Red Waters of Tarpon Key By: Capt. Sergio Atanes

July is a great month for catching large redfish in Tampa Bay. Although redfish are year-long residents of the Bay, the large breeders prefer the mangrove shoreline.  During the winter, they move into the Gulf of Mexico and are often caught while grouper fishing.

My clients were ready to battle some big fish today, so I decided to go for the big reds hanging around Tarpon Key. We met around 6 a.m. and stopped for our first cup of coffee at Panera’s.  From there, we headed to Port 32 Tampa (the old Tampa Harbour Marina) where I call my home port.  We told stories about the big ones we had lost in the past and the ones we were going to catch today.

A short trip to catch bait at my secret spot and, from there, it was off to Tarpon Key–one of my favorite spots for large redfish this time of year. Once we reached the no motor zone, I lowered the Great White trolling motor and, with one touch, 112 pounds of thrust came to life propelling my 25 ft. Pathfinder bay boat in the direction of Tarpon Key.  Many islands and keys in Tampa Bay are protected areas and one must use either a trolling motor or a push pole.

We slowly worked our way to the southwest point of the key. 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. Two rods 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 my client’s look he 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. My client drew first blood and, within a split second, mine was next. Three hook ups and no one around to see it. We had them all to ourselves for over two hours. We battled reds, winning some fights and losing others.

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 to 5-inch pinfish or dollar size pass crabs.  Casting distance is a must and medium tackle works best. I prefer to use 15-pound test Fins Windtamer braided line, which gives great line capacity on a medium reel such as an Okuma Helios SX30 spinning reel and 7-foot Okuma Ricky Red medium action rod. The combination is a perfect match for catching large reds and snook on the flats and mangroves.

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.

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 islands creating a private casting pond for my clients. 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.  My clients had a day they will never forget. My clients can’t wait until next year when they plan on coming back to add more pictures in their scrap book.

Good fishing and tight lines.

1.     Marsha Petrie with a nice red caught on dead bait.

2.     Marsha & Jim showing off another red caught on the flats.