Rains Boost Lakes, Feds Yield for Red Snapper

Like offering a full canteen to a dried-out angler crawling through the desert, the rains finally came and we might just have some summertime freshwater fishing after all.  Very nice early-June rains brought up significantly our lakes that had been low and falling for long months.

The stout rainfall over the last couple of weeks has provided a great start to putting several of our favorite bass and bluegill producers back on the anglers’ table.  These include Alto, Lochloosa, Orange, and Newnans.  Still, however, the water levels remain well below ideal.  I phoned Jeff Septer Wednesday to see how things were looking at his Twin Lakes Fish Camp, at the Lochloosa end of Cross Creek.  Septer said that, while the water has come up a bit, it hasn’t risen nearly enough.  “Our rental boats are still sitting mostly on sand…but at least now there’s a trickle of water in the slips.”   Septer added that a local angler had launched onto Lochloosa over at the Highway 301 boat ramp on Tuesday.  Trolling crappie jigs, he pulled in 26 nice speckled perch.

While the Reeling for Kids Saltwater Challenge was going on two weekends ago out of Steinhatchee, the 30th Annual Fightin’ Gator Touchdown Club’s fishing tournament went out of Crystal River.  Some tourneys count their entrants in numbers of teams.  The Touchdown Club takes entries as individuals.  And this year, 271 anglers fished in the FGTC tourney.

Two very impressive specimens topped the redfish division.  Rick Lewis took the heaviest red—8.10-pounds— to the weigh scales, while Kurt Diehlman presented the Number Two red at 7.15.

Clint Tyrell and Marc Dossey caught the best two speckled trout, fish of 3.55 and 3.50-pounds.  The prize for the best five-fish catch of trout went to Eric Pelletier for his limit weighing 12.90.

The FGTC Kingfish champ for 2017 is Phillip Stafford.  His 27.65-pound fish easily bested Matthew Bentley’s 9.40-pound entry.   Mike Wetherell bagged the best Spanish mackerel—a nice 4.65 pound specimen.

Grouper winners were James Morris (14.25) and Tim Hardman (12.45).  A couple of keeper lings topped the cobia category—Eric Collop’s 19.85 and Robert Peralta’s 17.05 pounders.  And Eric Collop also claimed the mangrove snapper crown with a 5.70-pound fish.

Marshall Gilley bested the other competitors opting to stay in the freshwater with his 2.40-pound largemouth bass.  And Turner Dowling topped the important Mullet division with a 2.15-pound grass eater.

Kid Winners were Emma Kuhn and Matthew Wetherell.

The 8th Annual Nauti Girls Fishing Tournament went out of Steinhatchee Saturday.  An event-record 219 ladies registered to search for prize and cash-winning fish.

The Speckled Trout division was hotly contested, and Anna Vasquez came out on top with a 4.37-pound ‘speck’.  Close behind with a 4.25-pound beauty was Keystone Heights angler, Courtney Carroll.  Sue-Ellen Weaver of Perry won the Redfish category with her fine 6.61-pound fish.  The second and third-place reds were nearly twins.  Julie Hause of Alachua took second with a 6.29 red, while Shelly Richardson’s 6.28-pounder took third.  Danielle Norwood’s redfish sporting 10 spots won the “Most Spots” prize.  Robin Phillips weighed the best flounder at 1.87, Sara Taylor and Melissa Willits each docked with a winning 9.35-pound grouper, and Renee Fields of Steinhatchee won a special piece of jewelry for catching the heaviest ladyfish of the day.

And finally, big new came through on Wednesday when the U.S Department of Commerce announced the expansion of federal red snapper season in the gulf.  Beginning this Friday, June 16, we will have 39 additional days of recreational red snapper season in federal waters.  The added days come on three-day (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) open weekends.

“Recreational red snapper fishing is highly important to Florida’s gulf coast communities,” said FWC Executive Director, Nick Wiley.  “We are thankful for the leadership of Gov. Rick Scott, U.S. Department of Commerce Director Wilbur Ross and Florida’s Congressional delegation as well as the partnership across all five Gulf states in providing more sustainable fishing opportunities and sound fisheries management”.

In negotiating for the lengthened federal season, FWC had to give up some days of open season in state waters.  Here on the Big Bend, the concession is a complete win for offshore anglers.  FWC Vice Chairman, Liesa Priddy said, “This is great news, especially for anglers on the central and southwest gulf coast, where red snapper are not commonly found in state waters”.

