Fishing Report: Fall is in the air and fishing is about to get real (good)

This happy angler shows off a snook taken on a trip last week with longtime Hernando County fishing guide Capt. Josh Fritz. Snook will be feeding heavily during the fall months to fatten up for leaner times this winter.

During the long, hot summer, it’s easy to forget just how lucky as anglers we are, but then fall reminds us.

Fall officially kicked off Sept. 22 and with it some amazing fishing action.

Inshore species like snook, redfish, trout, cobia, sheepshead, mangrove snapper, and flounder that spent the summer seeking cooler water or a spot of shade begin to exhibit spunk and a desire to feed. Both those things are good for anglers.

Late summer rains have brought water temperatures down to set the stage, and local pros are seeing the fall pattern emerge. Gag grouper have made the move back into shallower water, according to local captains Mike Manning and Josh Fritz, who are finding keeper-sized gags in as little as 10 to 12 feet of water.

As the season progresses and water temperatures drop a bit more, that fishing will only get better. The action is on the hard, limestone bottom west of Aripeka, stretching north along St. Martins Reef. These are areas absent the large rock outcroppings found in deeper water offshore, but contain many low rocks, cracks and rocky holes gags like to hide in.

Capt. Mike reports he had no trouble last week chumming up gags with live sardines then hooking them on large diving plugs cast on heavy spinning tackle he uses for tarpon fishing. Capt. Josh is on the gags as well, and says the party is on and will continue into November.

Inshore, redfish are following their usual fall habit of schooling in larger numbers. Look for them to be running with the mullet schools, our trusty captains advise, as reds like to clean up behind the mullet, who stir up crabs and shrimp as they pick away at the bottom for algae and other vegetarian delights.

Any rock point or shoreline around spoils or small islands are likely spots to find them, but fish will push into creeks as the tide rises. Live shrimp, pinfish and sardines are great natural baits, though they also will take cut, fresh mullet chunks left soaking on the bottom. Top artificial baits are gold spoons, plugs, jigs or soft jerk baits.

The snook are on the move and feeding this month and next to fatten up for the leaner times ahead in winter. They will remain on the outside points, bars, cuts and in the near-backwater areas, and are most active when the tide is moving well. Live sardines, sometimes called “snook candy,” is the top natural bait. Top-water plugs, jerk baits and jigs with soft tails are good choices among artificials.

Trout that have been in the 10- to 15-foot depths during the warmest part of the summer will be populating the shallow grass flats and rocky shorelines this month. The big ones many anglers sorely missed in July and August will be active and hungry after the exhausting summer spawn. Trout take a variety of live and artificial baits, but there may be no more fun than throwing top-water plugs for them around sunrise. On cloudy days the bite can extend into the afternoon, but when the sun is bright, switching to jigs is the right move. Capt. Josh likes white soft plastic tails in Hernando waters. Vary the retrieve and depth worked until you find what they like best.

One of the best things about fall is anglers can pretty much take their pick, as everything is biting. Spanish mackerel will be around, schooling and hunting bait fish from the flats in 6 feet of water out to hard bottom in 20 feet. Diving birds feeding on bait often give them away. September also is when cobia begin to make their way through our waters on their push south for the winter. They often trail stingrays, feeding on crabs and shrimp the rays stir off the bottom with the large, flapping wings.

Cooler water gets the flounder going, and while not a species many anglers target, fall can produce nice catches of the flat fish. Live shrimp or mud minnows are great baits when bumped along the bottom on a weighted rig or threaded on a jig head.

Hit the canals and creeks if mangrove snapper or sheepshead are the targets. Both feed on the bottom and take live and frozen shrimp. They love docks and rocky areas. Fiddler crabs are another good bait for both.

Other fish that provide opportunities this time of year can be pompano, which typically are on the flats in areas where trout are found. Black drum may be inhabiting some of our creeks and canals.

Of course, fall is kingfish time, but a lot depends on water temperatures. The run usually begins when temps dip into the low 70s, which most years puts the annual run in mid to late October or early November.