2003 Fishing Reports


September October November December



Chillier weather has been around for long enough now that clear-cut shifts in the preferred hangouts of gamefish should be evident. However, when late fall or early winter water temps drop relatively slowly, the movements of some sought-after species are tougher to track. This has been one of those puzzling stretches for Gulf Coast anglers.

A week ago, impressive waves of speckled trout moved into the Steinhatchee and Waccasassa Rivers. This week, fish in these rivers are much more scarce, and the top catches have again shifted to their nearby grass flats and outer shell bars.

In the annual December game of ‘musical rivers,’ The Crystal and Homosassa are presently at the head of the Gulf Coast class. Folks casting 52M series Mirrolures in the Homosassa have been icing good trout limits for several days running, and those fishing shrimp and fiddlers in the same stretches of river have picked up nice catches of sheepshead and black drum.

Crystal River produced the best saltwater fishing stories of the week with good trout numbers just inside its mouth–and incredible grouper fishing not far outside. Dozens of weekend grouper fishers boated limits of stout gags trolling deep-diving Mann’s “Stretch” lures just off the power plant at the western end of the dredged cut that was to be the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

Along with a good grouper limit, one boat also docked at Pete’s Pier with king mackerel of 34 and 25 pounds. And we thought all the kings were gone for the season….

Freshwater fishing seems to be improving overall–speckled perch fishers are again picking up limit and near-limit catches in nearby lakes. At Rodman Pool, the specks are biting minnows and mini jigs in the deep Barge Canal. Lochloosa specks, though, are being pulled about equally from the mid-lake depths and the lily pad beds around the shoreline. Orange, Little Orange, Santa Fe, and Alto Lakes have also attracted quite a number of crappie hunters–and have yielded some very good tallies. The proudest bass anglers we’ve spoken to have scored best using live shiners on Rodman.

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Warm, sunny, and calm one day–then chilly, cloudy, and windy the next. The radical weather changes we expect this time of year are beginning to play a major part in angling success.

Last weekend was one that offered fishers outstanding weather, and catches from almost every nearby fresh and saltwater site were again outstanding. Folks fishing minnows and Hal Fly jigs for speckled perch reported nice weekend results from several lakes including Santa Fe, Little Orange, Rodman, Crosby, and Hampton. While some speckers found a good number of fish in Lochloosa, action on that premier crappie lake was a bit slower than usual. However it has, in the cooler days since, picked back up. The most impressive bass fishing stories came from anglers that fished Rodman Pool. As usual, a variety of lures including crank, jerk, and spinnerbaits produced good fish; but the ‘live shiner’ time of year has arrived–and they are the most dependable bait of all. One shiner fisher claimed to have taken and released at least one Rodman largemouth of at least 7 pounds on each of 7 consecutive days.

Saltwater anglers made good use of the sterling weekend weather, hauling in great catches out of every gulf port. Grouper seekers were especially happy. Most were able to fill limits of good gags within 20 miles of shore. The best tallies came from the zone 27-to-40 feet deep. Bottom fishers soaking squid, pinfish, and Spanish sardines scored well, as did folks trolling deep-diving lures. And more than a few sizable king mackerel were pulled from the same offshore waters.

In shallower water, Spanish mackerel remain both large and abundant off Cedar Key, Suwannee, and Steinhatchee. This is surely the tail end of the fall Spanish run in local waters, and some of the largest examples of the year are presently being hooked.

Speckled and sand trout also are biting well out of the same ports. The speckled variety can still be found on grass flats, but increasing numbers are moving into tidal creeks. The usually smaller and spotless sand trout are found most often in deeper holes and channels. Both readily take both live and artificial baits.

The angler that will hunt diligently can, even in the most challenging conditions, find a good fishing opportunity somewhere near Gainesville. Right now, though, no dedicated search is necessary. It would be hard to go very wrong on any of our favorite waters. Fall fishing is outstanding in lakes, rivers, and on the coasts.

