May is a great month for catching large Redfish and Snook in Tampa Bay. Although Redfish are year-long residents of the bay, the large breeders prefer the mangrove shore line; Snook on the other hand are starting their migration to the passes to spawn and often stop by along the mangroves for a quick meal.
A short trip to catch bait at my secret spot, and from there it was off to Calf and Cow Keys, two small specks on the charts, but one of my favorite spots for large Redfish this time of year. Located just a little north of Tarpon Key, the wee keys—tiny strips of land—can hold some nice schools of Redfish trying to get away from the herds of anglers that surround Tarpon key.
I lowered the trolling motor and, with a touch of a button, 106 pounds of thrust came to life propelling my 24-foot Sheaffer boat in the direction of the diminutive duo. Although only some of the shore lines are protected in Tampa Bay it’s best to use the trolling motor to help maintain good grass growth.
Reds in shallow waters will spook easily and the stealth system works best; this means keeping a safe distance from the school and being quiet. Remember, sound travels seven times faster through water and the slightest noise can break up schooling fish.
We slowly worked our way next to an oyster bar between the two keys; here we anchored and waited for the school to appear. Patience is important since the school can appear in a moment’s notice.
We were prepared for action; one rod with live pinfish suspended just below the surface of the water using one of my favorite floats—Cajun Thunder—and two other rods with greenbacks free-lined just beyond our floats. The sun’s rays were slowly breaking into the crystal-clear water and you could see movements of small pinfish darting in and out of the grass and mullet starting to jump. I could tell by the look on my client’s face she was ready for action, and so was I. Just beyond our reach we could see a small wake as if a small boat had buzzed by. We both looked at each other and without a word prepared for an attack. The Reds were coming; she drew first blood and within a split second mine was next. The battle continued for what seemed like hours, but it lasted only 45 minutes: eight Redfish landed, several break offs, and a lot of fun.
Large schools of Reds will congregate around mangrove islands; some schools are so large they form a red wave as they push through the shallow waters of the flats. My two favorite baits for these large bruisers are 3–5-inch pinfish or dollar-size pass crabs and lively greenback sardines. Casting distance is a must and medium tackle works best. I prefer to use 15-pound test Fins Windtamer yellow braided line as I get older; the yellow line makes it easier for me to keep track of the bait’s direction, braided line gives me greater line capacity and casting distance. I prefer a medium-size reel, such as a Penn SSV3500, and 7-1/2-foot TFO medium action rod. The combination is a perfect match for catching large Reds and Snook along the mangroves and docks.
I prefer to fish the start of an outgoing tide for Reds, because as the tide drops they are forced into the cuts and potholes around the mangrove island creating a private casting pond for my clients. First, get there early, ahead of the tide change. I have sat and waited for an hour for fish to move in and it has been well worth it. While other boats are trying to follow the fish, let the fish come to you. Never cast into a school of fish. Always cast ahead of them and let them come toward your bait. On days with strong currents, I will use a float and let the current drift my bait towards the fish.
When the early morning tides are too low to fish the mangroves or keys, try fishing the docks that have structure for large Reds and Snook until the tide starts to rise. Anchor up-current from the dock and chum with small pieces of cut greenback to get the action started. I use a small split shot to hold the live bait close to the bottom where the big ones hold up; you will be surprised at what lies under the shadows.
Good fishing and tight lines.