APRIL ANGLING ACTION: Fishing's best month in the Panhandle
If they had to pick one month out of the year to fish the inshore waters of the Florida Panhandle, many experienced anglers would choose April.
From the surf to nearshore to far up inside the bays, the fish are present in great numbers, they’re feeding heavily, and the weather is still cool enough for comfortable all-day fishing. Not only that, but the rains of March come to an end and the water clears, making it easier for fish to find the baits.
Late March and most of April are typically prime time for pompano, everybody’s favorite target in the surf. Whiting, reds and black drum will spice up the action, and Spanish mackerel will run along the outside of the bars.
For the pompano, it’s hard to beat live sand fleas scooped out of the sand and fished fresh on a pompano rig, a two-hook rig with small floats to keep the baits off bottom — they’re available pre-tied in many area tackle shops. A 2-inch piece of peeled, fresh-cut shrimp is a good second, and most baits are made more effective by adding a strip of Fish Bites in shrimp or sand-flea flavoring. They also grab jigs occasionally — white or gold are favorite colors.
Reds and black drum often grab these same baits, and the reds can also be fooled by fishing a half-ounce jig with a PowerBait flavored shrimp on the hook. Spanish are always willing to grab a fast-moving 3-inch spoon like those from Clark, or the Gotcha Plug — the secret for Spanish is cranking fast.
A length of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader is a must to prevent cutoffs on their sharp teeth — but don’t use wire. Spanish often shy from lures fished on wire.
The waters from just outside the second bar to a mile or so offshore will be teeming with migrating baitfish this month, and chasing them will be Spanish, king mackerel, bluefish, bonito, jacks and last but not least, cobia. All but the cobia can easily be caught by towing a Clark or Drone spoon around the bait schools, often marked by diving birds and sometimes sky-rocketing fish. Don’t forget a length of number 6 wire if you expect to land any of the king mackerel.
If you want a trophy-sized king, try drifting or slow trolling a big blue runner, mullet or ladyfish on a multi-hook rig. Baits 12 inches and up usually draw the 40-pounders, and they’re often found around the passes on the color break as well as around wrecks and artificial reefs.
Cobia, which have been scarce the last few years perhaps due to overfishing, migrate outside the bar, from east to west, and are usually sight-fished from tower boats. Eels, pinfish and finger mullet are the best live baits, while the 12-inch Savage Gear Real Eel is the preferred artificial.
Schools of bull redfish, 20 pounds and up, can also be found swirling around nearshore wrecks and artificial reefs as well as in all the major inlets from the Gulf into the bays. They eat pretty much anything that gets in front of them, but a big bucktail jig trimmed with a strip of Fish Bites is a universal favorite.
Occasionally schools of keeper-size reds will come out one of the inlets and feed along the beaches for a time — get into one of these and you can wear yourself out with a ½-ounce jig with a PowerBait shrimp tail added for flavor.
All of the above fish can be caught from area piers, as well as from boats — the Panhandle has the best selection of productive piers in Florida, and all of them have bait shops where you can get the needed gear before heading out on the span.
While the kings, cobia and Spanish usually come from the end of the pier, don’t overlook the opportunities for pompano, whiting and redfish cruising just outside the second bar off the beach.
Trout and keeper reds will have moved out of the coastal rivers and bayous into the bays and out on the flats, providing lots of targets both for anglers who find the schools in deeper water and for those who look for the singles by sight-fishing the shallows. A live shrimp under a popping cork gets them, but a close second is the Egret Baits Vudu Shrimp or the DOA Shrimp under a popping cork for open water, or a Berkley Powerbait Jerkshad on a 4/0 wide gap hook. For redfish, the Berkley GULP! Crab also does very well.
Early in the month, there are likely to be good numbers of sheepshead still around the jetty rocks on all the passes, catchable with a live shrimp fished on bottom — and this same bait will also pick up keeper reds in the same areas.
In short, however you like to fish, you can find coastal action in Panhandle water.