Fishing update Part 2 - Inshore Fishing

Surf and pier fishing is great fun and I still have yet to master it.  Since I don't have a boat to go out and troll for the big pelagic fishes, the next best thing for me is inshore saltwater fishing on the Intercoastal Waterway and its various tributaries.   Compared to shore fishing, inshore fishing is a great challenge requiring strategy, technique, an array of equipment, and access.  The primary targets for inshore fishing here are speckled sea trout, redfish, flounder and black drum.  Other potential bites, though not as abundant here as further south are snook, tarpon, mangrove snapper and a few others. These fish have eluded me and nearly driven me crazy trying to catch them inshore.  I watch all sorts of fishing shows, read books and tutorials online....yet I still have no idea what I'm doing.  There are so many different methods, strategies, lures, baits, rigs, etc to choose from I am often bewildered and left scratching my head on where to even start.  The dizzying array of choices has practically scared me away from inshore fishing to seek comfort in easy surf fishing.  But no more...I've finally decided that I will devote my efforts to conquering the inshore trophies.

Due to being overwhelmed by inshore fishing, I haven't tried a whole lot.  I can complain all I want about not yet catching a trout or flounder, but I can only blame myself for not trying much.  I often feel like I have no clue how to approach inshore fishing, so the motivation to even try goes away.  Sorry excuse for someone who has sacrificed so much to rebuild a rotten old boat, but I must be honest and admit that inshore fishing has this strange effect on me.  It is almost akin to liking a girl and never having the confidence to ask her out.

It doesn't help that the best time to catch fish is early in the morning.  I am not a morning person at all, and wasting sweet sleep-in time on a weekend by getting up before dawn is a very difficult thing for me to overcome.  Poor excuse, I know, but it is the truth.   The same thing has hindered much of my surfing life, as the best waves are mostly in the morning when the winds are light.  I am slowly getting better at using mornings for my hobbies, getting older does that for you.  However, I've found the compromise to the morning problem by using the evenings as my fishing prime-time.  While not as good as the early morning bite, the evening bite is second best (mid-day is pretty much a crap shoot).

Aside from timing, access has also been an issue for me.  To really work inshore fishing well, you need a shallow water boat.  Wading and fishing from the shore can be successful, but I haven't experienced much luck with it.  You really need to be able to go to the fish, and depending on conditions, the fish are rarely at one stationary spot by the shore.   To get around this issue, I decided to try my hand inshore fishing by borrowing my parents ocean kayak.  It is a small kayak and not made for fishing, so a lot of compromise has to be made when using it.  It is better than nothing, however, and can get me to the good spots.  I've contemplated saving for a used fishing kayak, but I am going to wait and just use my dinghy I plan on building for my inshore fishing vessel.

The last thing that has bewildered me is where to go.  There are a so many places along the intercoastal that are recommended, it is difficult to choose just one place to stick to.  It seems to me that quality fisherman move around a lot on their boats, and in a kayak I need to find a place that is relatively confined.  I won't be able to scoot miles down the river to check another spot in the few hours I generally have to fish.  So instead of letting my worry about the "right spot" keep me out of the water, I've decided to just pick one area and continue to try it.

My chosen spot is the nearby Guana Lake (click on that link for a ton of good info).   The Guana River is a tributary of the Intercoastal waterway near where I live in Vilano Beach.  It is a beautiful nature preserve with abundant wildlife, tranquil scenery, and tons of fish.  The Guana Lake is the North end of the river, separated by a dam.  The dam opens up from time to time and fish move into the lake with the flow.  Guana Lake is known for holding some large trout, black drum, redfish and flounder; and it is very underutilized compared to much of the intercoastal and even Guana River.

This past Friday night I was determined to start my quest in Guana Lake.  For some reason, I was set on trying my hand at using artificials to catch something. With the exception of my best offshore fish, a large Yellowfin Tuna in Costa Rica, I've never caught anything on an artificial lure.  I keep reading on fishing reports how trout love top-water lures at dawn and dusk, and their enthusiastic reports using top-waters sold me.  I had purchased a Rapala SkitterWalk based on the recommendation of many fishing shows and websites as my go-to topwater lure.  I rigged the SkitterWalk on one pole, and a jig-head with soft plastic jerkbaits on another.  For reference, I am using mid-range Penn 4000 reels on 7' medium, and medium-heavy poles with 12 lb test mono line with 25 lb fluorocarbon leader.

I arrived at the lake a bit late, close to 7:00 pm with about 2 hours of light to play with.  This wasn't much time, but it was all I had in the day.  The entrance to the lake is kind of confusing with lots of small streams, islands, and off-shoots to navigate.  The primary area of the lake is wide open...like a lake, and I knew it was a bit further South from the entrance.  Since I didn't know how to navigate the narrow passages, I took my time to really get used to the place and not get lost.  There was a storm cloud in the distance, but it didn't look threatening and was moving away from the area.  Unfortunately, the wind was howling from the South at around 15-20 knots.

I paddled out to the area near the entrance and saw a lot of fish activity in the water.  I second guessed paddling South to the main part of the lake due to the wind, so I posted up near the shore to practice casting at the fish activity.  It soon dawned on me that I had no idea how to properly use the SkitterWalk.  I kept trying but the action of the lure never seemed right.  It is supposed to have a back and forth action called "walk the dog", but the correct technique eluded me.  The strong winds didn't help matters by carrying away all of my line when cast out.  To make walk-the-dog effective, I believe you need calmer water and lighter winds so you can keep the line under control and tight on the lure when you need it.  Also, I think I tied the lure to the line with the wrong knot, as most resources recommend a loop knot for natural action.

