North Florida's Best Fishing

March and April are two of the best months to fish in Northeast Florida

Strike 120X Angler Fishing Kayak
George Sayour

As the old saying goes, March winds bring April showers. That may be true, but March winds and April showers don’t need to keep you from finding some of the finest fishing Florida has to offer this month. The northeast corner of the state is overflowing with fish that are not nearly as pressured as fish in other parts of Florida. From Daytona’s Ponce Inlet all the way up to Fernandina Beach and the St Marys River, there are some great early spring patterns that will produce fish.

March is closed season for vermilion snapper, black sea bass, and grouper, three mainstays of bottom fishing offshore. The season closure on red snapper is a variable that changes at a moments notice, so be sure to check the most recent regulations before heading offshore. And while vermilion snapper in the Atlantic opens April 1, with the other season closures and a limited number of fish to target offshore, this is the time to concentrate on inshore and inlet fishing.

Captain Kirk Waltz, one of Northeast Florida’s premier guides, knows the Northeast Florida inland waters like a memorized map. He has been fishing and guiding this area for over twenty-five years, and he knows more than just a little about catching fish this month. On a trip to find fish, he talked about the March and April fishing and provided a number of pointers and suggestions on where and how to locate fish inshore.

“March and April are two of the best months to fish in Northeast Florida”, he said.

“The baitfish are beginning to move north and the feeding fish will be right with them. I can tell you that the inlets from Daytona to the St Marys River will be holding fish this month. These inlets are the place to fish. You just need to pick your day to go after them.”

Redfish

In the inlets, big bull redfish can be caught in the deeper water along the edge of the channel.

Ponce Inlet in Daytona, St Augustine, Mayport and the St Marys River entrance in Fernandina all have a deep channel with a distinct edge. These big bruiser redfish are called channel bass for a reason. They run these deep channel edges. Some of the biggest reds you will ever encounter can be caught on the bottom using a blue crab for bait.

The crab needs to be declawed with the top shell and legs removed to provide a good bait. Use a Kayle hook or a circle hook and embed it into the side of the crab. Use enough weight to keep the bait on the bottom in the current, and sit back and watch.

The bite from a big red will be subtle at first as he crushes the bait. When he begins to move off with the bait, it’s time to set the hook. If you are using a circle hook, the fish will hook himself. Setting the hook too early will usually result in a missed fish. So, be patient when you first feel the bite. Circle hooks are ideal because you never need to set that hook.

These fish fight hard, and will literally fight themselves to death if you fight them on a tackle that is too light. Use thirty-pound class tackle for these fish, and get them to the boat. If you plan to take pictures, do so quickly to get the fish back in the water.

The fish will need reviving, and in some cases, they may need to be vented to release excess air in their swim bladder. Without venting the fish can’t make it back down to the bottom, and will die floating on the surface. Find venting tools at you local tackle shop. Offshore anglers are now required to have a venting tool on the boat – it makes sense to carry one wherever you fish.

Smaller, slot sized reds can be caught along the jetty rocks in these inlets. Live finger mullet or big live shrimp are the preferred bait.

“If I had only one bait to choose, it would be a big live shrimp on a jig head”, Captain Kirk said. “They just fit the bill for a variety of fish, and they are usually always available. Finger mullet are good, but they can sometimes be hard to come by these months.”

The method for the jetty reds is to pitch a shrimp on a jig head up to the edge of the rocks.

Keeping a tight line, allow the bait to bounce down the rocks toward the bottom. A trolling motor on your boat is a bonus, as it allows you work the rocks in multiple locations without the need to anchor.

Captain Kirk said that people ask him all the time about where on the rocks to fish. “I tell them, and it’s true, that they just have to find the fish. On one day, they might be in one location; the very next day they may have moved. They may only move 100 yards from where they were the day before, but you still have to find them. I can spend as long as an hour locating the fish, but once I locate them, it can be Katie bar the door!”

His advice is to avoid anchoring in one spot all day. He says you could get lucky and anchor up right where they are, but the chances are you could sit there a long time with no bites and the fish could be only a hundred yards away.

Reds can also be found in the myriad creeks that run into the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). The ideal tide for Captain Kirk is the last of the outgoing and the first of the incoming tide.

Fish the mouth of these creeks and the edges of the oyster or mud bars that are next to deeper water. Because March can still have some cold water days, look for warmer water. The water that has been up on the mud or Spartina grass flats will be warmer because the sun will have had a chance to get to it. That water coming out of the creeks will push the fish to the mouth.

In every single case, you need water movement. There has to be a current moving – in either direction – for the fish to bite.

