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.
Trolling is a technique that has proven to be extremely effective in saltwater fishing for a very long time. Most anglers envision a large sport fishing 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.
Read Capt Jim’s Sarasota fishing reports
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!
Top Sarasota trolling lures
Anglers have been catching snook by 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.
Sarasota trolling tackle
Tackle and rigging for 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 a Sarasota fishing charter 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 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.
Trolling helps locate fish
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.
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 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.
Hard bottom holds fish
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 while others are farther offshore. 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 off of Siesta Key beaches. 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 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.
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.
Sarasota inshore Gulf of Mexico fishing
Sarasota has some truly word class fishing off of the area beaches in the spring and fall. Several different species migrate through, following hordes of bait fish. Some of my most exciting fishing has been taking clients on Sarasota fishing charters, doing some Sarasota inshore Gulf fishing.
Why do anglers enjoy fishing the inshore Gulf of Mexico off of the Sarasota beaches? When conditions are right, Sarasota beaches offer world class angling. The inshore Gulf of Mexico offers visitors the opportunity to cast lures and flies into schools of breaking fish. This is some very exciting fishing! False albacore and Spanish mackerel will be terrorizing helpless bait fish. It is a feeding frenzy and the action can be spectacular!
We were greeted on a sunny fall morning with a sight that would make any angler’s blood boil. Every few hundred yards or so, the flat calm surface of the Gulf of Mexico was disturbed by breaking fish and diving birds. I eased the boat quietly into casting range of the nearest school of working fish and cut the engine.
“As soon as the fish show, cast your plugs out to the edge of the fish”, I instructed my two anglers. Several tense moments passed before the water exploded thirty feet in front of us. Two Rapala X Raps were sent out into the fray, twitched once, and instantly devoured. A double-header on the first cast! My initial thought was that we had tied into a couple of Spanish mackerel, but the long runs that threatened to “spool” our ten pound spinning outfits contradicted that. Ten minutes later we had our answer as a pair of false albacore reluctantly gave up their valiant struggle. After a quick photo, they were released to thrill other anglers with their speed and power.
Sarasota fishing charters
In the spring time and again in the fall, Sarasota is blessed with fantastic light tackle Sarasota inshore Gulf fishing off our beaches. This truly is world class fishing. Huge schools of bait fish will move through on their annual migrations. Game fish will be hot on their trail. While the primary species are king and Spanish mackerel, along with false albacore, other pelagic species such as cobia, tarpon, and sharks will also be encountered.
Every season is different, but action generally peaks on Easter and again on Thanksgiving. Optimum conditions are water temperature between 65 and 75 degrees, along with easterly breezes and clear water. This offers anglers with small boats an opportunity to catch large fish quite close to shore.
Point of Rocks on Siesta Key is a great spot to do some inshore Gulf fishing. The bars at the mouths of both Big Sarasota Pass and New Pass are great spots as well. However, the fish can be anywhere along the beach. Three artificial reefs were placed within two miles of shore off Lido Key between the two passes. These are fish magnets on the otherwise barren Gulf of Mexico floor and provide a great contingency plan. Action of some kind is practically guaranteed at one, if not all three, of the reefs.
Sarasota Fishing Techniques
Several techniques are used in pursuit of these nomadic speedsters on a Sarasota fishing charter. The most exciting, when conditions dictate, is sight casting to “breaking” fish. A spinning rod with ten to twelve pound line is ideal and a reel with a smooth drag is essential. Casting rods can be used, although the light lures and baits make spinning outfits a better choice for most anglers. Small plugs such as a Rapala X-Rap are extremely effective baits that result in a high hook-up rate.
Spoons, Diamond jigs, Gotchas, and Bass Assassin jigs with bait tails will also catch plenty of fish. White and silver are the preferred colors. Be careful not to use lures that are too big, the forage is usually quite small, better to “match the hatch”. A 24” piece of fluorocarbon shock leader is needed, start out with 20 lb in clear water and go up to 40 lb if cut-offs from mackerel become an issue.
A patient angler will prevail when Sarasota inshore Gulf fishing. Charging around from school to school will only result in putting the fish down. Instead, sit and wait for a good opportunity. There will be days when it can be frustrating. However, at some point you will be in the right spot and get your opportunity. A trolling motor is a great asset, allowing the angler to fine tune the boat’s position. As with all fishing, vary baits and retrieves until a productive pattern is identified. The fish are usually quite aggressive and a fast, erratic retrieve will result in bone-jarring strikes. Most of the time, the reel handle can’t be turned too fast!
Sarasota Gulf fly fishing
This is a terrific situation to catch a nice fish on a fly rod. Long casts are not normally required and the fish are hungry and cooperative. An average sized little tunny will get deep into the backing on its initial run. As with spin fishing, try different retrieves and flies. Allowing the fly to settle a moment, then retrieving it back in with short, hard strips is often productive, while at other times just letting the fly sink through the bait, seemingly helpless, will trigger a strike. A 7 weight rod is fine for Spanish mackerel while a 9 weight is a better choice for false albacore. Floating lines with a nine foot leader work well. 20 pound tippet is good for the false albacore. They can be a bit leader shy. A 40 pound bite tippet will help reduce cut-offs from the mackerel.
