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BOUNTY ON SARASOTA BAY: This central Gulf Coast bay offers clean water, healthy grassflats, and a cornucopia of gamefish.

Captain Rick Grassett is as adept at finding Sarasota Bay fish as he is at convincing people why this gem tucked between Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor is well worth a visit. For the seasoned Gulf Coast guide, it's as much about what the bay does not have, as about what it does.

"Sarasota Bay doesn't have any big rivers--only a couple of small creeks--dumping into it, so our water tends to be clearer," Grassett said. "Also, the bay remains refreshed because there are three passes flushing the bay. Because the water is clear, we have really nice grassflats.

"Those three passes keep our salinity higher so, especially in the fall, we get a good influx of migratory species like Spanish mackerel, bluefish and tripletail; along with our speckled trout, snook, redfish, pompano, jack crevalle and ladyfish."

Although the Intracoastal Waterway links to Anna Maria Sound (north) and Roberts Bay (south), those passes create the bay's recognized boundaries. At the upper end. Longboat Pass separates its namesake key from the south end of Anna Maria Island, while New Pass provides the central flow between Longboat's southern tip and the top of Lido Key. At the bay's lower end. Big Pass runs between Lido and Siesta Key.

Fall is a particularly nice time to visit Sarasota Bay because the combination of cooling air and water plus declining daylight periods warns predators of winter's approaching leanness. The mild seasonal transition finds gamefish abundant, available and aggressive.

Despite its decidedly urban character, Sarasota Bay offers an impressive palette of fish habitat.

Google Earth reveals one of Sarasota Bay's most distinctive features--a prominent set of sand bars bracing the interior. And we're not talking about mere slivers of high ground; nor are we referring to the also-relevant spoil banks near the west side boating channel. No, Sarasota Bay sports a serious bar scene with no cover charge.

"In most areas of the bay, there's a sand bar that runs all the way around the edge of the bay and between the sandbar and the shoreline is a shallow flat," Grassett said. "This is important because Sarasota Bay is kind of oval-shaped, so a northwest or southeast wind is right up or down the bay and sometimes it's hard to get out of that. You either fish flats on the east side or the west side; whichever one's going to offer the most protection."

Iconic and unmistakable, sickle-shaped Long Bar reaches out from the eastern shore, north of Bayshore Gardens, and spans more than half the bay's width toward Buttonwood Harbor. As Grassett explains, Long Bar and the more traditional sand bars create a border between adjacent habitats.

"On the outside of the bars--especially on points like Stephens Points, which is near the Ringling Museum of Art (east side) and Bishop Point (south of Buttonwood Harbor)--you have nice deep grassflats where the grass grows out to about 8 feet and then drops off," he said. "Those deep grassflat areas are where we fish for trout, mackerel, jacks, bluefish and ladyfish. In the shallow flats, we're looking for larger trout, snook and redfish."

Notably, Grassett and kayak guide Steve Gibson report a sharp decline in the bay's redfish population. Recent bouts of red tide may have disrupted redfish forage sources enough to force the fish to other habitat.

"I like to target bars when the tide is low, especially on an incoming tide," Grassett said. "That's because the bars will be exposed at a low tide and the fish have to drop outside of it; or depending on how much water is on the shallow flat, they might be on the inside of the bar, dropping into potholes.

"I let the height of the tide determine what zone I'm going to be fishing in. When the tide's all the way low, that could be on the outside of the bar; and as the tide rises, it could be anywhere from the bar to the shoreline."

On higher water, oyster habitat--bars and scattered shell clumps--awaits behind Long Bar and others. Snook, big trout, redfish, sheepshead and black drum roam such areas, so keep a variety of topwaters, jigs with darker colored bodies, spoons and live bait (pilchards, shrimp) handy. Float those livies to prevent snagging. (A good tactic for "walking" up to an oyster bar on the incoming tide.)

Flats Tactics

Live baits--shrimp, pilchards, threadfin herring--are an easy sell this time of year. Grass beds can conceal your offerings, but cork rigs (popping or not) offer a good option for keeping them from hiding in the blades.

