A spoonful of species makes the rod tips go down.
Written by Doug Kelly, photos by Kelly Kelly
Many anglers who travel long distances to fish often discover that their own backyards produce as good or better action. I’ve certainly come to realize that in my hometown of Clearwater, Florida.
The marine waters aren’t always clear here as the city’s name might suggest, but they seldom lack for healthy numbers of snook, trout, redfish, tarpon, sheepshead and other nearshore species. The need for occasional variety notwithstanding, why did I spend so darn much time and money driving or flying hundreds of miles elsewhere when plenty of rod-jousting fun can be experienced closer to home?
You’ve heard of Tampa, but maybe not Clearwater. It’s a city of over 100,000 residents situated about 15 miles north of St. Petersburg on the Gulf coast and across a large bay from Tampa. Clearwater attracts swarms of collegiate partiers during spring breaks, but it also continues to set new year-round tourism records.
Legions of local and out-of-town anglers are also beginning to appreciate the light-tackle angling rewards around Clearwater. While a discussion of Florida’s spotlight species might flash the Keys in one’s mind at mention of bonefish or the Indian River Lagoon at redfish, Clearwater is more about variety than specialty.
The marine geography makes for interesting options. The Gulf’s version of the Intracoastal Waterway runs between the mainland portion of Clearwater and Clearwater Beach. This creates opportunities for fishing beaches, mangrove islands, seagrass beds or flats, oyster bars, seawalls, bridge and dock pilings, and a 1,080-foot pier.
Hashing It Out
As true most everywhere, boat transport offers access you can’t always enjoy when shore bound. I’m currently in a between-boat phase, so hitting Clearwater’s hot spots by vessel lately involves going with a boat-bearing buddy or an experienced guide.
A recent trip involved the latter. Capt. Paul Hajash (pronounced Hash), a retired fireman from nearby Largo, he’s been fishing and guiding the Clearwater area since the 1970s. Hajash whisked wife Kelly and I from the Seminole Street boat Dock early one morning in his 20-foot Back Country Pro Guide boat pushed by a 150 Mercury outboard.
With a livewell pulsing with shrimp, crabs, thread herring, scaled sardines and such, we were rigged and ready with light to heavy spin rigs in the console rod holders.
For most species likely to be encountered such as redfish, trout and black drum, Hajash favors 6 ½- to 7-foot spin gear with about three feet of mono leader attached to 2/0 circle hooks. Dependable baits include live tail-hooked shrimp and headless-and-tailless chunks of thread herring.
“I particularly like chunk baits for redfish when there’s current present,” said Hajash. “It’s best to let pinfish and other baitfish peck away at it. Doing so creates more scent that reds will detect and they’ll home in on the bait and easily rob it from smaller fish.”
Hajash also believes that hooking live shrimp through the tail better allows shrimp to fend off junk fish and deters burying out of sight in bottom grass and sediments.
On our trip, water temperature was a warm 83 degrees with an incoming tide and a few days before the new moon phase. Capt. Hajash visited the east side of Caladesi Island and quietly poled within casting range of the mangrove shoreline.
After anchoring, we cast live shrimp and I immediately engaged a redfish. Kelly did likewise on her third cast and Hajash also followed suit. Within minutes of first arriving we’d released three reds. The underwater telegraph spread from fin to fin, however, and the action just as promptly abated.
We upped anchor and Hajash used the electric motor to continue north along the Caladesi shoreline. A black drum soon crashed the party after choosing a chunk-bait hors d’ouevres, and Hajash worked it to boatside for a quick release.
Many schools of mullet swarmed the waters and stingrays often cruised by, offering proof that the shoreline flats held a lot of life. With the tide high and water warm, snook could be heard cavorting deep in the shaded comfort of the mangrove prop roots out of our sight—exciting to hear, but frustrating to know that the linesiders were out of play.
“Near high tide phases, baitfish swim into the mangroves too and snook know that,” Hajash said. “The trick is to ambush them out as the tide drops. Where? Look for edges of mangrove-lined islands almost high and dry on the lower tide stages.”
At one point we spotted a huge bull shark cruising in only about four feet of water near the Caladesi shoreline — ample reason enough to dissuade wade fishing hereabouts. However, just seeing that shark prompted a vivid memory by Capt. Hajash.
