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 dont 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 Annies 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 Annies 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
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 Gulfs 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
youll 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 its 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 Kimballs
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. Its 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 captains 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. Its
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
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.
Dont miss out on the offshore action during this
El Nino winter. Its 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.