Preferring artificials, Grassett will pole the bar edges and position his clients for casting to deeper pockets, points and dropoffs, all while watching for wakes, boils and other fish signs. Topwaters, jigs and soft plastic jerkbaits get the job done here. One of the most user-friendly and productive techniques is the popping cork with a synthetic shrimp or a jig and shad tail.

Tip: When floating grass presents a constant fouling issue, consider a weedless topwater option like the DOA PT7 or Live Target's hollow body mullet.

An Orvis-endorsed fly instructor, Grassett often brings an 8-weight outfit with a clear intermediate sink tip line and a 6to 7-foot leader for deeper flats. On shallow flats, he'll go with a floating line and a 10- to 12-foot leader for stealth. His fly preference is a baitfish imitator--either a thin glass minnow look or a wider profile pinfish impostor.

"Something I do on deep grassflats is use a floating line with a large fly popper and then 24 to 30 inches behind it, a small baitfish fly pattern," Grassett said. "Most of the fish are caught on the back fly. That's blind casting, so anything you can do to add sound in the way of vibration or surface noise, it adds to the effectiveness of it."

With any of these tactics, Grassett suggests casting ahead of the boat for maximum presentation time and targeting the areas where grass and sand mix. Distinct potholes are good, but broken bottom with its random grass/sand splotching can be a fish magnet.

Mangrove Moments

You'll find some of these salt-tolerant trees at the bay's north end (above Long Bar), but most of the prime mangrove habitat occurs on the western edge, behind Long Boat Key. Named mangrove islands include Sister Keys near Long Boat's upper end, White Key and Whale Key at the bottom end of Buttonwood Harbor. These, along with several unnamed islets, offer lots of points, drains and snook-friendly notches; lush grass, interspersed with well-defined sand holes, abuts the mangrove shorelines.

Grassett suggests targeting mangroves from about midway into a rising tide through the high stage. Low tides, he said, restrict fish approach, so he'll work adjacent grassflats and potholes.

"When the tide is all the way up, it's flooded in the mangroves, but as it starts to fall out of the roots, it's going to pull bait out of there," Grassett said. "That's what's going to make predators gather in what I call 'pinch points'--any narrow opening that water can flow through like two islands that are close together, a point or a cut between the mangroves."

Baitfish imitators like jigs with shad tails orjerkbaits, large-profile flies (Deceivers are good) and a cork rig will keep you in the bite. As the tide fills, don't hesitate to walk a topwater bait or chuck a popping cork rig around the mangrove edges.

"Whatever you throw, when you hook a fish around the mangroves you want to put the most pressure on him with the rod tip down and to the side," Grassett said. "Use the butt section of the rod more so than the tip to control the fish.

"I always tell people: 'If the fish makes it into the mangroves, you lost it. So do everything you can to get on them pretty quickly and keep it out. If that means keeping your thumb on the spool and running the risk of breaking off the fish, then you have to do that sometimes."

Pass Plays

This one's pretty straightforward: Baitfish schools that spend much of the warm season trying to avoid predation inside the bay face a nearly impossible gauntlet as they exit through coastal portals for their southward migration. Once the parade starts, the action is unmistakable--baitfish raining at the surface, frothy boils, sporadic slashing and incredibly violent attacks that send hundreds of silver shads scattering skyward.

Incoming tides will gather baitfish inside the passes, but a strong outgoing movement sends a briny buffet into the Gulf where just about everything with a mouth converges on the feeding opportunity. Noting that Big Pass and New Pass tend to have the best baitfish flushing, Grassett lists the regulars as mackerel, bonito, tarpon, jacks, bluefish, cobia, ladyfish and sharks.

"The pass is another example of a pinch point," Grassett said. "The tide is going to be moving strongly there and it's deeper in the pass. Outside the passes on the edges is where I find the best action. But in the pass itself, you could find fish gathering there."

With a mix of glass minnows and larger baitfish populating the tidal flushes, anglers are wise to keep a variety of lures handy. Shad-tail jigs are standard, while spoons, topwaters, poppers, swimbaits and fly gear will earn plenty of attention.

