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Photos by Pat Ford

Folks who reside in colder climes tend to look scornfully upon those of us who call Florida home when the subject of seasonal change comes up. “You don’t even know what that means,” one friend scoffed as he regaled me with quaint tales of crisp apples, frost on the pumpkins, changing of the leaves and other such New England lore.

A good day starts with live bait.

A good day starts with live bait.

I nodded in silent acceptance because I knew that much of what he said was true. Fall in the northern United States offers spectacular beauty in many places, along with true weather change, which for many people symbolizes the cycles of life. But I also know that a whole bunch of those same people hightail it to my part of the world come February. Apparently when the cool and crisp air of fall gives way to the bitter harshness of winter, the quaint wears off.

Of all the seasons, most of us love spring best. Temperatures rise, birds sing, and the promise of summer lies just around the bend. Now many of you may believe — as my misinformed New England friend did — that we have no change of seasons in Florida, but I say, au contraire. We experience seasonal change just as profoundly as anyone else. You just have to look a little harder to find it.

True Floridians know that it’s springtime when the fish begin to move.


First Migration

I spent my formative years in central Florida just north of Tampa, and my father (a die-hard angler and hunter) looked forward with great anticipation to the biannual mackerel migrations each year in the Gulf of Mexico. In the spring, huge schools of Spanish and king mackerel migrating from their winter haunts in the Florida Keys would pass by on their way north to their summer grounds in Louisiana and Texas. When they showed up in our part of the world, it always sparked a month of frenzied fishing activity in every spare moment — until they were suddenly gone. Around November they came back through, headed for the Keys again.

These vast schools of fish provided countless days of great angling fun on light tackle. In my elementary school days, we thought nothing of catching 100 or more Spanish in a day, and 40-pound and larger kingfish were common. But a funny thing happened as I left high school and headed off for college in the 1970s: Those fish virtually disappeared. Large-scale net boats and spotter aircraft combined to target mackerel, and in a relatively short time, a once-robust fishery seemed destined for oblivion, causing much financial and emotional hardship.

Fortunately, state and federal officials acted to curtail much of this overharvest, and the mackerel have made a stunning comeback. This resurgence helped spawn the Southern Kingfish Association, which arguably stands as the most successful saltwater tournament series in history, generating millions of dollars in economic stimulation for the fishing industry on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

Like mackerel, cobia migrate north from the Keys in the spring. On the east coast of Florida, we look for migrating manta rays with schools of the large brown fish tagging along, beginning as early as February and lasting into March and April. Boats with towers swoop down on harmless rays as anglers frantically cast at their traveling companions.

It can lead to a frenetic chain of events when several boats descend at once upon the same ray, but when it’s less crowded and competitive, cobia fishing provides awesome sport and a chance to hone your casting skills. Woe unto those who hook the ray instead of a cobia; say goodbye to your terminal tackle if you do.

Offshore anglers on the east coast eagerly await the springtime appearance of dolphin — what flat-landers call mahi-mahi and Hispanics call dorado. No matter what you call them, many people consider these green and yellow speedsters to be the perfect fish. What’s not to like? They eagerly take baits (most of the time), they fight hard, they jump, they’re beautiful, and they are fantastic table fare.

Dolphin tend to hang around floating structures, so when the waters of the Gulf Stream warm, you’ll find lots of boats scouting for weed lines, floating pallets, logs or any sort of flotsam that might support a school of baitfish looking for something to hide beneath. Spring kicks off this amazing fishery, and it can last most of the summer, providing recreation and an awesome meal for friends and family.

Spring brings tarpon fever to the Florida Gulf Coast and Keys, where ardent followers can think of little else.

Spring brings tarpon fever to the Florida Gulf Coast and Keys, where ardent followers can think of little else.

Silver Kings

The most important migration is the annual arrival of tarpon. Perhaps no other fish engenders more passion and devotion than the silver king. Tarpon migrate along both coasts of Florida, but the real action takes place along the Gulf Coast.

Well-known tarpon haunts include Homosassa Springs, Boca Grande, Pine Island Sound and the Keys, but you can intercept them almost anywhere along the Gulf Coast as they make their way south in a migration pattern that’s thousands of years old. Huge schools of these magnificent fish trek along the shallow coastal waters of the Gulf, headed to the Keys, where they take up residence for a couple of months.

These diffident creatures can drive anglers crazy, and becoming proficient at catching them sometimes requires the same devotion as a life’s work. Many anglers, especially fly fishermen, get hooked on tarpon fishing and never look back. These are normally industrious people who drop whatever they’re doing when the tarpon show up and head to the Keys, or Boca Grande, or wherever for the chance to tangle with one of the more beautiful, powerful and least-understood fish found anywhere in the world.

I’m one of those people. I moved to the Florida Keys in 1998 in large part to get closer to the tarpon, to spend some real time trying to figure them out. When the fish move in, my wife, Poppy, and I go out almost every day after work and put in a few hours looking for a bite right up until the sun sets. The fish often turn on and feed around changes of light and tide, and the best afternoons occur when you get low tide and the sunset at roughly the same time. Those moments can quickly become magical, indelibly burned into memory.

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Shifts of Spring

Spring doesn’t signal good things in all fisheries because some fish stay here all year and may simply move around a little depending on the season. Other fish, most notably mutton snapper, aggregate to spawn in late spring and early summer, making them easy targets. Some fish, including sailfish and wahoo, winter here and leave before spring arrives. You have a chance of catching those all year, as you do with tarpon, but their numbers thin substantially, making an encounter a matter of chance rather than process.

Snook don’t go anywhere but do have seasons that reopen in spring. Those who relish a fried snook dinner look forward to harvesting this fish. And permit school on wrecks and other bottom structure in the spring, and tend to stay there all summer, making them easier to target. Purists will tell you that a permit caught in deep water isn’t a real catch at all and that the only permit that counts is one caught on the flats, preferably on the fly.

I once got into a heated debate with a captain in the Bahamas on that subject. He opined that “a permit on a wreck is nothin’ but a jack,” a point I disagreed with vehemently. Our discussion escalated to near fisticuffs, driven by a solid base of rum, until we realized the ridiculousness of our disagreement and became best friends. A fine thing, rum. It just goes to show you the level of passion that fish can inspire among otherwise reasonable men.

Seasonal fisheries exist in many places, but nowhere in the United States has more species that come and go than South Florida. That’s why, when my Northern friends are looking for the icicles to thaw and fields to turn green once more, I’ll be down here watching the water, waiting for that first tarpon school to cruise into town.

AJ fish rule

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