It's been pretty hard for Capt. William Toney to find a good fall bite, but that's just how he likes it. In fact, the hard stuff -- namely limestone outcroppings -- is just what he looks for this time of year.
With less sand than the state's central and southern "beach" counties, Citrus, Hernando and upper Pasco reveal more of the state's limestone bedrock. The rock reefs in 8-12 feet of water bring an element of offshore fishing within reach of flats and bay boats.
Targeting the grouper that grow highly aggressive during autumn months, Toney looks for spots with distinct white perimeters, as this indicates current gag grouper residency. Gags use their broad tails to fan out the sand daily and create hidey holes in and under the rocks. Rocks with no evidence of recent fanning are unlikely to hold large, resident grouper.
On that note, local anglers refer to a definitive color code in deciding which keeper gags to harvest from the rocks: The darker grouper, which live in the holes and under the rocks, change color to adapt to their households. The lighter colored grouper are transient fish that change their color to remain hidden when traveling over mostly sandy bottom.
Keeping a few of the light colored fish is far better than harvesting the dark ones that live on the reef and keep it fanned out. Take too many of the resident fish and the spot will eventually fill in with current borne sand.
When the gags are home, anglers take them on a variety of baits including live pinfish and whitebait or cut mullet. An ounce is usually enough weight to sink the bait without hanging in the rocks, and a knocker rig is your best option for this close-range action. On the artificial side, trolling big-lipped plugs like Mann's, Rebels or Bombers will bring the gags charging.
Toney has also fared well by slinging the hefty DOA Swimming Mullet across the hard stuff. In fact, a recent trip saw him haul into a reasonably estimated 15-pounder that flashed up to grab the bait and promptly snapped Toney's leader.
No doubt, gags rule the rocks, but when they play hard-to-get, take heart in knowing that many fine options exist. Here's a rundown of what else to expect over, under and around the rock reefs:
Black Sea Bass: Small live whitebaits are best, but cut shrimp on a 1/0 hook or a 1/8-ounce jig head works well, too.
Kingfish: Plugs trolled for grouper often draw the kingfish ire. Slow trolling live sardines, blue runners or mullet around the rocks will give you the best shot at a big king.
Mackerel: Downsizing the tackle and trolling smaller baits or spoons is a good mack plan. Toney tempted several, including a 5-pounder, with fresh shrimp threaded tail-first onto a No. 1 long shank hook. Spoons or Gotcha Plugs cast around the rocks also take lots of mackerel.
Flounder: Lying along the sand edges surrounding rocky outcroppings, flatties often grab soft jerkbaits and swimbaits that bounce within range. Fishing a live sardine on a knocker rig around the rock's perimeter may also tempt a flounder into rising for a bite.
Reef Rats: Complimenting the big-name sport fish, grunts and porgies add to the edible species you may encounter. Cut shrimp or squid on small hooks or jig heads will do the trick here.
Whatever you catch, whether targeted or incidental, consider that even the largest of limestone reefs has a limited population of fish. Because calm days put many of these reefs within the "doable" range of even John boats, it's easy to fish-out a good spot.
On the flipside, the next productive reef is usually just a short run away, so catch a few, hit another rock and keep each spot productive.
For rock trips, contact Capt. William Toney at 352-621-9284 or visit homosassainshorefishing.com
David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "FISH SMART-CATCH MORE!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.