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Reeling for Kids Yields Huge Winners

Only occasionally do big fishing tournaments arrive to a near-perfect combination of conditions, but crucial fish-catching facilitators fell into place Friday and Saturday in Doug Johnson’s Reeling for Kids Saltwater Challenge. When highly skilled anglers, ideal conditions, and a large payout all mix up, the results can be epic. And at tourney’s end, the rundown of winning fish was pretty stunning.

At the post-tournament awards ceremony, smiling anglers were telling amazing fishing tales. I jotted down notes of near-constant hook-ups and seldom-seen species. But it wasn’t until early this week that it hit me just how impressive the catches had been. RFK Chairperson Emily Simmons released the compiled results on Monday, and I found myself shaking my head at the list. The former Gator and NFL quarterback’s 14th annual charity fundraiser saw some event records in the Offshore Division that will be tough to ever eclipse.

That the two-day tilt arrived during the ridiculously-brief three-day red snapper season—and that it fell, too, at the very start of gag grouper season—certainly didn’t hurt. The biggest eye-poppers at the weigh scales were the grouper and snapper that had not seen angling pressure in months.

A fired-up field of 103 teams split between inshore and offshore division competitors were ready at the ‘lines in’ time of 6:00 a.m. on Friday morning. One of the big attractions of the RFK is the wide range of categories. I can’t think of another tournament that offers nearly as many varied opportunities to win fishing cash.

Junior anglers entered in the offshore division winched up fish to make any fisher proud. Payton English whipped a 27.95-pound kingfish, Tipton Laperle took a 20.70 king, and Grant Clemons bagged a 14.20-pound red snapper.

Inshore Juniors also succeeded in a big way. Troy Charles, Jr. and Trace Johnson each caught a fine redfish—5.25 and 4.70 pounds, respectively. And Hunter Crevasse nailed a whopping 5.70-pound Spanish mackerel.

Offshore Lady Anglers were topped by Kristy English and her whopping 31.95-pound king. Catherine Hoppel docked with a 12.15 grouper, and Amber Crawford’s 10.55 grouper nailed down third place.

Inshore Lady Anglers focused on redfish; and Jane Laughlin, Maribeth Goslinga , and Vanessa Allen caught the best three…reds weighing in at 6.20, 5.80, and 5.45 pounds, respectively.

The RFK offers a Friday-only contest for the heaviest five-trout catch. This year, the winning Clyde Lewis team took the thousand-dollar prize for their 11.35-pound total. Right behind was the Bobbi Cannon team. Their 11.15 total earned them second place.

The Trout Category saw arguably the least impressive winning fish. Not that they were small, by any means. Bradley English led the way with a 4.70-pound ‘speck’, while J.J. VanWinkle and Grant Wilson weren’t far behind with the second and third-place fish at 4.45 and 4.35.

Redfish winners all had fish squeaking under the maximum 27-inch mark. Jae Arnold’s was heaviest at 7.15. Team Steve English’s number two red was a 6.85-pounder, and Team Greg Fleming bagged the third-place fish at 6.75.

Several Inshore anglers had felt that Spanish mackerel were in short supply ahead of the tourney. But the macks showed up on offshore banks and reefs in time for the party. The Chase Norwood team hauled in a 5.65-pound beauty to top the division. The Steve English team took the next-best mackerel at 4.25, and Troy Gehrlich boated the number three mack—a 3.85 pounder.

For their highly impressive trout/red/mackerel total of 15.80 pounds, the Steve English team took the coveted Master’s Inshore title. Team Clyde Lewis took the second-place hardware with a 13.10 pound total. The Chase Norwood team also finished with a 13.10 pound inshore trio, but, by rule, their later entry into the tournament bumped them into the number three spot.

Neither designated as an Inshore nor an Offshore species, cobia stood alone—but, as always, a desirable catch. Cody Blue boated the tourney’s largest at 48.20 pounds. A.J. Land’s 41.55 ling garnered second place.

Anglers entered in the tournament’s Offshore Division took full advantage of the great weather and just-opened seasons.

