tail grub will catch plenty of fish for anglers Sarasota river fishing.
Fly fishing on these rivers is challenging, but also very rewarding. A 9 weight rod with an intermediate sink tip line is the best all-round choice. An eight foot 30 lb fluorocarbon leader finishes off the rig. Short casts are the norm, but be prepared for a fair amount of snags. This is a “quality over quantity” situation. Fly anglers won’t normally catch large numbers of fish, but every cast offers the opportunity to hook a ten pound plus snook! Wide profile baitfish patterns such as a Puglisi fly along with traditional snook flies such as the “Crystal Minnow” are good choices.
Additional river species
While bass, snook, and other saltwater species get most of the attention, Suncoast brackish rivers offer excellent fishing for catfish, bream, and tilapia. Catfish are abundant and anglers seeking a fish dinner will be successful on most outings by targeting these bottom-dwellers. Catching them is as simple as dropping a nightcrawler or worm down to the bottom on an outside bend with cover. In fact, just about every species that inhabits rivers will fall for a nice fat worm. Shrimp and cut bait will also work. A two pound catfish on an ultra-light spinning outfit is great fun! And great eating!
Bream are another species that are relatively ignored on rivers. While their numbers are not great, they are generally above average in size. 10” bluegill are frequently caught. Bream fishing usually improves the farther upstream anglers venture. Live worms catch plenty of fish, but so do artificial lures and flies. I only use two lures when targeting bream; a black 1/16 ounce Beetle spin and a 1/16 ounce jig with a chartreuse curly tail grub. Fly fishermen will be successful using a 3 or 4 weight outfit with a floating line. Best flies are a #10 black spider on the surface and a #8 baitfish pattern for fishing below the surface. Gold with a chartreuse tail and white are good colors to try.
These tidal rivers are quite shallow in spots this time of year and a shallow draft boat is required. Most are also “Slow speed zones”, so fast boats and big motors offer no advantage. Jon boats with small outboard and electric motors along with canoes and kayaks are the best choices for fishing. Anglers with bass and flats boats should use caution both at the ramp and on the river, particularly at low tide. Most anglers choose to fish the brackish sections for snook and bass, but the shallow portions up-river all offer excellent freshwater fishing for bream and bass. These areas can be difficult to access due to low water, but they also get very little pressure and offer terrific scenery.
Fishing license requirements
Fishing license requirements can be tricky. From the FWC,
“The license required is not dependent on where you fish, but rather what you are targeting. There is no freshwater/saltwater line in most estuaries and bays. Tide and rain (salinity) determines the distribution of species in these areas. If you are targeting saltwater species, using saltwater baits and lures, unless exempt, you need a saltwater fishing license. If you accidentally catch a freshwater species, as long as you release it immediately, you are okay. Anglers targeting freshwater species, using freshwater baits and lures, unless exempt, need a freshwater fishing license. If you accidentally catch a saltwater species, as long as you release it immediately, you are okay. If you are targeting both saltwater and freshwater species, using baits and lures that take both, unless exempt, you should have both licenses.”
The Manatee River from around Ft. Hamer upriver to Rye Rd is the most productive stretch of water. The Lake Manatee Dam is another five miles upriver from Rye Rd. and offers excellent fishing for bream and bass. The two best access points are the ramp at Ft Hamer 1605 Fort Hamer Road, Parrish, FL and Ray’s Canoe Hideaway 1247 Hagle Park Rd. Bradenton, FL. Anglers can purchase bait, tackle, ice, and snacks at Rays, along with canoe rentals and boat launch services. They are closed on Wednesdays. Mark suggests calling him at (941) 747-3909 before coming out to check on the current conditions.
The Braden River feeds the Manatee River just below I-75 and offers excellent fishing from the mouth up to the dam at Lake Ward for snook, redfish, and jacks in the winter. Boats can launch at the ramps at the SR 64 Bridge.
The Myakka River is designated a “Wild and Scenic River”, one of only two in the state. As such, access and development have been limited. The area from I-75 south to El Jobean is best for anglers targeting snook. Both bass and snook are plentiful between Border Rd. and Tamiami Trail. Adventurous paddlers and boaters can go upriver to a dam just below Lower Myakka Lake. Ramps for power boats on the Myakka River are at Snook Haven 5000 East Venice Avenue, Venice, FL, Marina Park 7030 Chancellor Blvd, North Port, FL and El Jobean Park 4333 Kerrigan Circle, El Jobean, FL. Anglers who prefer to fish out of kayaks and canoes can also use the launches at either Border Rd or Laurel Rd.
The Peace River is over 100 miles long and offers anglers a wide variety of angling opportunities depending on the season and water levels. Unlike the other rivers, it is relatively unregulated. The best access to fish for snook is at Lettuce Lake,8801 SW Reese St, Arcadia, FL. Desoto Park Boat Ramp in Arcadia at SR 70 is a convenient and very nice park located at 2195 NW American Legion Drive, Arcadia, FL. Jon Bragg works at Canoe Outpost Peace River, located at 2816 NW County Road 661, Arcadai, FL. They offer canoe rentals and many other services. Jon shares a few tips,
“Serious anglers will do better fishing on weekdays. There is a fair amount of boat traffic, including airboats, on the weekends. Snook bite best after some rain when the water levels are up a bit and are caught as far up river as Zolfo Springs. Early fall can be terrific when the tilapia run down river. Bass fishing is good all year long. The best time for bream is in the winter when the water is low and clear on the section up river from Desoto Park.
Don’t let jig sizes, colors, and styles confuse you, they all either imitate shrimp or baitfish and are for the most part fished in the same manner. Cast the jig out, allow a few seconds for the it to sink and twitch the rod tip sharply. Let the lure fall on a tight line, most strikes occur as the bait is falling, the helpless look triggers the bite. Keeping the rod tip at ten o’clock and allowing the jig to fall on a tight line will allow anglers to feel more bites. Grubs with a shad tail or curly tail that mimic baitfish can be worked with a steady retrieve. Scented soft plastics such as Trigger-X and Gulp! baits are more expensive but can make a difference on days when the fish are a little fussy.
Plugs are another great choice for anglers who prefer to cast artificial lures. Rapala X-Raps in the (08) size are my personal favorite. They cast well and have great action. Cast the lure our and retrieve it back to the boat with sharp twitches followed by a short pause. As in all lure fishing, vary the retrieve until one is found that produces strikes.
Set the alarm, get out there early, and experience some action that is as hot as the weather!