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NAPLES — On April 1, recreational anglers will finally, after two closed months, be able to keep a legal-sized red grouper, but the gags are still off limits.
Even though the recreational angler can't keep even one, the commercial guys are hauling them in. Just on Tuesday, two boats brought in a total of 8,000 pounds of grouper. This just doesn't seem fair.
Why can't the recreational angler catch his own grouper dinner instead of having to pay for one that someone else caught? Surely the economic impact of a recreational-caught fish is way more than a commercially caught one. Hello Tallahassee, anyone listening?
Lots of grouper are being caught by recreational anglers, they just are releasing them. Some really nice fish are being caught within 15 miles of the beach.
On Friday, Ken Strassen from Masterbait and Tackle went out about that distance, and he was releasing grouper in the 30-inch range. Bill Hickman has been wearing them out, too. He has been fishing eight to 12 miles offshore, and scoring fish up to 15 pounds, while a few larger critters have won the battle.
The kings are still holding in the 15-mile range. They are hitting trolled spoons or free-swimming live baits. Geoff Shepard was about 12 miles out dropping shrimp to the bottom looking for mangrove snapper when his reel started screaming as line left the spool. After a wild 15 minutes of running around an anchored boat, a king estimated at about 40 pounds was leadered and released.
For those more adventurous anglers willing to run in some serious chop, the amberjacks are hanging on the wrecks and will wear your arm off. These fish are running to 40 pounds, and they really like a nice-sized pinfish for a snack.
Inshore, the snook, reds, trout, and jacks are getting more aggressive.
Some of the year's biggest trout are showing up in live wells on their way to dinner. Live bait is working on all the above species, but a shrimp under a cork or on a jig also can produce. Some of the snook are starting to show up on the beaches. After last week's poor morning tides, this week we have better flow and that should mean better fishing.
Tarpon also are making their presence known. From down in the Ten Thousand Islands, to off Fort Myers Beach, they are being spotted and, more importantly, caught. Large live baits thrown in their path will be the best bet, but soaking a large cut bait can be effective, too. Along with the tarpon, of course, you get the sharks. Everything from blacktips to hammerheads will be following along the same route as the tarpon, and the same baits will attract a bite from a shark.
Ten Thousand Islands: On Tuesday, Capt. Hector Diaz had Tim Christine out for a half-day trip. They caught several nice reds from 19 to 26 inches using shrimp-tipped jigs. A half-dozen sheepshead fell for the same thing.
The water was 76 degrees, and just a little murky from a strong east wind. Tim was using a light spinning rig with 15-pound braid and a 30-pound leader tied to the jig. And he put it to the ultimate test when, after a well-placed cast, the rod bent double. After about a 10-minute battle, Capt. Diaz netted the huge, 47-inch, 25-pound snook. After a quick measurement and a picture, the fish was safely released to go have lots of little snook in a couple of months.
Capt. Matt Hoover has been working over the redfish on a regular basis. These fish run from the rats to upper-slot fish.
Live bait has been doing the trick for Hoover, and a number of snook and trout are eating them, too. Fishing out on the Cape Romano Shoals area, Matt is finding schools of larger trout, some running over four pounds. On a recent trip, his angler, Rusty Schlacter, hooked up with three huge tarpon, and one estimated at 160 pounds made it to the boat. Matt also states that the jack crevalle finally have shown up, and they are tearing up baits with a vengeance.
Naples/Estero Bay: Friday, I had the pleasure of taking the Butler family out again for a half day. Dad (Brad) had a hard time of it because his wife (Melissa) and sons (Michael, Andrew, and Owen) were kicking his butt. They caught over 25 large trout, with the smallest being over 18 inches and the largest ones were 4 1/2-pounders. The boys and his wife were relentless, and the harder he tried, the more fish the others caught. Brad did pull it out in the end with a nice, 27-inch snook and a short red. A couple of jacks and ladyfish joined in the mix.
Down in Naples, Capt. Tim Daugherty says the morning tides have been good for pompano in the deep cuts. He has been using yellow or chartreuse jigs tipped with shrimp.
Snook fishing has been good and picking up on the beaches and around the passes. They are gobbling up nice white baits freelined. As the tide moves into the mangroves, Tim has been chumming with cut-up pilchards, and then following up with a pilchard under a popping cork and the reds are loving it. His fish are running in the 22- to 27-inch range with an occasional jumbo showing up. On a recent trip, two of the Grey Oaks Gang -- Len Judy and Ralph Golden -- pulled in eight nice reds on a half-day trip.
Offshore: Capt. Michael Avinon has been running his "Findictive" out for snapper fishing recently. While the snapper bite has been only fair, a lot of slack has been taken up by the very good grouper and king mackerel action.
Also on a recent full day, Michael ran out to a wreck where his anglers tangled with amberjacks to 40 pounds, and then for the "icing on the cake" were worked over by a bull shark estimated to weigh about 300 pounds.
Half-day trips are also producing some nice grouper catches. Several over-30-inch fish were caught on a single half-day recently. Capt. Avinon says the large sharks are showing up behind boats and these include bulls, tigers, and hammerheads. Warning: Stay on the boat!
King mackerel have been providing good action for anglers onboard the "Sea Legs," which is captained by Tom Robinson. Despite lumpy seas, he has been running out about 15 miles and trolling spoons for the kings. Most of the fish are in the 6- to 10-pound range, and are a blast to catch. Capt. Tom has also had anglers pulling in nice-sized gags and reds. He is counting the days until April 1.