Normally, speckled perch fans are just beginning to get serious about their favorite fish in mid November. This year, Lochloosa has offered a head start on the crappie season with fish that have already been active for a couple of months. Now, the rest of the area speck lakes are finally giving speckled perch specialists more good perch-catching options. Little Orange has yielded a few excellent stringers full of big crappie, and big Orange Lake, again accessible from the ramp at Marjorie Rawlings Park,is turning out some fine specks as well. Another hot specking destination presently is Little Lake Santa Fe. Here, Hal Fly Jigs with minnows added are producing some mighty large slabs when fished out in the open water depths. Bass anglers are faring best on Lake Santa Fe, Rodman Reservoir, Lake Rousseau, and the St. John’s River.

Most Gulf fishers are wearing grins when they come in to replace recently-lost tackle. Impressive fishing stories are the norm these days when the weather is cooperative–as it has been most days. Speckled trout can still be found out on the grass flats, but increasing numbers are ganging up around sand and shell bars and creek mouths. The season’s first trout migration into a gulf river has begun. Curiously, the river that the trout have invaded is the southernmost river that we cover, the Homosassa. Some weekend anglers crawling sinking Mirrolures through the river current picked up nice trout limits. Sand trout numbers are great out of Steinhatchee, Suwannee, and Cedar Key.

Spanish mackerel, sometimes gone by late November, are lingering on deep grass flats from Steinhatchee to Homosassa. The primary Spanish hangouts off Cedar Key and Suwannee remain full of big mackerel. Offshore, grouper fishing is excellent. Top-notch limits of gags were seen over the weekend at camps and marinas in Steinhatchee, Suwannee, Cedar Key,and Crystal River. Most successful fishers are bottom fishing in water from 30 to 60 feet deep.

Fishing is good on the East Coast’s inland waterway, where red and black drum remain dependable targets of anglers, and speckled trout action keeps getting better. Fishers casting shrimp, finger mullet, and chartreuse grubs in Matanzas River are hooking plenty of fish. Most of these trout have to be measured. Not to see if they’re big enough to keep, but to check whether they’re too big. Only one of an anglers’five allotted spotted seatrout can measure more than 20 inches.

Unseasonably warm weather continues to hold water temperatures in the ‘ideal’ zone for some fish, while postponing the favorite conditions of other species. In freshwater, fine bass fishing remains the rule. Lake Santa Fe is yielding some of the best bass tallies of the year–mainly to anglers casting soft plastics to deeper brushpiles and grassbeds. Rodman Lake and the St. John’s River have produced impressive bassing action. Here, surface lures and worms or lizards are working well. Suwannee and Oklawaha River fishers also have been pleased lately–with both the bass and the redbelly activity.

While stumpknockers and redbellies continue to bite for river anglers, panfishers on nearby lakes are primarily after speckled perch. The specks seem to bite best following a cool snap–and we’ve not had many of those lately. Still, even during the warmest days, the crappie on Lochloosa have been catchable. While some fishers using cane poles and minnows have found plenty of fish in Lochloosa’s lily pads, those drifting out in the deeper wide open spaces continue to score best.

Salt waters offer the very best angling bets these days. When temperatures drop near the point of sending Spanish mackerel packing, it seems that another warm spell again lengthens their stay on Seahorse Reef and Spotty Bottom, off Cedar Key and Suwannee. There are loads of mackerel available this season. Grouper fishing is, too, outstanding–when the wind allows folks offshore. While deep-diving lures have accounted for some good catches, bottom fishers have pulled in more and bigger grouper.

Redfish and speckled trout appear to be everywhere along the Gulf Coast these days. They can be found on the bars and grass flats they frequent in summer; and increasing numbers have been located in tidal creeks (a useful option on windier days.)

East coast fishers–those concentrating at Matanzas Inlet in particular–are finding no shortage of redfish and sheepshead. While folks soaking shrimp from the Matanzas Inlet Bridge are happy with the fast action, some have been upset with the daily attention the bridge anglers are getting from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers. If you plan to fish the Matanzas area, be sure you know the laws and limits.

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The local fishing picture is sure to change soon, when blustery cold fronts begin to blow through. For now, though, stable weather is holding water temps in the ‘ideal’ zone for many fish–and fishing remains excellent.

