Do-it-yourself saltwater

On a clear morning the sunrise over Pig Island in St. Joe Bay is spectacular. If your timing is right, the fishing can be as well. (Photo: Richard Simms)

The popping cork splashed down 60 feet away. Before reeling and working it back toward the boat, I looked down to rearrange something in the boat. When I looked back up the bright, fluorescent orange float was gone, gone and gone! Yet another speckled sea trout had inhaled the 1/4-ounce jig loaded with a Gulp artificial shrimp (New Penney color, BTW).

I fish (a.k.a. guide) for a living. Name a fish in the Tennessee River and I probably know how to catch it... or at least I know it when I see it. Hence, it is a weird feeling to venture onto water where you don't even know how to identify many fish, much less catch them. But whether you're a professional angler or a novice, it does us all good to "get out of the box" every so often. Hence this brief little "DIY (Do It Yourself) Guide to Saltwater."

Let’s get one thing out of the way i if your goal is to catch lots fish, and you are uninitiated in the ways of the ocean, you will generally be more successful with a professional guide. The men and women who live on the water day-after-day are better equipped to put the newcomer on a hot spot.

But sometimes the satisfaction of catching "a" fish doing it yourself outweighs catching dozens of fish with a guide. Hence this DIY guide to St. Joe Bay at Port Saint Joe, Florida - about 50 miles east of Panama City Beach. It is not your typical Gulf of Mexico water. St. Joe Bay is created by Cape San Blas, a huge peninsula that extends out and parallel to the mainland, almost totally encircling the bay. Hence the shallow bay is protected from buffeting winds from nearly every direction. Except in extreme circumstances St. Joe Bay gets no rougher than Chickamauga Lake.

Virtually any seaworthy boat you can use on Chickamauga will work on St. Joe Bay. For me that meant bringing my little 15-foot jon boat with a 20 horsepower motor. In some cases smaller is better because parts of the bay are extremely shallow, especially at low tide. Little boats can often get you farther and to better places than the big stuff. In fact, St. Joe Bay is crawling with kayak anglers these days.

The bread-and-butter fish is the spotted (or speckled) sea trout. The big toothy trout in St. Joe reach the 5 to 7-pound range, but us DIY anglers just visiting shouldn't expect to catch many of those. My challenge on this particular trip was to catch a few legal (15-inch-plus) keepers. I was successful and have fish filets in the freezer to prove it. But the ratio of short fish to keepers was about 10-to-1.

Sea trout live out their entire life cycles in relatively small areas. Those localized populations can be dramatically affected by water and environmental conditions. Based on my anecdotal observations the last couple of days, St. Joe Bay trout are doing very well. The bay seems figuratively filled with small trout - so much so that it has been a bit frustrating trying to find keepers among the small fish.

But it is great fun fishing. Berkley Gulp is a scented bait and virtually every saltwater fishing alive wants to eat it when given the opportunity. In the right area I made relatively few casts when something didn't try yanking my popping cork under. Speckled trout, redfish, pinfish, grunts, ladyfish, puffers, lizardfish and a variety of fish I can't identify came aboard. Granted, the majority were too small to keep, but if it's action you want, it's happening in St. Joe Bay in October - and I haven't really scratched the surface of everything the bay has to offer.

It is not my home water so ask me and I'll give you coordinates. But in general, I was on the west side of St. Joe Bay fishing the flats outside of Pig Island.

That is the primary characteristic of St. Joe Bay -- miles and miles of shallow flats covered with eel grass. Trout fishermen all work the grass, but the first step is to check the tide tables. Guides say that if the tides are rising, you should get into shallow water looking for scattered fish. If tides are falling, get off the edge of the shallow flats where it’s deeper. The fish will stage up and congregate in the deeper holes.

There’s plenty of other entertainment freshwater fishermen aren’t used to. Pelicans dive bombing wayward mullet from above as sting rays skate along the sandy bottom. Sea turtles swim by, horseshoe crabs and starfish crawl through the eel grass. And of course dolphins show up on occasion.

Beware low tides and shallow areas. Nearly all are simply sand bars and won't really damage a boat. But stick the wrong boat on the right sand bar on a falling tide and you might get the pleasure of spending the night on St. Joe Bay waiting on the tide to come it.

I'm tired of playing with trout. Tomorrow I seek bigger game - sharks. If I succeed you'll hear about it. If not just figure I didn't fish the right place or the right way. But they are here. Today I watched a 5-footer cruising water so shallow his belly rubbed the sand while his dorsal fin sliced the surface.

Here is a good overview of sea trout fishing tactics. Of course there are plenty of guides around who will show you the sights - and the fishing spots - for a price, and their dollars are well-earned. But if you prefer to go it alone, it is not as intimidating as you might think. And in the words of old Blue Eyes, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing. “I did it my way.”

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