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Saturday, Sep 23, 2017
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Reversal of fortune for red fishermen

The classic wisdom on water temperature is this: Kingfish arrive when the water temperature is 68 degrees, and redfish arrive when the numbers are reversed at 86. With the evident climate change, we soon might see 86 arriving much earlier and staying much later. It used to be at least the first of August before the heat built to that level, but not any more. The official NOAA water temperature for Gulf waters in the St. Pete Beach area is 87. If the redfish are watching the thermometer, then the run should be on any day. Adult reds, 28 inches and up, move in from huge schools that spend most of the year in the open Gulf in late summer and fall. They'll eventually spawn in the larger passes before heading back offshore, but when they first arrive they're in a feeding mood. The fish not only bust tackle in the ship channels and around the spoil bars of Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, they also at times swarm onto the deeper flats, leaving light-tackle anglers talking to themselves.
While the average late summer/fall red weighs about 8 to 10 pounds, there are always plenty of real bruisers, particularly in the deeper water, that weigh 40 pounds and more. A red that size is a real handful, even on heavy reef fishing gear, let alone the typical flats tackle most of us use. The redfish schools around Fort Desoto and Tarpon Key used to be a carefully-guarded secret of a few seasoned guides. These days, it's general knowledge – the trove there was the source of repeated netting forays by the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute in St. Pete seeking brood stock for the Port Manatee hatchery, and the "secret" was gone forever. The area is not a lot different from many other flats around Tampa Bay, but it is one of the closest to the open Gulf and the shipping channel, and that's probably why big reds repeatedly show up there at this time of year. Another good area to prospect, similarly close to deeper water, is the flat from the Bulkhead east of Anna Maria to Rattlesnake Key and the mouth of the Manatee River. On the flats, the standard tactic these days is to set up near a slightly deeper area and chum with live sardines. Reds also can be caught on soft jerkbaits, weedless spoons, plastic shrimp and topwater lures – if they haven't been harassed recently by a redfish tournament. For those who'd just as soon take on the biggest fish in deeper water, towing a jumbo diving plug like a Mann's Plus 25 right on the channel edges of the main ship channel and the Port Manatee channel likely will find schooling reds sometime between now and the beginning of next month. And if it doesn't, you'll still catch plenty of gag grouper to keep you entertained. The Port Manatee artificial reef, just north of the port channel, is another gathering spot for the giants at times, as are the spoil bars along the channel edge; some of these are only five feet deep at low tide, and they're great places to anchor up and chum a bit with live sardines or threads. You'll catch Spanish, ladyfish, jacks and blacktip sharks while you wait for the reds to show. Other famed "bull red" gathering spots are the west end of the Crystal River power plant and the Cross Florida Barge Canal, where live pinfish are the favored bait. St. Martins Reef, not far from Hernando Beach, (not to be confused with St. Martins Keys off Homosassa) is another good area All redfish over 27 inches long must be released, and the limit is one daily in our area. You'll rarely catch a keeper in late summer and fall – most are too big – but as gamefish, these fish are well worth pursuing. The fishing usually remains good until well into October, maybe November as the weather is going. The first cold front will move out any lingering adult fish, but there are plenty of 18 to 27 inchers remaining behind to prowl the flats most of the winter.
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