Speckled perch are at the top of most freshwater anglers’ lists, and they are obliging by biting fast on several nearby waters. Lochloosa offers the fastest crappie action–with hungry fish both in open water and in the deeper lily pads. Minnows and now-hard-to-find grass shrimp are the best live baits; and various small crappie jigs and spinners are also effective. Santa Fe and Little Orange are good–and less crowded–speck lakes; and fishers soaking live worms on the bottom in water around 15 feet deep are still pulling in bunches of big Santa Fe shellcracker. Bass anglers are faring best at Rodman Pool and on the St. John’s River, where schooling fish are busting tightly-packed swarms of shad.

Fishing for no one species is particularly hot right now on the East Coast’s inland waterway–but scattered catches of redfish, drum, trout, flounder, and bluefish make things appealing for the angler that likes variety.

Gulf coast action remains outstanding. Speckled trout fishing is good almost everywhere, and the redfish bite is strong out of Suwannee, Cedar Key, and Waccasassa.

The fall mackerel run on the gulf is a fine one. Although the best reports continue to come from Cedar Key and Suwannee, plenty of big Spanish can be found off Steinhatchee and Crystal River as well. Kingfish are less dependable, but on some days, they have been abundant within sight land.

Offshore anglers are very pleased with the grouper action off Steinhatchee, Suwannee, Cedar Key, Crystal River, and Homosassa. Trollers and bottom fishers are piling up limits in water 30-to-50 feet deep. Some grouper fans have said that they are fishing as often as possible these days–while both the bite and the weather are favorable.

Don’t miss the big antique fishing tackle show Saturday, Nov. 1st, from 9 ’til 5 in Gainesville at the Holiday Inn West at I 75 and Newberry Road hosted by yours truly and Bernie Schultz. Admission is $3.00 for adults and free for children under 12. Ninety tables of antique tackle displays will offer a peek at fishing in the early days. If you have old fishing equipment, you can bring it in for free appraisal.

Almost every year, spring offers the best North Florida angling action. This year, though, the fall season has certainly eclipsed last spring for healthy waters, stable weather, and hungry fish.

Freshwater bass anglers are bragging about fine successes on Lake Santa Fe, and on the St. John’s River and Rodman Pool, where both minnow-imitating hard baits and soft plastics are producing fine limits. Cane pole and light tackle fishers are picking up impressive cooler-full catches of speckled perch in several nearby lakes. Rodman, Santa Fe, and Little Orange all have their speck fans–but Lochloosa remains the crappie-producing king. Saturday, Buddy DeGraff and I launched before daylight at Lochloosa’s Highway 301 public ramp, eased out into water 6 feet deep, and put out minnows. The number of boats around us grew through the morning, until at 11:30 there were about fifty within easy eyesight. By then, we had all the fish we wanted. Back on the trailer before noon, we had caught 35 specks and kept 20 sizable ones. It’s easy to see why so many people are fishing here every day.

Saltwater fishing is, if anything, even better. Seahorse Reef off Cedar Key and Spotty Bottom and Hedemon Reef off Suwannee are loaded with big Spanish mackerel. Nearby, in water just a little deeper, king mackerel are also abundant. The traditional methods for mackerel fishing these waters include slow-trolling spoons or jigs with feathers or bucktails. Lots of fish are being taken in this manner, but when the mackerel are this thick, about any technique can be productive.

To boot, fine speckled trout and redfish takes have regularly come from this stretch of Gulf Coast, and grouper anglers are docking with big catches. The waters at each end of our normal coverage zone–off Steinhatchee and Homosassa– have proved to be top-notch destinations for trout and redfish. And, according to marina sources, waters off Homosassa have “exploded with grouper.” With apologies to Suwannee and Cedar Key, Homosassa presently deserves the Big Bend’s Number One ranking for grouper production. Limits of gags up to 26 pounds came from Homosassa last weekend.

Flounder numbers continue to grow in the East Coast’s inland waters and anglers fishing mud minnows are hooking bunches of flatfish pushing “doormat” size. Both red and black drum join the flounder as top intracoastal targets-the reds taking finger mullet best, and the blacks biting shrimp better.

There’s so much going on in North Florida angling right now that even an ambitious fisher with unlimited time for the sport would have a tough time sampling it all.

