One of the more interesting fisheries in September off Northwest Florida is the run of blackfin tuna that regularly shows up and continues into early October. Blackfins are delicious on the table, though they don’t get nearly as big as bluefins and yellowfins—average size is 8 to 15 pounds with some 20 and more. (The IGFA all-tackle record is 49 pounds, 6 ounces.)
And, while the other tunas are usually found far offshore, blackfins in September come in to feed on bait around the reefs and wrecks 1 to 10 miles off the beach, where they can readily be reached by small center console boats in good weather.
Best way to catch blackfins is to slow-troll a live cigar minnow or other 4 to 6-inch bait around bait schools and reefs. While this is also a good tactic for catching king mackerel, the wire leader that’s a must for catching the kings due to their sharp teeth often won’t work for the tuna—the sharp-eyed speedsters will avoid wire. A length of stout fluorocarbon, on the other hand, usually fools them.
Another approach is to anchor up near a reef or wreck and chum with cut bait or shrimpboat discards, then put out a livie when the tunas start to eat the chum. And occasionally, the blackfins go on a feeding bender just like little tunny (aka bonito) and chase bait on top, squirting out of the water in their pursuit of dinner. If you can get within casting range when this is happening, a topwater plug will get smashed—amazing sport on a medium spinning rig including a 4000 size reel or larger loaded with 20-pound-test braid. The limit is two per angler per day, no size limit.
Sailfish show up in decent numbers in the same areas at this time of year, and sometimes even come in close to the piers—somebody hooks into one every week or so. Tarpon anglers right along the beach occasionally see sails cruising through as well. More dependable, though, is trolling live baits in a spread around reefs and wrecks 5 to 10 miles (and further) off the beach. Same tackle as for the blackfins will do the job—sails are not nearly as strong as the tunas, for their length, though they are amazingly fast and great jumpers. (Don’t bring the sailfish to the dock—just about everybody releases these great gamefish to fight again, though one daily over 63 inches is permitted.)
King and Spanish mackerel will swarm off the beaches until mid-October, or whenever the bait schools start to head east and then south toward their wintering grounds in South Florida. Both species often run bait to the surface just after daybreak, and these aggregations draw a tornado of diving gulls that make them very easy to find.
Anglers that get within range of these feeding fish can catch them on just about anything, but a white bucktail in ½ to 1-ounce size with a strip of mullet or bonito belly is a sure thing—cast it long and bring it back in a series of violent hops by hauling on the rod repeatedly. You can’t run an artificial too fast for a mackerel.
Once the sun gets up, the macks mostly drop down to cooler water; tow a single-hook Drone-type spoon behind a downrigger or a number 2 planer to get them. Anglers looking for jumbo kings 20 pounds and up do better by slow-trolling or drifting live cigar minnows or finger mullet around the channel markers or jetties at the passes, where they particularly hang out on strong outgoing tides.
Both kings and Spanish regularly run the green reef looking for bait, and anglers on the large piers that dot the Panhandle coast catch plenty of them—a frozen cigar minnow on a treble hook and a length of wire works as well as anything.
Inshore fishing in September
Though inshore waters are still too warm for good flats action after the sun gets high, anglers can do well this month by fishing the first couple hours after daybreak when the water is the coolest it gets all day.
Docks extending well out toward deep water or those with channels nearby are among the best spots to try, with topwaters or the larger size Mirrodine a good bet just as the sun comes up, DOA shrimp and plastic-tailed jigs a better choice after the first hour. Live shrimp under a popping cork are always a good bet, as well—hang the bait about 2 to 3 feet below the cork on a size 1/0 light wire hook through the tail joint.
Keeper-size reds will prowl the flats when the tides bring bait across them, and can be caught by wade-fishers, kayakers and anglers in shallow-draft flats boats who can spot them and put a Berkley GULP Crab or DOA shrimp in front of them.
Big bull reds will show up around the passes and bridges in strength this month—they move in to spawn. Cut mullet or blue crab on the bottom will get them, as will live finger mullet and pinfish. Use stout gear; some of these fish weigh 25 pounds and more. It’s also possible to connect by trolling large diving plugs off the beaches and around the larger bay bridges.