Ideal conditions bring lots of bites

  • Asher Heath is all smiles with the mahi he caught with Capt. Jimmy Laidler out of Vilano recently. (photo submitted)
    Asher Heath is all smiles with the mahi he caught with Capt. Jimmy Laidler out of Vilano recently. (photo submitted)
  • Local surf legend Justin Quintal holds a giant cobia he sight-fished off the back of a manta ray along Jax Beach. Quintal celebrated his recent longboard tour win with a couple days of cobia fishing with Capt. Chris Shultz. (photo submitted)
    Local surf legend Justin Quintal holds a giant cobia he sight-fished off the back of a manta ray along Jax Beach. Quintal celebrated his recent longboard tour win with a couple days of cobia fishing with Capt. Chris Shultz. (photo submitted)

It may still be spring, but when I opened the door at sunrise Tuesday morning to load the boat with kingfish tackle, it sure felt like summer. The weather was hot and humid with almost no wind. A slight chop on the ocean with a larger, longer period swell underneath kept us moving a little slow on the way out, but conditions were still fine for a bay boat. We stopped at the party grounds about 10 miles east of Mayport for the first slow troll of the season. A couple wrecks were lit up on the bottom, but not much bait or fish mid-column. Conditions looked ideal; the water temperature was a perfect 75 and a half degrees, and the color was a deep blue, seeing flyers every few minutes even without a strike the first hour. We started working away from the bigger wrecks to some smaller areas about a mile off the spot, still slow trolling along, when the shimmers and ripples of a cigar minnow school boiled up to the surface. Bingo. 
We cruised the edge of the acre of bait, and that wonderful sound of drags screaming finally hit my ear. The best kind of complete chaos ensued for the next 4 hours, as we fought kingfish after kingfish with some bonita and a bonus cobia mixed in until we ran out of bait. Once the sun got higher I could see multiple schools of the cigar minnows spread out over the horizon. 
If you’re heading out this weekend for some early season kingfish, don’t focus just on the wrecks. Work the broader area around the wrecks to find the bait schools and you’ll find the fish. For bait, live pogies, cigar minnows, mullet or diving plugs and spoons behind planers all work. All of the fish we caught were smaller, but I have heard of some 25 to 30 pound fish caught nearshore this last week, and some big smokers out towards the ledge by the guys trolling for mahi. 
Last weekend saw some ideal conditions for offshore, and plenty of boats hit the ledge for mahi. Word earlier in the week was 600 feet and deeper, but the boats that saw the temperature break around 130 feet and started fishing shallow seemed to pick up more fish. A few Mahi, Sailfish, and Blackfin were even caught inside 20 miles Sunday on flatlines or by boats that were slow trolling. Ballyhoo has been the bait of choice; naked or skirted is really a preference, but this time of year I like to fish them with a head so we can pull the baits a little faster and cover more water. 
Closer to the beach, this year's cobia run was one for the books, and easily one of the best I can remember. Plenty of rays were on the beaches and rips, and lots of fish were with them. There were plenty of shorts, as usual, but we saw quite a few that the tournament guys would have liked to catch. The only downside was the sea surface temperatures filled in from us to South Carolina really fast, so there wasn’t any reason for the rays to stay around, as that magic 68 to 72 degree zone extended so far North. While the main push is past us, there are still some stragglers around Mayport. I haven’t heard of any in Vilano the last couple days. 
The beach bite is going strong. As the water warms, those delicious pompano will push farther north, so it’s time to stock up if you want some for the freezer. The blue fish and ladyfish have moved into the surf, so to target pompano, use a live sand flea or a fresh clam and avoid the by-catch. If you want to soak shrimp, the whiting are biting as well, but you’ll have to work through the blues. 
Inshore, the sheepshead bite in Mayport has wound down as the fish push upriver. The redfish bite has been good, and the flounder are starting to move inshore. Creek fishing is still the best bet around Mayport – if you can find clean water, you’ll find the fish. It’s hard to describe how detrimental the dredge project has been to fishing the main river, especially for spotted sea trout. I’m sure the fish are around, but this has been the worst spring trout fishing in the Mayport area for a long time. 
In the Valley and south to Vilano, the inshore fishing has been much better for redfish, trout and flounder. It’s Spring Slam time, and if you know the spots, you can easily get all three in the same creeks right now. Live mullet, mudminnows or shrimp are all good options. Sometimes the fish want one of them, and sometime they will eat anything. It's better to come prepared for either scenario and have a variety when you leave the dock. 
All in all, you can’t go wrong fishing this time of year. If you’re not catching fish, hire a local guide for a day and we’ll be glad to teach you. This is the best few weeks of the year. The bite is wide open and it’s not 100 degrees yet. Tight lines and safety first this weekend!

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