Florida’s west coast is calling

Story by Ian Nance • Photography by Jason Stephens

As the days stretch from spring into summer, the west coast of Florida flourishes with natives. Long gone are the snowbirds who tolerated the gusty, sand-steeped winds of the winter simply because it’s not 15 degrees. Gone are the Spring Breakers and hip-hop beats and beer cans and detritus of barely aged beach and pontoon parties. No, now is the time when Floridians take advantage of the Gulf.
While certainly many will soak in the sun and relax beachfront at a tiki bar, sportsmen have their sights set on the action beneath the surface of the sea, and with good reason — anglers can hardly toss a line in the water these days without drawing the attention of at least one of a large number of sportfish that thrives off the coast this time of year.
In the passes that squeeze water in and out of the bays and along the surrounding beaches, tarpon will bend rods and force fishermen to bow to them as they go airborne in fight. As the sea temperatures warm, snook emerge from rivers and deeper channels and fan across the mangrove-bordered flats to assault the sardine and herring numbers before sliding out to the beaches where they will encounter a plethora of feisty fighters from Spanish mackerel to pompano, a variety of jacks and sharks, and the stragglers from the cobia and kingfish migrations of March and April. Left behind in the skinny waters are the spot-tailed redfish and spotted-all-over sea trout. There chasing them will be legions of fishermen taking advantage of this prime time before the sweltering heat of July and August chases everything into cooler climes soon after sunrise.

Yes, the west-coast fishery is alive in May and June, and folks do not skimp on the opportunity to net a prize from the waters. Among the fishing fleet is Lakeland resident Tim Cox and his compatriots in casting. Over the course of many years, Tim and his buddies have come together to ply the grass flats from Terra Ceia to Hillsborough Bay in Tampa Bay, with the occasional foray down to Anna Maria, Sarasota, Charlotte Harbor, and Matlacha. Fishing from shallow-water skiffs, these men pursue snook, redfish, and trout, for fellowship and sport. “I enjoy the escape from the routine,” Tim says.

My mind relaxes, and I get in a different zone. I love the early-dawn boat ride from the launch to our first fishing spot, the breeze on my face, the smell of the salt air, and the hope of catching that monster redfish or snook. It’s probably my favorite time of the day”— everything feels new and hopeful.

“I also enjoy the camaraderie shared with my fishing brothers. It seems we can fish for hours with only a few words spoken, but we’re successfully communicating. We share a common pursuit of fish and freedom, and when you fish with the same guys long enough, the chemistry is good. We anticipate each others’ moves and tend to know what the other is thinking… regarding fish, of course.”
While numerous anglers will survey this list of targets and lick their lips as if standing in front of the craft-beer aisle ready to mix-and- match after a winter of watery domestic drafts, each fish possesses their own challenges and requires different equipment and skill-sets from their pursuers. Many fishermen opt for a solitary pursuit, and these folks tend to gravitate toward a game that complements their personalities.

Tarpon fishermen, for example, are an ultra-competitive lot who match the toughness of the big fish perfectly. Whether drifting live-baits in deep passes or sight casting to pods rolling along the beaches, strategies for hooking the silver king vary and are defended passionately. Turf wars among the boats pop up when working a school, all for the thrill of an impressive aerial display and the tenacity to wear down even a hardened gym rat.
Snook are finicky, fashionable critters that attract fishermen in floppy hats and Columbia shirts with a thousand pockets. But all images of them being a finesse fish disappear when a bait or lure is slammed and simply enveloped in an explosion of saltwater that can leave a grown man shaking. Weak knots and nerves have no place with linesiders.