“I had three guys from Scotland aboard and one of them hooked into a huge shark,” he said. “After two hours into the fight, I suggested cutting the line, but quickly realized that the shark was still too green to do that close to the leader. After 5 hours and 15 minutes I finally was able to reach down to grab its tail—it turned out to be an 11-foot lemon shark in the 450-pound range.”
We decided to relocate and our next venue involved fishing oyster bars on the eastern edge of Clearwater Harbor (part of the Intracoastal Waterway). That put us just south of the Clearwater Memorial Causeway Bridge, which is also often called “Bridge 60” by locals since it’s an extension of State Road 60.
While a number of small, shallow oyster bars just off shorelines and seawalls can be readily observed in this area, it’s the oyster bars in deeper water that generally produce better results. These can be located from experience or with fish finders.
Redfish, trout, black drum, snook, sheepshead and the like enjoy pecking around live oyster bars in search of munchies, and they seem to spook far less when they can’t see you. We made casts to the edges of the bars and engaged in hookups with reds, trout, black drum and on one occasion a nice snook scarfed the shrimp but cut the leader by darting into the sharp-edged oyster bed.
“Lots of residents in the condos sit on their porches and watch the fishing action down below,” Hajash said. “Sometimes they’ll wave and point to where fish have been hitting. On one occasion, a man actually looked up my boat registration and called me with suggestions on where to cast.”
We enjoyed a bountiful day of catch-and-release fishing with the affable Capt. Hajash, and we’re planning an encore together in the near future.
Do It Yourselfing
My best fishing experiences centered around casting condo and residential docks along the ICW between Sand Key Pass and Caladesi Island. I’ve also slow-trolled deep-diving lures along the upcurrent sides of Bridge 60 and Sand Key Pass with some success on snook and tarpon. Spin rigs with 20-pound line and six-feet of 50-pound fluorocarbon leader do well. I only do the latter when the opportunity arises after midnight during spring tides when the current is fast and the boat traffic slow.
Fishing the Gulf beaches of Clearwater is seldom feasible due to the presence of frolicking swimmers. Grass flats on either side of the ICW channel are good bets for trout and reds; several small islands in the ICW south of Caladesi Island where no internal combustion motors are allowed can sometimes be worth a visit for snook and reds.
Shoreline fishing is hit-and-miss since it’s generally shallow even on higher tidal stages on the eastern side of Clearwater’s ICW. Open shorelines are hard to come by on the western side of the ICW, but the water’s deeper near the seawalls or hotel docks and fishing is good for mangrove snapper, reds and snook at night. In these cases I favor live crabs or pinfish to dissuade bait stealers, and keep the offering just off the bottom below a large white bobber.
The best shots at the most popular species depend on tides and lunar phases as well as seasonal temperatures. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more popular nearshore species.
Trout — Although available year-round, it’s best from April to September, with April representing the best shots at big spotters exceeding three pounds. While cold-water temperatures that sometimes drop into the 50s seriously impact species such as snook, trout hold up well in winter months (especially afternoons as the moon rises) over the deeper grassflats or found following mullet schools.
Capt. Paul Hajash’s clients score well on trout nestling or feeding on grassflats with clients casting 1/8-ounce jigheads tipped with Mister Twister Darts.
Clearwater light-tackle guide Brian Caudall, who moonlights as a singer and acoustic guitar player, targets seatrout in spring on seagrass beds and sandy potholes nearer to Clearwater and Hurricane passes. “In May and June, trout take off along beaches and troughs as well as seagrass beds and sandy potholes,” he said.
Tarpon — May and June are premier months for larger tarpon. According to Capt. Jim Lemke of Tampa, who often guides off Clearwater, poons in the 120- to 130-pound class have been frequently caught on small blue or pass crabs near bridges, beaches and passes on strong tides during the new and full moon phases. If crabs are scarce, live mullet, pinfish or threadfins herrings work nicely—Lemke recommends catching them on Sabiki hooks rather than with a castnet.
Oftentimes when the current slacks up, gag grouper will rise from rocky holes in the bottom to strike, and it takes a bullish rod-pumping effort to keep them from holing back up.
Redfish: Large numbers of red drum keep Clearwater anglers busy year-round. Edges of oyster bars, grass flats, around mangrove islands and any mudflats you encounter will often contain feeding redfish. Cut baits do well and same with slowly worked spoons. Warmer water temperatures in late spring through September seem to produce the bigger reds over the 27-inch slot maximum.