The Dan Sherraden team boated the largest kingfish at 46.55 pounds. Always a strong-finishing boat, the Ray Hedgecock team took the second place king at 36.95, and Darrell Bessinger’s king came in at 34.80.
The grouper category produced a couple of world-class gags. Dean Baker of Team Frank Sheffield wrestled in a 33.05-pound giant, while the Dan Sherraden team hauled in another giant gag at 31.70. Cody Blue’s 20.80 gag was the third-place grouper.

RFK anglers made the most of red snapper season. Team Frank Sheffield brought the winner—a 23.80 pound beauty—-back from beyond the Middle Grounds. Darrell Bessinger’s fine snapper came in at 15.60, while Dan Sherraden’s entry weighed 15.35.

The Masters Offshore winners were led by the Dan Sherraden team and their amazing 93.60-pound red snapper/grouper/kingfish total. The always-high-finishing Frank Sheffield team was second with 74.80. And Team Darrell Bessinger’s third-place offshore trio totaled 69.30.

The Reeling for Kids Saltwater Challenge again lived up to all expectations.

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Big Weekend for Gulf Anglers

As fishing days go, Saturday, June 3 is an important one for Gulf of Mexico anglers.  Much-anticipated seasons finally open and big tournaments finally arrive.

Gag grouper season just opened in the gulf on Thursday, June 1. A historically-short red snapper season for recreational anglers also opened Thursday and runs through Saturday.  For the working angler with a Monday-through-Friday job, Saturday is the day…the one day in 2017 to harvest a red snapper.  At least he’ll also be allowed to take a couple of gag grouper.

Of course, when any one day holds such importance for fishers, the weather is certain to arrive with the proverbial monkey wrench.  And, sure enough, the forecast for the big day holds a high probability of thunderstorms.  Still, the majority of offshore fishermen I know will be on the water for their ridiculously-short window of opportunity.

And, speaking of that short window, this week the Coastal Conservation Association commended the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for addressing the National Marine Fisheries Service concerning the three-day season.  In a letter to the Secretary of Commerce dated May 25, FWC stated its willingness to reduce the length of the red snapper season in nearby state waters if this will increase the service’s likelihood to be willing to extend the federal season for Florida’s shortchanged recreational fisher.

Tournament anglers, too, are sure to be affected by the anticipated Saturday rain.  While day two of the Reeling for Kids Saltwater Challenge is fished out of Steinhatchee, the Fightin’ Gator Touchdown Club’s 2017 Fishing Tournament goes out of the Plantation Inn at Crystal River.  Both tourneys offer a large number of cash-paying categories.

Once this weekend has passed, the next big date for the gulf’s outdoor sportspeople to circle will roll around on Friday, June 16, when scallop season opens.  Steinhatchee Capt. Brad Riddle told us this week that, on his scallop-scouting trips, he has seen nice numbers of bivalves on the clear grass flats all the way from Horseshoe Beach to Keaton Beach.

The Bassmasters of Gator Country’s long-running Gator Open bass tournament arrived Saturday to nearly the opposite conditions this weekend’s fishers will find.  The day dawned with bright, high skies.  Thirty one teams launched at Kenwood Landing on Rodman Reservoir to try for the largemouth bass notoriously tough to trick on such days with high barometric pressure.

Competing teams were allowed to lock out of the reservoir to fish elsewhere in the St. John’s system—and several did so.  But an accomplished local team that remained in the lake prevailed.   Employing various techniques, Jody Marriott and Stephen Gray bagged a five-fish limit of Rodman bass totaling 19.04.  The Gainesville men cast topwaters and jerkbaits, and flipped matted vegetation.  Patrick and Robbie Robertson nailed down second place with 17.81, while Dennis Hart and Don Bunting took third with 16.55.  The Mayo father-and-son team of Robin and Robbie Shiver hauled in a lunker largemouth weighing 8.16-pounds to claim the considerable ‘Big Bass’ money.  Young Robbie caught the big fish in the St. John’s River at high noon while pitching a Bass Assassin Pure Craw in the blueberry color.

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Time for the Top Tournaments

The ever-growing slate of local fishing tournaments is winding down as the hottest months approach.  Following the dozens of freshwater and saltwater events that have come and gone since February, last Saturday brought the first of the angling contests delivering the biggest fields, biggest paychecks, and the most meaningful bragging rights of the year.   

