September Angling Action around the Panhandle
By this time of year in North Florida, everybody is more than ready for Fall—and that includes the fish.
The shorter days means water temperatures start slowly easing back down—and the fish quickly react.
Inside the bays
One sure way to find action is to look for the big schools of bait that prowl far up inside St. Andrews and Choctawhatchee bays. These traveling grocery stores—often tiny bay anchovies aka “red minnows” attract an impressive variety of fish, ranging from trout, Spanish, blues, jacks and redfish to even giant tarpon. And locating the bait is often easy—the first hours of daylight usually mean tornadoes of birds whirling above the action.
Any sort of small jig or spoon often does the job when the fish are working on this bait. Sardine-type lures like the Mirrodine, DOA Baitbuster and the LIVETARGET Scaled Sardine—the soft plastic version--can also be big winners, particularly with redfish and tarpon. For fly-rodders, a small glass minnow type fly can catch a bit of everything.
The trick on fishing these schools is to move into range quietly on the trolling motor, well upwind, and drift into casting range. Running an outboard or sometimes just the troller will push the bait down and shut down the bite.
On the flats, both reds and trout will prowl the grass at dawn. Topwaters and soft jerkbaits like the Slick Lure will do the job—again, stay well back from likely spots and make long casts to connect. As the sun gets up, the fish move into potholes and under docks with prop holes at the end, where a DOA Shrimp or a live shrimp will be a better bet. Fish also gather on underwater structure.
Some offshore rocks and wrecks hold large schools of tasty mangrove snappers—get them turned on with a chum block hung off the stern, and catch them on small sardines or live shrimp free-lined. Downsize tackle for these guys—1/0 hooks and 15-pound-test spinning gear will do the job. These are among the tastiest fish in the sea, comparable to flounder and red snapper.
Off the beach
Off the beach, kings and Spanish continue to be an easy target from now until at least mid-October. So long as the bait is here, the mackerel will be here. Both these species also chase bait to the surface at dawn, attracting diving birds which make them easy to find.
Later in the day, trolling is the way to go—for kings, a 6” Drone-type single hook spoon with a thin mullet strip is a good bet—pull it behind a number 2 planer or downrigger at depths of 30-40 feet, particularly around artificial reefs. Don’t forget a length of number 6 wire to prevent cutoffs
Spanish are easy to catch on 3” Clark-type spoons pulled behind a 4-ounce trolling weight, anywhere from just outside the beach bar to several miles out. A 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leader will prevent most cutoffs for Spanish. For both kings and Spanish, trolling at 5 to 7 mph often does better than slower towing.
Anchoring upcurrent from a reef or channel marker and chumming also usually attracts Spanish, blues, kings and the occasional cobia. A live sardine or LY free-lined in the chum will draw an interesting assortment anytime there’s good current running. These live baits sometimes attract larger Spanish, 5 pounds and more, as well as the occasional jumbo king mackerel of 25 pounds and more.
On the beach, slightly cooler water will mean an increase in the bite for pompano and whiting in the swash. Though the surf temperature only goes down a couple of degrees in September—from around 85 or so in summer to 82 in September—the fish can feel the difference and definitely start perking up.
Look for runouts through the outer bar as well as slightly deeper holes in the swash, and fish them with pompano rigs baited with Fish Bites artificial bait in the sand flea flavor—this stuff stays on the hook much better than the traditional peeled shrimp tails, and is at least as effective as the real thing. A small float keeps the bait off bottom in these rigs—pre-built pompano rigs are available at Half-Hitch, Bass Pro Shops and other Bay Area tackle shops.
Keep an eye out for redfish schools, and for some lingering tarpon—they often show on broader bar areas, usually those well away from the boat traffic of the inlets. The reds readily take all sorts of jigs—gray-brown colors that match shrimp or sand fleas often do best, the Berkley GULP flavored tails about 3 inches long have special appeal to reds. For the tarpon, a soft plastic swimbait about 6 to 8 inches long in pearl white, fished on a triple-strong 7/0 hook, is a good bet, as is a live mullet or pinfish.