What is it about the greater Tampa Bay area that makes it one of the nation’s most prolific fish traps? Well, as it turns out, being the largest open-water estuary in all of the Sunshine State definitely comes with its perks.
Tampa Bay Basics
Extending over 400 square miles and fed by the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the entire bay and its tributaries act as a reliably diverse game fish nursery. This is already a feat in and of itself. As any seasoned angler will attest, most top-tier fisheries struggle with maintaining the variety of its celebrated fish stock.
Tampa Bay’s massive ecosystem, on the other hand, plays host to pretty much all of the state’s favorite bruisers. When locals say there’s something in these waters for everyone, you better be sure they mean it.
Be it Clearwater, St Pete, Tampa itself, Bradenton or Sarasota, there’s no shortage of hotspots that fish well throughout the calendar year. Here, we’ll cover some of the area’s most popular species and dominant fishing techniques. We also might just give you a reason or two to put Tampa Bay fishing at the top of this year’s bucket list.
Species and Seasonality
If it swims in the shallows and lives in the Gulf, you can pretty much guarantee it’s in these waters. The Bay provides such a wide variety of aquatic life, it’s not uncommon to bag more than a dozen species on any given outing. The mighty Snook prowls the mangrove shorelines. Schools of tailing Redfish rest on the glassy grass flats. And the notorious Florida Tarpon roam the Bay’s endless passes. Whatever you’re after, it’s never more than a cast away.
However, these grounds are home to much more than just the traditional heavy-hitters. The local species also include Trout, Jack Crevalle, Grouper, Snapper, Cobia, Ladyfish, Mackerel, Flounder, and a variety of Sharks. All of these and many more call Tampa Bay their home throughout different parts of the year.
This is also how the area manages to cater to anglers of virtually all ages and skill levels. Anything from a 2 lb Pompano to a 200 lb+ Tarpon can be caught on the local waterways. It all depends on the type of experience you’re after.
The traditional Tarpon season spans from April all the way to August. However, the Bay is usually considered a strong late summer Tarpon fishery as well. Multiple hook-ups are usually recorded well into October.
On a particularly good year, the season can last up to 7-8 months. As any angler half worth his bait knows, that’s hardly standard for any Tarpon fishery. Does someone you care about suffer from a seemingly unbreakable ‘Tarpon curse’? Bring him to Tampa Bay. He should be completely cured within a day or two.
Throughout peak migration (May-July), most Tarpon range between 80 and 140 pounds. Still, you’ll probably hear of folks joining the coveted ‘200 club’ every now and again. If you’re specifically booking a Tarpon charter, expect an average of 2-7 hookups per trip. Days with more than 10 hookups are certainly not unheard of, either. In the end, it all depends on your own expertise and a lil’ bit of luck.
If you ever battled a Tarpon before, you know this is one durable trophy fish. Most fights last from 20 to 40 minutes, although you should try and end the struggle as soon as possible. Other than ensuring the fish’s survival, this also helps in avoiding the Sharks. The toothy terrors are hardly scarce around here.
Redfish (Red Drum)
Undoubtedly a skinny-water favorite, the resident Redfish is happy to chase down a plug any day of the year. With unparalleled stamina and a reel-smoking tenacity, Redfish is certainly the king of Tampa Bay flats.
Throughout most of the year, the species are caught in very shallow grass flats, up to 3ft. deep. Even though most fisheries go into deep hibernation during the winter months, the tailing Reds of Tampa Bay remain very much active. That said, they usually migrate to deeper waters at this time, normally between 4 and 8 feet.
Most Reds caught in the Tampa Bay area measure around 15-35 inches (the legal size limit is 18-27 inches.). Due to the species’ prevalence, the season stays open all year round!
There are plenty of captains willing to clean and fillet the fish for you following the trip. Unlike Tarpon, Reds make for delicious table fare. In fact, many of the local restaurants will be more than happy to cook your catch. How’s that for a fresh lunch?
Red Drum typically congregate in many of the same places as Trout and Snook. If you’re looking for monster Reds though, they usually rally a few miles off the beaches or near the various ship channels. Happy hunting!