Fronts will become an increasing concern as fall progresses, so pick your days to avoid the high winds ahead of those weather fluctuations and the bite-killing high pressure and intense sunlight of the dreaded post-frontal "bluebird" days. To avoid the downturns, Grassett advises picking your weather periods between the fronts--although the day before a front moves through often finds the fish locked and loaded.

As far as tides, Grassett points to the stronger movement of new and full moon phases as ideal windows of opportunity. Notably, he prefers the new over the full moon phase because, if the latter coincides with a clear sky, fish will feed all night and pass the daylight hours in full-belly lethargy.

"People often ask me, 'When is the best time to fish, high tide or low tide?'" Grassett said. "My answer is 'neither one,' because when it's high, it's stopped; when it's low it's stopped. It's the period between the high and low when the current is the strongest and that's usually when the fishing is best.

"I like to look at the tide in a graph form; the rise and the fall. The greater the distance between the high and the low in the shortest amount of time will be the strongest current."

Late fall will bring the extreme low tides on new and full moons--especially if hastened by a northeast wind. This is wading heaven, so don't hesitate to anchor safely, hop out and leverage the opportunity of accessing fish holed up in the deeper troughs and depressions inside the bars.

Kayak Fishing Sarasota Bay

WITH EXTENSIVE shallow water habitat, Sarasota Bay avails itself well to kayakers. Local paddle-fishing guide Steve Gibson frequents a few particular areas.

Stephens Point (east side): Target docks and seawalls or drift deep grassflats for trout, snook, redfish, mackerel, bluefish, pompano.

Buttonwood Harbor (west side of Longboat Key): Fishing the mix of mangrove islands, channels, shallow flats, oyster bars and sand/ grass edges Gibson expect the same species mix, along with flounder, cobia and the occasional permit.

Helicopter Shoal (south of Whale Key at the bottom end of Buttonwood Harbor): This Is a solid example of pristine flats with deeper holes that retain sufficient depth to hold trout, redfish, snook and flounder during the extreme low tides of fall-winter. Anchoring and wading is the deal here.

Working from a NuCanoe 13 V2-foot Pursuit and a 12-foot Frontier, Gibson fishes most of his spots with the MirrOiure MirrOdine (regular and mini) and the MirrOiure Lil John on Vs- or 1/16-ounce jig heads. For optimal positioning, he offers these tips:

Anchor Trolley: "Positioning a kayak is like patting your head and rubbing your belly; if s easy once you know how to do it, but it's tough if you've never done it," Gibson said. "I took this out of the equation (for my clients) by putting anchor trollies on all of my kayaks. That way I can anchor them up on a patch of grass or an edge or a dock; and then, they can just fish. With the anchor trolley, I can face a kayak in any direction within a cast of the target area and work it like that. Sometimes, you can anchor off one grass patch, catch 15 to 20 trout and move to the next."

Homemade Anchor: Keeping it simple, Gibson uses a 5-pound foam-covered dumbbell tied to a 30-foot rope. "If that doesn't hold, it's too windy to be out there."

Spot Holder: Rigging a crab float to his anchor line allows Gibson to chase a big fish or go help a client without losing his anchor spot. He simply detaches the anchor line, attends to his errand and then reattaches to resume his position.

Push Pole: Gibson uses a 10-foot Native Water Paddle Pole, which sports a thin blade on one end opposite the traditional point. When he's stalking fish, this allows him to paddle across any spots too deep to pole.

Caption: Sport and culture mix on the flats off the famous Ringling Museum of Art.



* Centennial Boat Ramp--U.S. 41 and 10th St., Sarasota

* Ken Thompson Park--City Island, next to Mote Marine Laboratory


* CB's Saltwater Outfitters (Siesta Key)

* Guides: Capt. Rick Grassett (941-923-7799), Steve Gibson (941-284-3406)

Caption: Redfish, above, are year-round residents of Sarasota Bay, often pouncing on flies, jigs or plugs on marbled grassflats and mangrove points as shown at left. At right: Capt. Rick Grassett displays a fly-caught Spanish mackerel, a fall migrant that spices up the scene.

Caption: Juvenile tarpon are always a hit with fly fishermen, particularly on calm days when they can be spotted rolling.
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Author:Brown, David A.
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Dec 1, 2017
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