After about 10 minutes of casting hear the entrance the wind slowed up a bit.  I took the opportunity to find my way to the main area of the lake, about a mile and a half South.  Experts always seem to say to fish where creeks enter/exit the main waterway or look for points and other distinguishing features of the shore.  However, in Guana Lake, most successful fisherman suggest going to the center of the lake where the big fish like to hide.  Since Guana Lake is not affected by tides, the traditional methods of timing tide and flows from side streams is not applicable.  This is one of the reasons why I chose Guana Lake, to eliminate the tide variable and one less thing to worry about.

The paddle to the main area of the lake was very peaceful and a joy to do. The scenery was beautiful, and I even saw a bald eagle in the trees.  I noticed two jon-boats sitting near an area where the lake squeezes through some small islands and made sure to note where they were fishing.   I paddled to a central area of the lake and started casting around looking for a strike.  Unfortunately I still couldn't figure out how to properly walk-the-dog, and after drifting around and casting for a while I was running out of light.

Beautiful Guana Lake area near the entrance at Six Mile Landing

I high tailed it back and made it to the entrance with only a few minutes of light to spare.  It was kind of a panic with all the land features dimming by the minute, while I was still unfamiliar with the path back to the boat ramp.  I eventually made it, and had a good mental note of how to get to the open lake and back in better time.

As soon as I arrived at the boat ramp, one of the jon-boats came up as well.  "Did you slay'em?" they asked me, and all I could do was bow my head in shame and give them a negative.  I asked how they did and they proceeded to show me their cooler full of FAT trout, a couple of reds, and a flounder.  I couldn't believe their haul, I would have been ecstatic with just one of those fish.  This made me pretty depressed to know whatever I was doing, I was doing it wrong.  But also gave me high hope just to know those fish are around.  I remembered where they were sitting the entire time on the lake, and vowed to come back and try again.  I made sure to ask what they were using to catch them and they mentioned cut mullet and ladyfish.

That evening I went home to do some more research on what I did wrong.  I gathered a bit of info on using the SkitterWalk, but also noted on the Guana Lake website that most people use fresh dead shrimp as their preferred bait.  That suits me just fine, as that is my favorite bait for surf fishing and it is easily purchased down the road.  I then decided that if the weather was right, I would go out and try again the next evening with some dead shrimp.

Saturday evening came and I was ready to roll.  I rigged one pole with a 3/4 oz egg weight behind the leader with a 3/0 circle hook, while another was rigged with a popping cork bobber.  I set out an hour earlier, close to 6:00 pm, to get to the fishing spot with more daylight.  I knew the lay of the land now so I paddled straight for it and knew how to get back even in low light.

I showed up to the spot where the jon-boat was sitting the previous night, but it was already taken by another one.  I left them to the spot and tried again in the middle of the lake.  After paddling some distance to the middle, I started by casting my lines out and just drifted about in the wind.

Not too long after drifting around I felt a few heavy bites on my line, though I was unable to hook anything.  Encouraged, I kept on with my strategy until I finally hooked one.  It was a small fish, which I later identified as a croaker, so I just let it go.  Though I was after a trout, redfish, black drum or flounder, I was happy to have landed a fish...ANY fish here, so my spirits were up.  

I covered a lot of ground around the lake just by drifting with the wind, remembering what I had read on the area website.  The bites seemed to stop after the small croaker, but I was happy I at least had bites...which was more than I ever had inshore previously.

When the light started to get low, I made my way back to the dock while trolling both baited lines behind me.  As I went through a small pass between islands, I noticed a ton of fish action and decided to re-bait the hooks.  As I was reeling in the one with a sinker, a fish struck the line and I finally had a decent fight!  I haven't had a fish that could tear line and scream the drag in a long, long time.  It turned out to be a beautiful redfish that made my day.  

You can only keep one redfish per person per day, and they must be between 18" - 27".  Knowing my feet are about a foot long, I eyeballed the fish against my shoe and it measured out close to 17.5".  Since I didn't have an accurate measurement, I decided to just let him go and be happy with the fight and catch.  I hooked him deep, but after some effort I was able to get the hook out with my pliers.  The fish seemed beat and was slow to revive, but eventually he swam away.  I hope I didn't hook his gills and left him to die regardless, I would have rather kept and eaten him if I knew that was the case.  I noted then that I need some sort of accurate way of measuring fish on the kayak.

The catch.  Hard to see how big it is without anything to give perspective:

I was so happy to finally have landed a redfish, the grin on my face couldn't be wiped off for the rest of the weekend.  The next evening I was hoping to try once again, but the surf came up and I enjoyed Sunday evening riding waves.

Just like with the boat work, a little bit of success in fishing can spur momentum and motivation.  I've spent many hours since then reading and devouring more information on how I can improve my inshore technique, and can't wait to get back on Guana to try again. I was able to get some boat work finished earlier this week, so I plan on fishing the lake again tonight.

Hopefully the momentum keeps up and I can update the blog with more exciting fishing stories, lessons learned, and other musings.  But for now, you are pretty much caught up on my fishing experiences to date while living in St. Augustine. Cheers!