Capt. Billy Norris
There are few places in the world that offer the diverse fishing opportunities that we have available here in SWFL. Nearshore, offshore, backwater and even the rivers have been hot on the bite this whole month. This month’s top performers have been permit, snook, redfish and especially snapper.
Lots of action in Estero Bay and Wiggins lately. The redfish bite on the shallow water flats throughout the bays remains very productive with snook, big jacks and trout around as well. Especially encouraging is the return of numerous trout, including large females. After 2018’s Red Tide, trout were all but wiped out in Estero Bay, with a once easily caught species becoming a rare catch. Over the last month trout have made a huge comeback and they are starting to make a rebound to historical pre-2018 populations. Whitebait or pinfish rigged to sit on the bottom will get you on the action for snook and redfish. Work the deeper channels and moving water around mangrove islands on the last of the outgoing tide and beginning of the incoming tide for a good redfish and snook bite. As the water rises get up on the shallow flats to target fish foraging the grass flats. Remember to use either a trolling motor or push pole when navigating the flats for two reasons. One is to ensure not to damage the fragile seagrass ecosystem, and two is to sneak up on fish that become incredibly spooky on the flats. For trout, freelined whitebait has been the rig of choice. If you can’t get whitebait, a Gulp Shrimp on a jighead under a popping cork has also been effective.
The nearshore reefs and wrecks have been fantastic this month. The star of the show has unarguably been mangrove snapper. Nearly every rubble pile, patch reef and artificial reef has been covered in large mangrove snapper. We have been limiting out on nearly every trip. In fact, the bite has been so good that we haven’t been keeping any fish under 12-14 inches even though the legal size is 10 due to the fact that they are so plentiful and there are so many big ones biting. There are several ways to target mangos. To start, chum heavily. I use a combination of regular Tournament Master Chum in a chum bag, while at the same time using larger diced up baits as well. Purchase a bag of threadfins or sardines from your local tackle shop and dice them up into one-inch pieces. Every few minutes throw in a few handfuls of the diced-up fish to keep the snapper lit up behind your boat in your chum slick. Both Master Bait and Tackle on Bonita Beach Road and Engel’s Outta’ Line Tackle Shop on Old 41 in Old Bonita carry all of the frozen baits you’ll need. Once you get them fired up, you can catch quality mangos as fast as you can get baits in the water.
The permit bite has also been fantastic this past month. We have been targeting them very successfully, with some huge fish coming on board. Permit can be a very spooky fish, so once you find a school, ensure to be quiet and use your trolling motor to navigate around the school. For bait, crabs are a must. Permit have excellent eyesight, but luckily, they also have no teeth and very soft mouths. This allows you to use light fluorocarbon leader on big fish. If the water is dirty you can get away with 30# test fluoro, but I typically stick with 20#. Freeline crabs in the school, or if necessary use a light split shot to allow the crabs to drop into the depth of the school. Once hooked up, take your time and don’t try to muscle the fish in, wear them out or you’ll lose them. In addition to permit, there have been a lot of cobia around. We have caught plenty with some large ones in the 35# range. Cobia are not as picky and can be caught on nearly any large bait that you throw at them. Whitebait, threadfins, pinfish, crabs, shrimp, etc. will all work to catch the “brown clowns”. (A few years ago, I even found several baby sea turtles in the stomach of a cobia while cleaning it.) With cobia, I tend to stick with 50-pound fluorocarbon and at least a 4/0 or 5/0 circle hook. Beef up your gear a little bit, as they are hard fighting, strong fish. At a minimum a 5000-level reel with the Penn Slammer 6500 being my go to.
The reefs and wrecks have also been producing some beautiful grouper over the past month. In addition to plenty of Goliaths, gags have started to move in. We have boated some nice gags, but important to remember that the size limit on gags has been raised from 22” to 24” now. Unlike red grouper, gags will rarely get excited over dead/frozen baits. They prefer live baits like giant pinfish, threadfin herring, or blue runners. Look for gags around structure like rubble piles or artificial reefs.
Fishing has been fantastic this past month and as we move into fall will just continue to get better and better. In the coming months, the redfish bite should be the best of the year and the tarpon will show back up so get your big sticks ready.