From estuarine tidal marshes to deep blue offshore waters, Northeast Florida boasts an unequaled fishery satisfying a sport fisherman’s paradisiacal fantasy.
Offshore, the north-flowing Gulf Stream interacts with bottom contours creating a prime feeding ground for anglers seeking pelagic action. It’s attractive to a wide variety of species including the torpedo-shaped wahoo, fight-worthy kingfish and photogenic mahi-mahi. A little closer to shore, anglers find bottom-feeding grouper, the occasional amberjack and a parade of cobia and rays.
When the day isn’t spent trolling the Atlantic, anglers can be found coasting through the spartina grass of the Intracoastal Waterway searching for flounder, black drum and trophy redfish or on the St. John’s River lurking for largemouth bass.
“There is not a month in Florida that you don’t have a reason to look forward to,” says Rick Ryals, co-host of Best Boats and director of Florida Sportsman Radio Network noting that Northeast Florida has the richest and most diverse fishery he has ever experienced.
And with each season, comes another story.
Ryals recalls offshore fishing with two friends, Dave Crisp and Fred Morgan. With 156 years of combined fishing experience, not much catches these three off guard. As Crisp lifted a red snapper from the water, a jaw, filled with sharp, serrated teeth, followed suit closing abruptly on the snapper nearly missing Crisp’s arm. In shock, the three men huddled in the middle of the boat until they felt the coast was clear. Needless to say, that was the end of that trip out to sea. Soon after, the three learned the shark might have been Mary Lee, a 16-foot, 3,456-pound great white shark tracked off the coast of Jacksonville by OCEARCH’s Global Shark Tracker near the same time.
Roger Walker, a sports fisherman and executive director of the Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament, remembers trolling west 40 miles off the coast and seeing a speckled dorsal fin break water with a prominent tail trailing behind. Moments later, the whale shark emerged and seemed to fit perfectly next to the 23-foot boat, allowing Walker and his passengers to award it a backrub.
Whether it’s excitement or serenity, First Coast waters always provide a different experience. To Walker, the perfect half-day of sport fishing means eight kingfish, one cobia, one jack crevalle, six sharks and eating lunch by 1 p.m.
Like any sport, each fisherman has go-to gear. Walker’s favorite rod and reel combination is a Shimano Speedmaster IV ($109) and a Shakespeare Ugly Stick Custom Casting Rod ($80). “All you need is the line; tie the leader and go fish,” he says. He likes the combination so much that he owns 25 of the reels.
Regardless of casting from a kayak, a bay boat or the shore, the First Coast has become a destination for many of those that love the sport. Those who haven’t picked up a rod yet, shouldn’t be discouraged. “The best thing a new arrival to our area can do is to find a club that is built around the kind of fishing they would like to explore,” says Ryals. Some clubs to explore include: Florida Lure Anglers for inshore fishermen; Jacksonville Offshore Sport Fishing Club for those who want to explore fishing from family-sized center console type boats; and the Northeast Florida Marlin Association if a newcomer has big game fever.
Track Mary Lee here: ocearch.org/profile/mary_lee/
Northeast Florida’s catches shift each season. Here is what to look for when fishing on the First Coast:
Nearshore: Sea Bass, Grouper
Wahoo, Vermillion Snapper
Inshore: Speckled Trout and Redfish
Freshwater: Female Bass (February, March, April)
Late Spring/Early Summer
Mahi-Mahi, Blackfin Tuna
Offshore: Kingfish, Sailfish, Mahi-Mahi
Inshore: Trout, Redfish, Flounder
Late Summer/Early Fall
Triggerfish, Vermillion Snapper
Visit floridagofishing.com for more information.
Fishing laws help manage fish species and natural resources, to ensure that there are fish for the future. Make sure to check current fishing regulations and have a current fishing license before setting out to cast a line. Find more information at: myfwc.com.
Roger Walker (right), executive director of the Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament and Rick Ryals, host of Best Boat and director of the Florida Sportsman Radio Network, photographed in the Bridge of Dos Amigos.