Called for decades the “largest team bass tournament east of the Mississippi”, the 28th Annual Wolfson Children’s Hospital tourney went out of Palatka’s City Dock Saturday.  The huge bassing contest lived up to its billing, drawing 430 teams that arrived with two objectives in mind…..to match wits with the largemouth bass of the St. John’s River system, and to support the beloved Jacksonville hospital that serves nearly 90,000 children every year.

Following the marathon weigh-in, the tallest-standing anglers were the team of Adam Newburn and John Mobley, who bagged a five-bass limit weighing 25.33 pounds while reportedly casting black and blue worms on Lake George.

Fishing with Chris Church, Ryan Crowley picked an excellent day to catch his biggest bass ever…an 11.33-pound giant.  Crowley and Church put four good fish in their livewell to join the whopper and finish in second place with a 23.97-pound total.

An estimated $350,000.00 in proceeds garnered from the giant bass tournament is earmarked to support the hospital’s Pediatric Trauma Center with new equipment.

If you missed the Wolfson Tournament, the 39th Annual Gator Open comes up on Saturday, May 27 out of Rodman Reservoir’s Kenwood Landing, offering another chance to compete on Rodman and the St. John’s.  The Gator Open is presented by the Bassmasters of Gator Country.  Entries will be accepted early on tournament morning.

A smaller but still-hotly contested saltwater tourney went off at Cedar Key Saturday when 53 anglers in 20 boats struck out in search of inshore saltwater species in the 21st Annual UF/FWC Fishing Tournament.  The day started off windy, but turned much nicer as the day went on.  Catches were good all around, but excellent for only one team.  Capt. Carl Dell Torre and his father-in-law Bobby Padgett became the first team ever to catch all four of this tournament’s target species—trout, redfish, cobia, and mackerel.  They won four of the five prize categories, bagging a 25.9-inch red, a 20.1-inch trout, a 34.6-inch cobia, and, naturally, the coveted “Most Impressive Cooler” prize.  The fifth prize went to Greg Sass, visiting from Wisconsin and fishing aboard Mike Allen’s boat.  He pulled in the longest mackerel—a 20-incher.

Still to come is the top saltwater tournament on our ‘home’ stretch of gulf coast—Doug Johnson’s two-day Reeling for Kids Saltwater Challenge.  The RFK goes out of Steinhatchee on June 2 and 3.  Many gulf fishers have said over the last few days that they believe fishing is better now in the Steinhatchee zone than anywhere along the entire Big Bend coast.  And, given the quality of anglers that will be present for this tourney, we should expect quite a shootout.   Only the mackerels seem to be hard to find.

Pre-fishing for the RFK Sunday, Rick Pena and Jeff Taylor ran out of the Steinhatchee River early.  After dodging rainstorms for a while, the Gainesville men were relieved that the weather improved as the day progressed.  They caught trout best, but spent most of their time searching for another of the tournament’s three designated ‘Master Inshore’ species.  Last year, Pena whipped the tourney’s largest Spanish mackerel…a specimen of amazing size at 7.15-pounds.  The outsize Spanish was a huge contributor toward his team’s overall red/trout/mackerel Master Inshore victory.   After their Sunday practice day, though, Taylor and Pena were a tad concerned that they had not caught a single mack.

Also poking around the shallows ahead of the RFK on Sunday, Capt. Tanner Meadows and Jeff DeAlmeida located a productive grass flat around mid-morning near Horseshoe Beach after the rough weather had passed.  The Gainesville men cast jigs with Gulp! baits set under popping corks to haul in varied mix of species including a bunch of black sea bass, a couple of big flounder up to 21-inches, a couple of short gag grouper, and a fine double trout limit.  But they saw not a single mackerel.

At this point, it appears that the scarcest of the Reeling for Kids’ three key inshore species will be the Spanish mackerel.  And, neither have we heard the offshore anglers say they are finding the big king mackerel they will need.

Deep water fans competing for the Master Offshore Division crown will be going after the heaviest grouper/red snapper/king mackerel trifecta.

While offering the largest payout to winning competitors, Johnson’s successful, long-running fundraising tournament has also sent considerable support to his chosen charity, the Boys and Girls Club of Alachua County.