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Then there are redfish, bruisers in their own right. On the flats where the water column is often measured in inches, fishermen enjoy sight-fishing for redfish. Largely bottom feeders, the spotted tail of a red protrudes above the surface as it roots through the seagrasses and substrate for crustaceans and small fish. On calm days, this behavior betrays its location to keen-eyed wade fishermen who will attempt to slip within casting range to present a bait. An errant footstep or poor cast will send the red scooting spooked across the flat, plumes of brown mud swirling in its leave.
Tim, a guy who enjoys the serenity of fishing, certainly has his preference. “Personally, I love stalking redfish. Snook are fun to catch — great fighters — and they often jump. To me, there’s just something about a redfish. I love the tap-tap or thump of the bite followed by the drag-peeling pull. It’s addictive. I enjoy the hunting and stalking of reds almost as much as the catch…almost.”
With this abundance of opportunity comes the ability to try different methods of angling, as well as varying reasons for doing so. Shrimp buckets and the live shrimp to fill them with are readily available in most tackle stores; these popular baits will draw a bite from most fish with a pulse. Early in the morning, it’s common to witness cast-netters fill live-wells with pilchards, herring, and sardine — collectively and locally referred to as whitebait or greenbacks — for chum and live-bait. Others, the most particular of this bunch being flyfishermen, are quite content casting various artificial lures, some of which resemble actual living creatures and others appearing offensive to nature and Darwinism. Some prefer quiet days alone seeking to ice a legal fish or three in the cooler for dinner, while there are dozens of professional tournaments that take place along the coast each year with high hopes of the Big Fish and Big Money.
There’s truly something for everyone, and, not surprisingly, Tim and his friends choose to go about things in their own manner.
“Most of the guys in our group only use artificial lures,” he says. “It’s not an elitist thing — nothing against live-bait guys at all — we just prefer the challenge of using artificials. Most of us throw soft plastics on jig-heads, my favorite, along with gold spoons. Although some of us may fish a tournament from time to time, I wouldn’t describe us as professional tournament fishermen.”
However one chooses to experience the fishing, a successful trip turns extraordinary with friends and family sharing the day, as Tim relates.

“Sometimes we fish just one boat, sometimes two or three. And it could be any combination of guys, almost never more than two per boat. It can be competitive at times. Nothing too serious, though. All in good fun. It’s a guy thing, you know? Who catches the most or biggest redfish or snook. In Matlacha we have a little tournament, and that’s when it gets more competitive. It’s a lot of fun.”

People and boats being what they are, many trips do not go as planned, and those adventures make for special memories, too. Good and bad.
“Over the years, things like getting to the boat ramp and discovering someone left their boat key at home have happened. Or someone falling off their poling platform. Or forgotten toilet paper. Or phones dropped in the water. Or someone not realizing bananas are not allowed on boats for their bad mojo. Or a blown trailer tire at 70 mph on I-75. Or blown boat motors. Or running up on a hidden sandbar at 35 mph.” For those without boats or who are newbies to the sport, guided trips are always an option. While the sticker price may seem daunting at first, calculate the cost of operating a boat, from fuel to gear to bait and all in between. Then realize that the best
guides have spent far more time on the water than the average angler — the purchased price of this knowledge is every bit the difference in an outing of bent rods or stale baits. A number of reputable guides have come from or live in the Lakeland area, including Captains Shawn Crawford, John Gunter, Jason Lineberger, Greg Penix, Jeff Williams,
and Bobby Woodard, among others.

And while — with the Tampa Bay Skyway Bridge skyline and the phosphate docks of Boca Grande, not to mention jet skis and parasails — there’s little possibility of surveying the west coast and conjuring up the days of the Calusa, the fishing in these waters has markedly improved over the last twenty years. Though commercial interests consistently argue otherwise, the voter-approved net ban (which took effect in 1995 and prohibits gill nets of certain dimensions in nearshore waters) has resulted in an impressive rebound of sportfish stocks, and recreational anglers have reaped the benefits. This ban was briefly overturned in late October 2013 by a Leon County Circuit Judge, thanks to the persistent efforts of commercial fishermen. On November 6, a petition to reinstate the ban was granted to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

_MG_0311While threats will remain to the fisheries and the unique ecosystems of Florida’s west coast, for now the fishing opportunity here is world-class. For those like Tim, it’s a way of life that will continue to draw him back. A way of life that should be protected from overfishing — commercial and recreational — and the effects of other human activities.
“I believe, Lord willing, that fishing will be part of my life as long as I’m physically able, until I’m like ninety-five,” he says. “Although I’ve learned a lot about flats fishing over the past six or seven years, I’ve got plenty more to learn. and I look forward to that. And I believe, and hope, these friendships I’ve made with these guys will last a lifetime, in and out of fishing. I’m very hopeful that everyone will be responsible in conserving these wonderful natural resources that afford us the opportunity to fish. The resources are challenged every day, of course.”
If all goes well in the foreseeable future, the tarpon will continue to roll through the passes and exert their might upon anglers. Snook will blow topwater plugs chest-high out of the water. Busy eating, redfish will periscope their tails above the clear, warm shallows. And, rest assured, the Florida fishermen of May and June will be out casting lines to them.