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It's not brain surgery. It's not even snook fishing, which sometimes approaches the same level of difficulty. Drift fishing the deep flats of the west coast in summer is about as easy as it gets in terms of techniques, and yet it's an almost sure way to collect the primary ingredients for a fish fry, namely fish. We're not talking the superstars of game fishing here; not snook, not permit, not redfish, and usually not tarpon, though one may crash the act on occasion. But trout, mangrove snapper, Spanish mackerel, black sea bass, grunts and other species make up in abundance what they lack in style. It's easy fishing, made to order for kids and for casual anglers who have neither the skills nor the patience to pursue the marquee species."It's something that just about anybody can do," says Jonathan Shute, major domo at Pirate's Pointe Resort in Ruskin, an old Florida style hideaway on the Little Manatee River. "A family can leave our docks and be catching fish in 10 minutes, and all it takes is a bucket of shrimp to get them and an ice chest to store them." Shute and others who appreciate the grab bag that areas like the deep flats between Ruskin and Anna Maria offer say that many species are there all year. But hot weather also moves some fish that are frequently on the shallow flats, such as spotted sea trout, out to the deeper water. The action starts in about 6 feet and continues on to about 14 feet, or where ever grass or hard bottom disappears. Most of Tampa Bay's bottom is covered with mud, but in a number of areas a weed known locally as "kelp grass" provides offshore cover and attracts swarms of fish. Hard bottom areas — coral and limerock outcroppings — are also fish magnets. In addition to the "South Shore" flats, there are similar productive areas off Pinellas Point and Weedon Island. Expert anglers say that anywhere you can hear the popcorn sound of snapping shrimp on bottom — easy to hear through the boat hull on a calm day — there will be plenty of fish below. And shrimp are among the best offerings for catching the variety of species that hang in these areas. All of them feed at least partially by scent, so a live shrimp drifted about 4 feet below a popping cork will do plenty of business, particularly for mid-water feeders like trout and mackerel. You may have to put the shrimp on bottom to connect with snappers, grunts and sea bass, and in some areas there are so many pinfish and catfish that fishing shrimp is impossible. Those are the areas to switch to a quarter-ounce jig or a small swimbait and perhaps add a small piece of shrimp to the hook for scent. For those who want a shot at larger fish, taking time to cast net some sardines or threadfins can pay off. These are drifted behind the boat on light spinning gear, and are just about irresistible to Spanish mackerel, as well as the occasional tarpon that doesn't realize you're not fishing for glamour species.
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