On the Gulf Coast, it seems that nearly every favorite species is plentiful and active. Up around Steinhatchee, inshore results are best–with speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, and bluefish keeping anglers hopping. This is the best part of the coast to cast surface lures, and some of the most impressive catches of the week were made with floating Mirrolures. Waters off Cedar Key and Suwannee are also producing lots of trout, blues, and Spanish; plus good numbers of flounder and redfish. And here, offshore action is much better. Several weekend anglers trolling Mann’s Stretch lures in water as shallow as 30 feet deep scored well with stout grouper. Fishing can be pretty fair off the Cedar Key Pier and the Airport Bridge—but it’s seldom as strong as it is now. Shorebound Cedar Key anglers fishing shrimp, cut bait, and Fishbites Strips have reported unusually fine tallies of legal redfish—and some fish too large to keep. The story changes little out of Crystal River and Homosassa where trout, Spanish, and reds are abundant and hungry as well.

Results from inland waters on the East Coast were a bit less enthusiastic, but not at all bad for trout and redfish. And Matanzas River flounder catches were noticeably better last weekend.

Fresh water anglers have quite a few good choices, too. Bass anglers are pulling hefty largemouths from Santa Fe, Little Orange, and Rodman Lakes–and from the St. John’s River. Live shiners and plastic worms and lizards have accounted for most of the top catches. The top panfishing destination continues to be Lochloosa. A live minnow or grass shrimp drifted nearly anywhere on that lake in more than 6 feet of water is likely to be eaten by one of the hungry–and incredibly abundant–Lochloosa crappie. Twenty-five-fish limits remain common. From 9 a.m. ‘til 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 18, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will conduct free boat safety inspections at the Powers Park boat ramp on Newnan’s Lake right by The Tackle Box. Makeyour boat safe and legal–and receive a free “Captain’s Bag” from The Tackle Box following the inspection of your vessel.

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While the change of season continues to create a positive feeding attitude among fish, it has also brought the expected strategic problems.

Unsettled weather interrupted or postponed lots of fishing trips through the weekend and early part of this week. Those able to wait out the sporadic wind and rain did find windows of fishable weather, and most fared well.

In salt waters, the inshore bite in Steinhatchee and Suwannee waters is very good, and nice weekend limits of speckled trout were filled by anglers using baits ranging from live shrimp to surface lures. Whiting are gathering on the sandy drop-offs they frequent during spring and fall. A Georgia angler tried for whiting Saturday, fishing shrimp on the bottom around the Steinhatchee Rivers’ Marker 19. He caught 40 sizable fish up to 17 inches–stopping only when his bait ran out. Fall run mackerel have arrived in Big Bend waters right on time, and most inshore fishers have hooked or spotted a few–even if their main target was another species. The largest concentrations of Spanish mackerel are off Suwannee, in the area known as “Spotty Bottom.” The only limit catches we’re aware of came from this large stretch of clear, deep flat where one group claimed to have caught Spanish until they were tired of catching fish. Over the last few days, there has been no sign of the red tide outbreak that had gulf anglers worried for weeks. In fact, some pretty fair grouper catches have been made off Steinhatchee, Horseshoe Beach, and Suwannee—in some of the same areas that were affected by the deadly algae bloom. Surprising numbers of cobia remain in Cedar Key waters. A Willis Marina storage customer spotted a pair of manatee not far from port. The unusual thing about these sea cows was the company they kept. The man counted more than a dozen cobia hanging around the big mammals—and was chagrined to be unable to boat a single one of the fish.

Inland waters along the East Coast have yielded redfish and mangrove snapper best, but drum, sheepshead, and flounder are also in good supply. Bluefish numbers are growing as more fish arrive daily at Matanzas Inlet to feed on the abundant finger mullet there.

In fresh waters, bass are feeding more wholeheartedly as water temps ease closer to their favorite range. Lake Santa Fe, the Little Orange chain, Rodman Reservoir, and the St. John’s River have all produced good catches of largemouths to fishers casting both artificial lures and live shiners. Speckled perch action is, too, on the upswing. While most lakes have produced a few nice specks, Lochloosa is clearly the crappie fishers’ destination of choice. Here, live minnows, grass shrimp, and small spinners or jigs account for 25-fish limits daily. Mid-lake waters at least 6 feet deep are holding the greatest numbers of specks.


All fishing reports are written by Gary Simpson, (c) 2003