Fly selection is pretty basic. #1 white D.T Special flies, #1 white Clouser Minnow flies, and #1 white glass minnow flies are the top producing flies. When fish are seen breaking on the surface, the angler should approach up-wind of the fish. The engine should be cut and the boat allowed to drift down on the fish. Spanish mackerel tend to stay on the surface in one spot longer than false albacore. A cast into the middle of the fish should produce a take. False albacore move a lot faster and do not stay up on the surface. Anglers need to determine the direction that they are moving and “lead” the fish when fly fishing.
Trolling the inshore Gulf of Mexico
Trolling is an extremely effective technique that will usually put more fish in the boat than sight casting when Sarasota inshore Gulf fishing. This can be particularly true on mornings when there is a chop on the surface, when the fish are not showing, or when targeting king mackerel. Plugs and spoons are the two most productive lures. Both lures can be trolled using a light trolling sinker or behind a planer, but a plug with a large lip will “trip” the planer. Shallow and deeper running plugs are effective on all species. Spinning and conventional rods are both fine for trolling plugs. Simply tie the lure to a 6’ piece of 80 lb fluorocarbon. Rapala X-Raps, Yozuri 3 D Minnows, and gold Bombers are all effective plugs.
The key to trolling several lures without tangling them is to vary the depth and distance that the lure is let out behind the boat. I use a “count back” method when inshore Gulf fishing. The shallowest running bait is let out first with the engine idling in gear. This is usually a plug but can also be a spoon/trolling sinker combo. Count out to twenty five and then put the rod in an outside rod holder. Next shallowest would be the #1 planer. Count out to twenty while letting the line out. Put that rod on the other side of the boat.
Last, and deepest, is the #2 planer or deep diving plug. Count out to fifteen and set the rod in a holder as close to center as possible. Now there are three baits at different depths and distances, allowing the boat to be turned without the lines fouling. Increase speed to four to five knots and troll while looking for birds, bait, and surface activity. Keeping the boat moving after a strike can result in multiple hook-ups.
Live bait fishing in the inshore Gulf of Mexico
While I prefer the excitement of tossing artificial lures and flies, drifting and slow trolling live bait will often out fish all other methods, and will usually catch the largest fish. Live shrimp and small bait fish that can be cast-netted up are best free lined on light tackle using a 2/0 long shank hook on a 24” piece of 30 lb leader. This works great for catching Spanish mackerel and false albacore. Larger species such as king mackerel, cobia, tarpon, and sharks prefer a large threadfin or blue runner.
Cast out a Sabiki rig into the bait pods and use a slight jigging motion to attract the bait. Once procured, use a heavy spinning rod (tarpon tackle is perfect for this) with a 5’ piece of 80 lb fluorocarbon leader and a 6/0 live bait hook. Drift the bait out behind the boat, a cork may be required if the wind and tide are slack.
Live bait fish can also be slow trolled. This is an extremely effective tactic for large king fish. A “stinger” rig is preferred. This consists of a long wire leader with two hooks about 6” apart. The bait is attached by the nose to the first hook, the second hook swings free. The bait is let out 100 feet behind the boat and slowly trolled around the edges of bait schools and over structure. The boat should be in idle and moving as slowly as possible. Drags are set lightly allowing the fish to run after a strike. In most instances, the fish will be hooked in the side of the face with the stinger hook, necessitating the light drag pressure.
A couple of seasons back, I was out on the beach on a charter the day before Thanksgiving. It was a little choppy and the fish were not showing, so I had my clients drifting live baits out behind the boat. We had landed a small king and several nice Spanish mackerel when a rod baited with a big threadfin doubled over. Line peeled off the reel as my client scrambled to get the rod out of the holder. His face lit up as a hundred pounds of silver fury leapt several feet out.
of the water. Yes, a tarpon at the end of November! You never know what you might hook into off of the Suncoast beaches. Come and experience Sarasota inshore Gulf fishing for yourself!
Sarasota Fishing Tips for the inshore Gulf of Mexico
Planers are deadly, but require the use of heavier tackle. A #1 planer on a 15-20 lb conventional outfit and 20 feet of 50 lb leader and will dive down six to eight feet at five knots. A #2 planer on a 30-40 lb conventional rod and 20’ of 80 lb leader will work the 12’-15’ depths. Match the spoon to the size of the planer. A 2”-3” Clark spoon works best on a #1 planer while a large King spoon works better on the #2 planer. Quality swivels on both ends of the leader will minimize line twist.
Tip # 2
Watch the teeth! Spanish mackerel and king mackerel have VERY sharp teeth. It can be easy to become careless when in the middle of a fishing frenzy. A release tool is a great aid. Fish that are going to be kept should be released right into the cooler. Fished to be released should just be unhooked over the side.
Tip # 3
False albacore will fight to the death, literally. It is important to use tackle heavy enough to subdue them in a reasonable amount of time. Also, when releasing an albacore, point it head fist towards the water and briskly shove it into the water. This will get the water moving across it’s gills.
Tip # 4
Anglers may be tempted to use wire after getting several cut-offs from toothy mackerel. This is understandable. However, the number of strikes will be decreased, especially if the water is clear. Several manufacturers make wire that is limp and can be tied in knots. This is a good compromise. Tip # 5 Birds are your friend! As the game fish feed on minnows, they will drive them to the surface. Birds will see this and dive in on the helpless prey. It is much much easier for anglers to see birds working from a long distance than the actual fish feeding. Small white terns are a sure indication of feeding mackerel or false albacore.
In conclusion, this article on Sarasota trolling techniques will help anglers catch more fish in both freshwater and saltwater. 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!
Capt Jim Klopfer
1059 North Tamiami Trail Sarasota, Fl 34236