Tactics for Heavily Pressured Fish

Tactics for Heavily Pressured Fish

heavily pressured fisht

A SPECIAL REPORT by Captain John Kumiski ©2013

During a conversation with Mel Schubert about fishing in the Mosquito Lagoon, I said, “Fishing over there is so easy a lot of times it’s not even fun.” That conversation took place over twenty years ago. That was then. This is now. Fishing in the lagoon is not easy any more.

It’s not just the Mosquito Lagoon that’s become more challenging, either. In the Keys, in the Everglades, in Tampa Bay and in Pine Island Sound, shallow water fish of all kinds have become very wary and much harder to catch then they were a decade ago. Fish aren’t real bright, but they do have nervous systems. They are capable of learning, particularly if it helps prolong their survival. We anglers have taught them well. They’ve become heavily pressured fish.

Some History

Long-time Florida anglers can tell you that the number of fishermen has increased dramatically. They’re not just being senile, remembering the “good old days.” In its latest Red Drum Stock Assessment, the Florida Marine Research Institute reported that, “On the Gulf coast, the estimated number of  recreational fishing trips seeking redfish has increased five-fold since 1989, from 0.5 million trips to 2.5 million trips. This is an average increase of 93,000 trips each year.

“On the Atlantic coast there has been an increase in effort. Between 1988 and 2003 there has been a five-fold increase in effort from approximately 0.25million trips per year to 1.25 million trips, an average increase of about 78,700 trips per year.”

Fishing pressure on redfish increased 500 percent over those five years. We can probably assume that trend has been holding for all of Florida’s shallow water fish for the past 20 years, maybe longer. Is it any wonder the fish are wising up?

I asked long time Florida resident and acknowledged expert angler Bob Stearns what behavioral changes he’s seen in Everglades National Park flats fish in the past 25 years. Here’s how Bob responded:

“I find fewer fish on the flats now than I used to. It seems like the numbers decline every year. I haven’t seen any species of flats fish that have become more abundant. They are much more wary and noise sensitive now, which makes them harder to approach.

“There are too many boats running in shallow water now. If you look at aerial photos of Florida Bay, you see prop scars all over the place from too many boats running in shallow water.

“Years ago, when there were only a few boats, we’d run up on a big flat looking for fish. When we found some we’d shut down and fish for them. We stopped doing this many years ago because of the negative impact this had on those fish.

“Today there are still lots of boats doing the same thing. The engine noise of all those boats chases those fish right out of there. Because of all the motorboat traffic the fish just don’t use the flats as much any more.

“My approach these days is to stop the boat at the edge of the flat and use the wind, the current, and a pushpole to get up there and work it. I’m very big on boats that don’t have any hull slap. The fish have become very sensitized to any noise that isn’t a natural part of their environment. You have to be much more careful about your visibility and the noise you make.

“Anything you throw, bait, fly, whatever, better not be too big or the noise is going to run them off. You often have to lead the fish a little further. Cast way out in front and hope the fish see what you’re offering. Nowadays you throw even a light fly on top of the fish and you get a muddy trail heading off of the flat.

“Your presentation has to be good. The lures need to be lighter and smaller than they used to be. You have to be more careful. Pick the right time to make your presentation.

“You have to watch the fish’s behavior and body language. It doesn’t make any sense to throw a fly or lure at a fish that’s swimming away. He’s already decided that he doesn’t like what he’s encountered. Sometimes you see the fish getting nervous or ‘edgy.’ A cast to a nervous fish will most likely spook it off the flats.

“You need to find undisturbed, happy fish. If it ain’t happy, don’t waste your time casting to it.”

Stalking Fish

So let’s examine the approach needed to stalk fish. First off, you must be as quiet as a graveyard at midnight. Shut your engine off well away from the area you intend to fish, and approach that area silently. You’ll be better off fishing an area that has no other boats.

