Cornucopia of Action Awaits Coastal Anglers This Month
Hope springs eternal, and so does the good fishing along the north-central Gulf Coast during April. Though we may still see some cool spells and occasional rough weather from late cold fronts, this month truly ushers the arrival of springtime.
With daytime air temperatures commonly in the mid to upper 70s and overnight lows dropping only into the 60s, April signals an upward surge in water temperatures as well. Once the waters along the beaches warm above 70 degrees, there is a burst of new life from phytoplankton that attracts hordes of herbivorous fish such as sardines, herring, scad and other filter feeding species. These species in turn attract predatory squid and fish like bluefish, cobia, jack crevalle and the mackerels. The arrival of these pelagic species heralds a cornucopia for Emerald Coast pier fishermen from Mexico Beach, Fla. to Gulf Shores, Ala. that will continue late into the year.
In the surf zone as well, sportsmen enjoy an upswing in fishing interest as native invertebrates like mole crabs, also called sand fleas, beach ghost shrimp and a variety of small clams and snails become prey for marauding schools of pompano. The pompano are in the surf zone between the beach and longshore sandbar in increasing numbers to fatten up in anticipation of their approaching spawns. These more active fish feed heavily and competition within the school can create some fast action for savvy anglers in the right place at the right time with the right tactics.
Along the Emerald Coast, most pompano are caught on set rigs cast from the beach, jetty or pier and weighted to the bottom with pieces of fresh cut shrimp, ghost shrimp or sand fleas. The angler just places the terminal rig in a likely area, such as the edge of a sandbar, trough or sandbar drop-off, and waits for a bite from passing fish. By-catch to this method commonly includes whiting (Gulf kingfish), redfish, black drum, sheepshead, flounder, hardhead catfish and a plethora of other species.
A popular alternative to target pompano in clear water is to employ a 3/8- to 1-ounce leadhead jig in yellow, orange or other bright colors. Cast it on 6- to 10-pound tackle and bounce it back along the bottom. Sometimes, pompano can be a bit finicky. When that happens, tip the jig with a piece of shrimp, a sand flea or a small piece of orange Fish Bites, a slowly dissolving synthetic attractant strip. Most of the time, a retrieve with a sharp wrist snap that makes the jig jump up off the bottom a foot or two and drops back to the bottom is all one needs to elicit a strike from these hard fighting and delicious members of the jack family.
Another successful lure for pompano is a Silly Willy or Doc’s Goofy Jig, which uses a 3/4- to 1-ounce brightly painted banana jig tied in tandem with a small fly or teaser. The cast and retrieve is similar to that of a conventional jig, but dragging the lure along the bottom and slightly twitching it can be even more effective with hungry pompano.
Alabama has a 12-inch total length minimize size limit on pompano. Alabama anglers may keep up to three per day. Florida enforces an 11-inch fork length minimum size limit, but anglers can keep up to six pompano per day for plenty of good eating.
ALTERNATIVES DRAW A CROWD TOO
The sheepshead spawn winds down by mid-April. The large aggregates break up into smaller schools with most moving along the beaches toward the passes to spend the warmer months feeding in the bays and rivers. The fish do pause to rest and feed along the way and can be caught near shore along sandbar drop-offs with live or even fresh dead shrimp, sand fleas and ghost shrimp. Both Alabama and Florida enforce a 12-inch size limit on sheepshead, although the daily creel limit is 10 in Alabama and 15 in Florida.
Spanish mackerel are another crowd pleaser commonly caught from the gulf piers and occasionally from jetties and even the beaches. Early in the month, most of the mackerel are relatively small, one to two pounds and one to two years old. The new arrivals are generally lean from an arduous migration north and westward from their wintering waters in south Florida. By mid to late April, the older year classes and roe-laden females show up and join in on the prespawn feasting as they fatten up on squid, anchovies, small sardines and similar bait. To fool Spanish mackerel, try using a 7-foot rod medium class (8- to 12-pound-test line) spinning rig and throw small jigs, spoons and plugs in the 1/2- to 3/4-ounce range about two to four inches long.
Mackerel teeth are extremely sharp. They can slice through light fishing line like a proverbial heated sharpened knife through hot butter. Use about 12 inches of leader made from heavier clear monofilament or fluorocarbon line to help prevent being cut off. The action can be fast and furious with hundreds of the tasty spotted speedsters landed from the piers in the course of a good day. Anglers can keep up to 15 Spanish mackerel per day, but in Florida, they should be wary of the 12-inch length limit. Alabama anglers have no size restrictions on Spanish mackerel.
King mackerel also arrive in increasing numbers along the coast throughout April, following the schools of baitfish and smaller mackerel they feed upon. Many pier anglers target kings from the outer end of the piers with medium-heavy spinning tackle in the 15- to 20-pound-test line class on 7- to 9-foot rods. They often use freshly caught baitfish from around the pier, but early in the month frozen cigar minnows may be necessary if bait schools are scarce. Other anglers like throwing 4- to 7-inch artificial plugs like Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows and Rapala X-Raps. The most popular colors are natural, bright white or yellow and white with a red head. A steel leader made of 27- to 40-pound bronze single- or 7-strand wire is a necessity to prevent being cut off by a king’s slashing razor sharp teeth.
A separate category of anglers fishes the piers in April intent upon catching cobia as they migrate by. They are almost entirely sight fishing with brightly colored 3- to 4-ounce leadhead jigs and do not usually even cast until they spot a fish within casting range. Several piers have a rule that an angler calling “first cast” on an approaching cobia is given the chance to do so without any interference (or casts) from surrounding anglers until the fish refuses the lure or the angler misses his mark. Sight fishing for cobia is not for the faint of heart nor for impatient anglers. Anglers might only see a few cobia in the course of a day, but the rewards of catching gamefish that can approach 100 pounds is very attractive to many pier anglers.
Because there is such a wide variety of species available for pier and shore anglers to target as spring fishing warms up, April is a very popular month all along the Emerald Coast. No matter where you go or how or what you fish for, it is a great time to enjoy these great days outdoors!