Sarasota red tide fishing

Fishing in Sarasota with red tide present

Unfortunately, red tide has moved into Sarasota. Red tide is an algae bloom that suffocates fish and other wildlife. Sarasota red tide fishing can be tough. An article on tactics and strategies for fishing under these conditions follows my weekly report.

Sarasota fishing report

Clients on Sarasota fishing charters had success this week, despite the emergence of red tide. The key was to find unaffected areas. The middle of Sarasota Bay from the Moorings to Long Bar was clean and held fish. Speckled trout, bluefish, ladyfish, jack crevelle, mangrove snapper, gag grouper, catfish, and other species were landed. Bishop’s Pt. And Buttonwood were the top spots. Gulp Shrimp and Bass Assassin Sea Shad baits were productive, as was live shrimp.

We did have a pretty cool thing happen on Friday morning. My clients and I were drifting the flat at Bishop’s Pt. When we noticed something odd. A dark spot appeared, then the water went crazy! It turned out to be a large school of jack crevelle. We landed several before they moved on, great sport on light tackle! 

Red tide is typically worse near the passes and this is the case right now.  Red tide usually blooms out in the Gulf of Mexico and then gets into the bays via the passes.  Unfortunately, a lot of my favorite fishing spots are near the passes.  Also, I catch most of my bait on the shallow flats and bars near the passes, and the red tide has caused that bait to move.

Sarasota red tide fishing

Red Tide Tactics

The key to finding angling success when red tide is present is to locate unaffected areas. This means anglers need to fish hard and move around. One frustrating aspect is how areas can change over night. A productive area can get an influx of red tide that evening and shut down the spot completely. Another issue that can be difficult is finding bait fish and keeping them alive.

Understanding red tide

From the FWC web site,”What is red tide?”

A red tide, or harmful algae bloom, is a higher-than-normal concentration of a microscopic alga (plantlike organism). In Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, the species that causes most red tides is Karenia brevis, often abbreviated as K. brevis. To distinguish K. brevis blooms from red tides caused by other species of algae, researchers in Florida call the former the “Florida red tide.”  More red tide questions and answers can be found HERE.

Red tide has been documented for centuries. It gets it’s name by changing the water to a red or brown color. Here in Sarasota, it looks a bit like orange juice. It can cause skin irritations and respiratory issues in humans. It can kill fish and other marine life. Many people say they can “smell” the red tide. In actuality, they are smelling the decaying fish. 

The Florida Wildlife Commission has a very informative and detailed web site.  Anglers can get information on red tide and can sign up for e-mail updates on red tide and policy and law changes.  HERE is their map of the current red tide status.

As previously stated, the key to achieving angling success when red tide is present is finding “clean” water. Water affected by red tide will have a brown hue. Unaffected water will have that nice “green” color. The presence of dead fish floating can be tricky. Some of the dead fish could be from many miles away. Still, it is not very pleasing to fish near dead, stinking fish.

Live bait or artificial lures?

Fishing with live bait can be frustrating during red tide blooms. Anglers can spend an hour loading up the well, only to drive through a little patch and have it all die. This can be true during times where the red tide is present but not strong. Bait will be bunched up and easy to catch, but as soon as it is concentrated in the well, it struggles. This is obvious as the bait “spins”, tries to jump out, or sinks down to the bottom to die.

Shrimp are much less affected by the red tide. Shrimp are purchased at local bait shops and are usually easy to keep alive. This makes them a better choice under these conditions in many instances.

Artificial lures are a good option when red tide is present. There are several reasons for this. Lures allow anglers to cover a lot of water. This meant that unproductive water can be eliminated in a reasonable amount of time. My personal favorite lure in the lead head jig and grub combination. A ¼ ounce jig head with a 4” Bass Assassin Sea Shad tail or a 3” Gulp Shrimp work very well. Silver spoons cast a long way and can be a good “search” bait as well. Suspending and diving plugs can be cast or trolled to locate fish.

Fish behavior during red tide

One thing that red tide can do is concentrate fish. If half on the area is affected by red tide and half is not, obviously the fish will move into the areas with better water quality. Again, don’t stay in one spot too long if it does not produce. There will not always be obvious signs that the algae bloom is present.

Another result of a red tide outbreak is that some species will be found in unusual places. Fish species such as bluefish and Spanish mackerel might be located in backwater creeks. Inshore Gulf of Mexico species may move inshore. They are simply trying to escape the death that will come if they stay in the poor quality water.

I remember one charter a few years ago. I was able to catch a few pilchards and keep them alive. We were anchored up on a mangrove shoreline that had been producing a few snook. My clients hook a fish which made a hard run. It turned out to be a spade fish, a species I had never caught in Sarasota Bay! On another trip we were casting Rapala plugs in Phillippi Creek. This is a fairly brackish area. We found a school of big bluefish in there. Again, I have never caught one in there before or since.

Sarasota red tide fishing

Sarasota red tide fishing

Fishing with live bait fish can be frustrating when red tide is present in the water. On several occasions I have had a well full of great baits die after driving through a patch of the deadly bloom. I have had other trips where as soon as I anchored up to chum, the bait began to act oddly. Bait affected by red tide with “spin up”, swimming around in circles and trying to leap out of the well.

When this happens, I pull the anchor and crank up the motor as quickly as possible. As long as some of the bait lives, all is not lost. The dead baits can be used effectively as chum at another spot. But, clean water needs to be located before this can happen. Once a spot that the bait will stay alive in is found, the dead bait can be used as chum and the live ones used to catch the game fish. 

While I focus primarily on fishing inshore, offshore anglers are not immune from red tide issues.  Patches of red tide can exist from the beach out many miles.  The same strategy of finding clean water applies there as well.  Also, keeping bait alive is a problem as well.  One little area of affected water can kill dozens of great baits in short order.

Clients often ask me if fish are safe to eat during outbreaks of red tide. The answer is “yes”! Fish are safe to eat as long as they are healthy when caught and put on ice. However, all fish should be filleted! This will eliminate any chance for ingesting toxins that might be in the entrails. Shellfish should NOT be eaten during red tide conditions! Commercially caught shellfish are regulated and are safe to eat.  While it is also usually safe to swim when red tide is present, it can cause eye and skin irritations, so maybe best to stay out of the water until it clears up.