Vol 7 No. 18 - January 24, 2007

Downtime


SUN PHOTO/RUSTY CHINNIS
From left, Harry Christensen admires David Miller’s grouper while Captain Mark Johnson assists.

By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer

Winter is definitely the best season of the year to pursue grouper, snapper and a host of other species off area coasts. Cooling inshore waters bring the bottom dwellers closer to our coasts and give anglers a shot at some quality downtime. I don’t get offshore much, but when I do, I enjoy the generally fast action anglers can expect on the reefs, wrecks and limestone ledges that dot a vast area off the beaches of Anna Maria Island.

I knew it was time for a trip offshore when I pulled up to Annie’s Bait and Tackle in Cortez last month and saw my friend Captain Sam Kimball, of Legend Charters, with a bucket full of extremely large mangrove snapper, my favorite bottom fish. Kimball indicated that the combination of cool water and warm days had been a boon for fishing. On the spot, we agreed to a day on the water, and I began the easy task of putting together a group of anglers.

I arrived at Annie’s the day of the trip with David Miller and Harry Christensen, of Longboat Key, and Pat Lapham, of Bradenton. Kimball, his mate and inshore guide, Captain Mark Johnson, had already been out and filled the bait wells with shiners and small pinfish. After loading the boat with ice, drinks, sandwiches and tackle, we headed out Longboat Pass as the sun began to climb the eastern horizon.

Our first stop was approximately 25 miles due east of the Pass where we worked one of many limestone ledges and breaks that festoon the Gulf’s floor. An experienced captain makes bottom fishing look easy, but in reality, it takes a lot of experience, a keen eye and knowledge of wind, tides and currents to place the boat over the often diminutive structure. Get too far off the mark and you’ll have little or no action. Kimball ran to within a few yards of the spot with his GPS and then turned his attention to the bottom recorder. Fish move daily from spot to spot, so the first priority is to find the structure and then to determine if it’s worth anchoring on. The captain must read the bottom recorder to find the fish and then determine the spot to drop the anchor so that wind and current move the boat into position right over the structure.

After determining that there were plenty of fish on the ledge, Johnson dropped the marker jug on Kimball’s signal and then headed to the bow to play out just the right amount of anchor line in 100 plus feet of water. Once the anchor came tight, we dropped a combination of shrimp, small pinfish and shiners to the bottom.

Setting the drag is something you only have to do once when bottom fishing. You start by cranking the drag down to maximum, try to get it a little tighter, and then fish. In this game, most fish are lost to the bottom when large snapper and grouper take the bait and then race under a ledge. It’s often tricky hooking these fish, even with the circle hooks we were using. However, once the fish are on, its crank hard and never raise the rod tip until you have them separated from the bottom.

All four anglers dropped their baits in the water at once as we played out line, engaged the spools and waited for the quick hits that usually accompany a decent onto a fish filled ledge. Ten minutes later, we had yet to get a bite. After repositioning the boat, we dropped down again and waited 10 minutes before we caught the first grouper of the day, a short red. As it turned out, this was destined to be one of those challenging days you often encounter offshore. The fish were there, but they were slow in turning on to our offerings. Days like this test a captain’s mettle. It takes experience and perseverance to know how long to stay on a spot where the fish are uncooperative and when to move to a new spot. It’s not unusual for fish to suddenly go on a feeding spree and then shut down just as fast. Kimball and Johnson worked like a well-oiled team, and between working productive areas and moving several times, we began to catch snapper, grunts, grouper and scamp. The action was generally slow with brief flurries at certain spots. It was hard work for captain, mate and anglers, but by the end of a six-hour trip, we had all the fish we wanted and decided to head in.

On reflection, these days are some of the most memorable. You have to work for the fish, but with persistence and an experienced captain, the actions and memories are guaranteed. Don’t miss out on the offshore action during this El Nino winter. It’s often a rare combination of warm days, cool water and hot action. Kimball (owner and offshore charters) and Johnson (inshore charters) can be reached by calling (941 ) 794-0652, or check out their web site at www.legendfishing.com.

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