Snook: Live threadfin herring or scaled sardines seldom get ignored by snook, although linesiders can be readily taken on just about any baits or lures when they’re active. Snook often become more aggressive during March to May as well as October and November as summer water temperatures drop. Good ambush points include points of islands, along Caladesi Island, along bridge pilings, oysters bars and in the eddies of the passes. Walking the dog with a Zara Spook or similar topwater lure is my favorite method.
If you encounter a poon rolling or cruising by, try casting ahead of its path and a freelined a threadfin herring or pinfish.
Pelagics — Kingfish and Spanish mackerel usually arrive in early March, which can be encountered offshore of Clearwater Beach in deeper water. My most successful tactic involves drifting in 30-plus feet of water and chumming with live sardines to get a good bite going. I drift dazed live bait in the chum.
Sheepshead prefer fall months with cooler water, and they’re often taken around oyster bars near residential docks by chumming with diced shrimp and tossing your baited hook among the fray.
Cobia show up from about March to July, and Capt. Caudill and others like to hunt for them around the Sand Key Bridge, Clearwater Pass, north of Honeymoon Island, following stingrays and sometimes around inside buoys. Good baits involve crabs, grunts and threadfin herring.
No matter what species you target or when you come, chances for plenty of rod-bending action rate highly in Clearwater. I’ll certainly be spending more time here myself than expecting the grass to be any greener for the light-tackle saltwater fun I crave.
The action off the deep end of the 1,080-foot Clearwater Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach is worth a try. As a general rule I’m not a fan of elbow-to-elbow fishing, so I only do this late-late at night between March 1st and November 30th when the pier is open 24 hours and the fishing usually better than colder water December through February.
The first portion of the pier is totally jammed with tourists on weekends where vendor booths sell crafts, junk jewelry and souvenirs. Street performers entertain at the Pier 60 Pavilion on the beach in front of the pier. It’s quite entertaining, sort of like a mini version of Key West’s Mallory Square.
Fortunately, the fishing portion of the pier is cordoned off. It costs only $1 for access and provides rod rentals, bait and tackle, restrooms, snacks and beverages. No fishing license is required.
My favorite pier activity works at most piers but it’s especially effective at Pier 60. It involves first catching a bucketful of fiddler crabs on low-tide exposed mud flats on the eastern side of the ICW or western portions of Tampa Bay. A substitute is sand fleas.
I use a No. 2 bronze hook embedded in one side of the shell (hook point upwards) and a small split shot clamped above a three-foot 30-pound fluorocarbon leader.
On the upcurrent side of a bridge piling encrusted with oysters, I flip the crab into the water so the current brings it squarely onto the piling. I sometimes lay flat on the deck with the rod pointed directly at the water to effectively do this maneuver. The idea is for the fiddler to attach gently and to naturally grasp onto the piling.
If the fishing is slow, I periodically chum by dropping upcurrent chopped up bits of the same bait I’m using. When you observe a ravenous sheepshead or redfish come into view, it’s likely inspecting the piling in hopes of spotting exactly what you’re offering. Let the fish peck it off the piling and set the hook.
Of course fishing around pilings risks cutoffs, but if you don’t roll the dice you won’t get a 7.
Besides the great fishing action around Clearwater, another outdoor amenity is viewing manatees, porpoises, bald eagles, ospreys, roseate spoonbills and many other seabird species. Heck, I even get tickled just watching pelicans doing their thing.
Although excellent accommodations will be experienced with high-level amenities at Clearwater Beach resorts such as the Hyatt, Sheraton Sand Key and Sandpearl, the East Shore Resort (727-442-3636, www.EastShoreResort.com) on the ICW side of Clearwater Beach provides a private dock and a very productive fishing pier.
Good seafood eateries in the area include Cooters Restaurant & Bar (727-462-2668, www.Cooters.com) on Clearwater Beach.
To fully experience fishing around Clearwater, contact Capt. Paul Hajash (727-251-2623, www.FlyfishingFlorida.com), Capt. Brian Caudill (727-365-7560, www.CaptBrian.com) or Capt. Jim Lemke (813-917-4989, www.LightTackleAdventurers.com).
For more info about Clearwater-area Beach attractions and vacation details, contact Amplify Clearwater (727-724-461-0011, www.AmplifyClearwater.com).
In all cases, before wetting a line check the latest fisheries regulations with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (850-488-4676, www.MyFWC.com).
Article first appeared as “Clearwater, Near and Dear” in Florida Sportsman magazine and reprinted with their permission.