Late fall fishing brings a bounty

(Sue Cocking/Miami Herald/MCT)
Captain Alan Sherman holds up a Spanish mackerel he caught near the Fisher...
Story by Susan Cocking
Miami Herald
December 27, 2011
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MIAMI — Late fall in south Florida means rough seas, extreme tides and cooler water temperatures. But it can also bring a bountiful variety fishing in the sheltered waters of Biscayne Bay.

Not many charter captains are better at riding the weather changes to produce quality inshore catches than captain Alan Sherman of Miami Shores.

The veteran former party boat skipper has parlayed decades of knowledge about the migration, spawning and food preferences of reef and estuarine fish into a successful light-tackle fishing business aboard his 22-foot bay boat in Miami’s watery backyard.

Sherman never missed a beat during South Florida’s lengthy drought that suddenly morphed into flood conditions with tropical rains in late summer and early fall. Instead, he relished the late-August influx of mullet that drew tarpon and snook, followed by a plenitude of pilchards being devoured by redfish, bluefish, trout, Spanish mackerel and snapper.

Now, conditions are about to change again.

“Water temperatures are about to start dropping to the low 60s and maybe 50s,” said Sherman, who writes the fishing report that appears weekly in The Miami Herald. “When water temperatures go to the 60s, I go to finger channels. If nothing happens, I move to another spot.”

On the eve of a recent cold front, amid brisk east-southeast winds, Sherman and I took advantage of the bountiful mackerel bite that’s been going on for more than a month inside the bay and in Government Cut.

First, Sherman netted a live well full of pilchards with two throws of his 12-foot cast net near the Indian Creek Club. Before heading south to the cut, we cast a few “livies,” along with plugs and jigs, and caught and released small sea trout and jacks near the Jockey Club in North Miami. Then we motored to the cut where Sherman used his remote-controlled MinnKota Ipilot trolling motor mounted on the bow to hold the boat’s position near the Fisher Island ferry dock without using an anchor. The boat hovered right where he wanted it, despite a strong incoming tide and blustery breezes.

Sherman threw out a few handfuls of pilchards as a wake-up call to the mackerel. It took a little while for the alarm to galvanize the fish, but eventually they began to chow down on every live bait we tossed out, plus a swimming plug and a jig.

“Mackerel come into the bay looking for that 72-degree water,” Sherman said. “They’ll come in and out.”

Unlike some mackerel chasers, Sherman does not use wire leaders to counteract the species’ razor-like dentition. Instead, he ties 30-pound monofilament leader to 12-pound braid and uses a long-shank 2/0 hook.

“I prefer that over the wire because I get more strikes,” he explained.

For charter customers who have trouble feeling the bite, he ties a Cajun Thunder rattling float above the bait so they can see the strike. Live baits are hooked on their undersides so that they will swim down away from marauding sea gulls and terns.

In 1 1/2 hours Sherman and I probably caught 20 mackerel that ranged up to three pounds, releasing all but six. We probably had twice as many cut-offs as landings. The bite continued even after the tide began to ebb.

We didn’t bother looking for tarpon or snook — even though they can be abundant in the Cut at certain times of the year.

“Tarpon and snook are the toughest to catch right now,” Sherman said. “Snook have moved into the canal systems, where they’ll stay through the winter. The larger tarpon haven’t gotten here yet because there’s no shrimp run right now. Most tarpon are caught at night — 30- to 40-pounders. We won’t see the bigger fish till late December, early January.”

Sherman said that as the weather cools, sea trout will hang on the deeper sides of grass flats in the bay. Other species, he said, can be located by observing the behavior of sea birds.

“Keep your eyes open for birds,” he advised. “Wherever you see birds sitting on the water or up in the air, there are schools of bait and predators nearby — ladyfish, mackerel, bluefish, jack crevalle, and pompano. Bait has not been a problem, and it shouldn’t be until water temperatures get into the 50s. At that point, they’ll run into the deeper channels of the bay.”

Sherman said another key to successful late fall and winter fishing is to move around.

“The more places you fish during the day, the more spots you have by the end of the week,” he said. “Don’t stay in one place too long. If nothing happens in 30 minutes, move on. These fish don’t stay in one place. They move around all year long.”

Susan Cocking

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