On the slack low or slack high tide, you may as well sit back and eat a sandwich for thirty minutes to wait for the current to start moving.

Seatrout

Seatrout this month will be a hit and miss proposition. The bite can be excellent one day and completely shut down the next. On a cold day, look for the fish to be back in the larger deeper creeks. When the water temperature drops, trout tend to look for deep holes in those creeks and will school up on the bottom.

They tend to be a bit lethargic on these cold water days, so you will need to put a bait right on their nose. Fish a live shrimp under a slip float that allows the shrimp to be down close to the bottom. Cast the bait up current and allow it to drift into and through the deep hole. If the trout are there, you can literally catch one on every drift of the bait.

On warmer water days, look for the trout to be more active. Artificials work well for trout in the warmer water. Try a Boone Spinana or Castana and work it just under the surface. The pink and chartreuse or the red and white color patterns work well. A Saltwater Assassin swim-tail plastic on a 3/8 ounce jig head works well for trout as well. The electric chicken and the root beer colors are favorites for this lure. Work these jigs in a jerk, jerk, and pause motion. The strike will usually come on the pause.

Once again, the last of the outgoing and first of the incoming tide will be best, and the water needs to be moving. Slack tide will be a slow bite.

Sheepshead

These bait stealers will be turned on this month.

Having spent the winter on some near-shore wrecks and reefs, these hard fighting fish should be all over the jetty rocks in the inlets.

The bait of choice is fiddler crabs, although small live shrimp will do if you can’t find any fiddlers. A #1 or 1/0 hook on a short monofilament leader with a sinker only big enough to get the bait down is a preferred rig. The leader needs to be no longer than about 10 inches, and the weight size will depend on the amount of current.

The best way to fish for ‘heads is straight down. Position your boat as close to the jetty rocks as you can safely accommodate. The fish will be in and out around the rocks, so if you are too far off of them, you will net get a bite. But, take care that current and wave action do not push your boat into the rocks. Common sense prevails here.

Drop your bait to the bottom close to the rocks and reel up a foot or two. The sheepshead bite is almost undetectable to the novice angler. They will simply crunch the fiddler crab in their mouth without moving your line. They are not a hit and run fish. The trick is to gently lift your rod tip occasionally and see whether you feel pressure. Experienced anglers can feel the pressure of the fish moving about with the bait. Simply begin reeling, slowly at first, and when the fish turns to run, set the hook. A sheepshead has a hard mouth and teeth that look like those of a sheep – hence the name! Hooking them can sometimes be difficult at best.

The reason for the short leader is to be able to tell whether a fish is crushing your bait. With a long leader, you will seldom if ever feel a fish on your line. Some people use a light jig head with a 1/0 or 2/0 hook instead of a straight hook. With this rig, they can more easily detect the subtle movement of a bit.

Sheepshead can also be caught in deeper water in the inlets. Along the deeper channel edges in the inlet - where the bull redfish stage - big sheepshead can be found as well. The same presentation applies; it’s just in deeper water with a heavier weight to keep your bait down.

Flounder

The flounder will be returning from offshore wrecks and reefs and traveling into the inlets this month. They will move and stage on the incoming tide.

Look for flounder around the docks and pilings close to the inlet. They will find an eddy or some back current to lie in and await their prey. Look for these eddies and back currents and fish slowly on the bottom around the structure that is causing that back current.

A mud minnow or finger mullet on a Kayle hook and a good leader are the best bet. Choose a small trolling weight – elongated and easily dragged. Pitch your bait up into the eddy, allow it to get to the bottom, and slowly retrieve it along the bottom. Bites will usually be subtle, and if you’re fishing with finger mullet, you must allow the fish to take the whole bait. Setting the hook early will result in a half mullet coming back to the boat.

Bottom Line

Just like all areas of Florida, the weather is one thing Northeast Florida anglers will need to watch in March and April. There are still a number of cold fronts that will rumble through, and those fronts can have a dramatic effect on your fishing. As a front approaches, the barometric pressure drops. When the front moves through, the pressure rises, generally the wind will blow and the sky will be bright and blue. Those “blue bird” days can be some of the toughest fishing days.

If you can choose the days you will fish, pick the days just before a cold front. That dropping barometer is a sign to the fish that the water is about to get colder and probably muddied up from the wind. They tend to “feed up” just ahead of the front, keyed by the dropping pressure.

If you want a day of outstanding fishing in Northeast Florida, give Captain Kirk Waltz a call. He guides full time and is one of the most respected guides in the area. See his website or give him a call at 904-241-7560. He can make your trip a great success!