Next, watch your profile. A few days ago we were fly fishing for tailing reds from my skiff in the Mosquito Lagoon. While I was on the poling tower we couldn’t get close enough for a shot. I got off the poling tower and poled from the stern deck. My angler, who had never fly fished in saltwater before, got two fish that way.

Keep in mind a twenty foot pushpole can be seen by spooky fish from quite a distance. Texas guide Scott Sommerlatte paints his pushpole a sky blue color in an attempt to camouflage it. Neutral colored clothing won’t hurt your cause, either.

Kayakers, canoeists, and wading anglers take that low profile idea to its logical conclusion. You can get much closer to fish in a kayak than you can in a skiff. The fish just can’t detect you as easily when you’re low to the water.

If you use a trolling motor on the flats, use it at one speed only- real slow. Changing speeds, or using too high a speed, will chase those fishies away.

Tackle Tips

Next, regardless of the type of tackle you’re using, downsize your terminal tackle. If you’re in the habit of using 20 pound monofilament leaders for redfish, try using 12 or 15 pound fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon better resists abrasion than nylon, so you can use thinner material. The same idea holds for snook, tarpon, or bonefish. Accept a few cutoffs through your thinner leader material as the price for getting more bites. Use the thinnest leader that will work for whatever situation you’re in.

Make those leaders longer, too, especially if you fly fish. Speaking of fly fishers, unweighted flies cause less commotion on landing then do weighted ones. Sometimes you need the fast sinking action of a weighted fly. When you don’t, try unweighted patterns.

Use smaller, lighter lures. They don’t splash down as hard, making for a more delicate presentation. You won’t be able to cast them as far with that old heavy line. A thinner fishing line will give you more casting distance. Spectra braid is great for this. Be sure to keep that spool filled to capacity.

Finesse is becoming the name of the game on pressured flats. Lighten up and you’ll get more bites.

Presentation Tips

If you’re using bait, just get the bait in the path of the fish and leave it there, without moving it, until the fish takes it or passes it. Let the motion and the odor of the bait do the work for you. If the fish says no, wait until you won’t spook him by moving it, then retrieve and try again.

If you’re using artificials of any kind (including flies), presentation angle becomes important. You’ll have the best success with fish coming at you because you can keep the lure in front of them for the longest amount of time. Also, the bait will be fleeing from them the entire time, a very important consideration.

If the fish are moving at right angles to your line of retrieve, the lure will be in front of the fish only a brief moment. Try to place the lure in the path of the fish. Leave it there until you’re sure he will see it when you move it. Then just make it look alive. A slight twitch works better than a hard jerk will. Remember, finesse works well for spooky fish.

If the fish is moving away, there’s no way to move the lure without making it come at the fish. Since small fish, shrimp, and crabs never approach larger fish, this is an unnatural presentation. It seldom works on pressured fish. Find a fish that’s not swimming away and try again.

Unused Areas

It helps if you can find areas ignored by other anglers. Shallow water fish that haven’t seen anyone in a few days will be much more relaxed than fish that have been run over by five skiffs in the past hour. I use a boat with paddles and large amounts of sweat equity to find such places. These places get harder to find every year, though.

Catch and Release

It should be obvious that a fish that’s tossed into a cooler will never be caught again. A fish that becomes shark bait will never be caught again. Fight your fish hard, handle them carefully and respectfully, and release them gently. They will still be out there next time you go fishing.

Last Cast

Due to increasing fishing pressure, shallow water fish in Florida have become much more challenging targets in the last few years. By being stealthy, and using a finesse approach and the proper presentation techniques outlines here, you can still find and fool these heavily pressured fish. Remember, the more challenging the goal, the more satisfying the success.

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Copyright © John A. Kumiski 2013. It is illegal to reproduce or distribute this work in any manner or medium without written permission from the author, John A. Kumiski, 284 Clearview Road, Chuluota, FL 32766 (407) 977-5207.

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