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Short Snapper Window / Strong Bassing in the Rain

red snapper seasonFederal authorities made an announcement early this month that again angered the oft-maligned gulf sport fisher.  The 2017 red snapper season, they said, would begin on June 1.  And it would last all of three days—June 1-3.  Not surprisingly, that is the shortest season ever for the private angler.

Unhappy offshore enthusiasts lament the misguided management and questionable science that have shortchanged the gulf snapper seeker.

In their news release, NOAA Fisheries partially blamed the short federal season on longer seasons in state waters within 9 nautical miles of shore.  But, alas, red snapper only rarely venture that close to shore in the home gulf waters of the Gainesville-area angler.  For us, “red snapper” and “state waters” don’t really go together, so the declaration effectively limits the window to three days locally.  What’s more, for the last few years, offshore anglers have reported incredibly large numbers of red snapper in the spots where they have long targeted grouper.  It has been rightly tough to convince these fishers who actually spend a lot of time out there that red snapper are in any kind of short supply.

Alabama Conservation Commissioner, N. Gunter Guy, Jr. spoke well for the army of disappointed sport fishers.  He stated in part, “For NOAA Fisheries to allow our anglers only three days to harvest red snapper in federal waters is ridiculous and unjustifiable”. 

At any rate, the 2017 red snapper season approaches fast.  Don’t blink.

We’re at the end of one of the driest spring seasons on record, and our lakes show it.  Even lakes that normally hold their levels well during dry times are diminishing. 

Though we didn’t receive a lot, heavy rainfall Saturday seemed to produce an almost celebratory bass feed not far away from our closest fresh waters.   I arrived at work on Monday to hear great fishing stories from co-workers who fished bass tournaments to our south.   Don House towed his boat to Inverness to fish the Gainesville Bassmasters’ monthly tournament on Lake Henderson, part of the Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes.   Along with Benny Beckham, Paul Braun competed in the Fish Tales Team Tournament Trail event the same day on Lake Harris, near Leesburg.

Both men said they fished in heavy rain that started during mid-morning and lasted through weigh-in.  And both men said they had enjoyed incredibly good bass action during the deluge as the bass fed like crazy.

In the Fish Tales event, Vern Kemp and Randy Hambrick topped the 33 competing teams with a five-bass limit weighing 24.24 pounds.  Fishing alone, Rick Danner impressively bagged five weighing 23.59-pounds.  John Serento and Yancey Isaacs claimed third place with 21.21, Dean and Katie Jackson tallied 20.59, and James Hatch and Jeremy McCray used a tourney-best 7.99 pound lunker to nail down fifth place with a 19.83 total.

At weigh in, Braun related, everyone said they caught lots of bass.

House echoed the glowing rainy-day report.  On Henderson, he said, soggy bass club members enjoyed one of their most productive days in memory.  At least two caught a bass on their first cast of the morning.  This club uses a three-bass limit rather than the more common five-bass limits.  As a point of reference, if an angler can bag a 10-pound limit, that’s better than a 3-pound average per fish and usually a very good result. 

Saturday, Gainesville Bassmaster Jason Ward caught three bass that totaled 16.81.  His partner, Dan Friedman, added over 10-pounds with his three for a winning ‘boat weight’ of 27.28-pounds.  House and his fishing partner for the day, Gary Lowe, likewise enjoyed a productive day.  House’s individual 15.32-pound total included the day’s biggest single bass at 8.08-pounds, and he and Lowe finished second in boat weight with 21.54.

Keith Chapman and Jason Oxendine’s six-bass combined for a 20.49-pound third-place finish.

Perhaps if we had received such an all-day drenching rain on our nearest lakes, great reports would have come from Lochloosa, Orange, Santa Fe, and Rodman, as well.

Frequent Suwannee River fishers tell us that the heaviest leaping season for the gulf sturgeon has arrived, and the bony giants are often in the air in the Fanning Springs stretch of river.  Low water seems to increase the acrobatics.  By far, the Suwannee holds the largest sturgeon population of any Florida river.  That number is estimated at 10,000 fish.   Experts believe the large, armor-plated fish jumps to fill its swim bladder and to communicate with fellow sturgeons.  If a boater happens to be in the way when the fish is in the air, some kind of damage to the vessel is likely.  If the fish contacts a person, injury is even more likely.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission advises boaters to travel slowly to avoid collisions, keep passengers clear of your vessel’s bow, and wear a life jacket.


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