Fishing in the Manatee River in September can offer some great fishing as well as an insight to what it was like to fish “old Florida.”
The Manatee River begins at Lake Manatee, winding and twisting 18 miles in a westerly flow, before it empties its dark sweet waters into the emerald green waters of Tampa Bay. It’s nutrient rich waters gently meander with salt creating a brackish water habitat that is most appealing to a wide variety of flora and fauna. And, although development is taking its toll, there are still many shorelines that remain untouched just as they have been for thousands of years.
Mangroves and oysters thrive in this habitat creating nesting and forging areas for many species of shorebirds as well as mammals such as manatees. Fish also thrive in this habitat — especially species tolerant of lower salinity levels such as snook, tarpon redfish and trout. The vast amounts of bait fish that gather at the mouth of the river attract these predators to take advantage of an easy meal. Other species, such as Spanish mackerel, jack crevalle and mangrove snapper are attracted to this plethora of food, which further adds to the diversity of the marine ecosystem. It’s needless to say that this is the perfect recipe for some exceptional fishing. If you haven’t experienced this, allow me to indulge you with an example of what the beautiful yet fragile Manatee River has to offer.
The sun had not yet risen as I dropped my anchor on a grass flat in Anna Maria Island. It was still dark as I mixed up my chum in preparation to throw the cast net in hopes of catching some bait. The tide was beginning to slowly trickle in as the twilight settled just before sunrise. The shorebirds, seagulls and egrets began their morning flight east in anticipation of the bait schools that would show up near the surface of the water at first light.
I began to chum, throwing small amounts behind the boat to attract the shiners.
Within five minutes the water began to dimple.
The surface of water was visible, as the sun was just below the horizon. The orange and pink clouds were warm and bold looking in the east.
Another toss of chum and I was ready to throw the net.
I gathered up my 10-foot cast net and prepared to throw. The bait was behind the boat as I opened the net in a perfect circle on the water. It quickly sank engulfing the shiners. I could see them flashing underwater as I pulled the net in.
It was a good strike.
As I emptied a hundred or so baits into the baitwell my mind was filled with anticipation of what fish I would catch. More chum in the water and I threw the net again. Another net full of bait.
I was done.
It was time to clean the boat and go fishing.
With the boat cleaned, I aimed the bow to the east heading right toward the sun that was creeping over the tree line. As I accelerated, the boat quietly skimmed over the calm waters of Anna Maria Sound. At speed it was hard to tell where the water ended and where the boat began.
Upon arrival in the river, the water was still glassy reflecting the sun into my eyes. I laid the boat down and idled toward the mangrove shoreline I had chosen to fish. I was in 8 feet of water. I slowly pulled closer to shore. Watching the bottom finder, I saw 6 feet, then 4 feet. I killed the motor and let the boat coast in closer. Quietly. At 3 feet, I dropped the anchor. It was low tide. As I looked over the side of the boat the dark river water prevented me from seeing the bottom. I could tell the tide was just beginning to come in as the grass blades and leaves flowed to the east around the boat.
It was time to fish.
Before grabbing a rod, I threw a handful of live shiners out behind the boat — chummers.
Within a second there was an explosion on the surface.
And then another and then another.
“They are here,” I thought to myself.
I grabbed a medium-light spinning rod and prepared to bait. A new 4 foot 20-pound fluorocarbon leader with a 2/0 circle hook at the terminal end. Perfect.
I gently hooked a shiner and cast.
On the first cast, nothing.
I reeled in and switched out the bait and cast again.
On this cast, it was if I threw bait right in the fish’s mouth. As soon as the bait hit the water it got eaten.
The line jumped and instantly the rod bent. The drag screamed out and the fish broke water.
The snook was airborne before splashing back in the water and the battle commence.
Not a bad start.
As the tide increased, the bite did the same.
Spotted seatrout and redfish were mixed in with the snook.
It was one of those days — I felt warm inside happy and satisfied to enjoy a good morning of fishing.
After catching a few more fish, I cast out again and received a hard strike. As I pull back the rod and reeled quickly to drive the circle hook in, a 30-inch tarpon erupted from the water.
The cackle of his gills — as he shook his head in the air trying to shake the hook — echoed over the surface of the calm water. I prayed my 20-pound leader would hold up. The fish jumped again and I heard the pop. The tarpon broke the leader.
With my hands and arms shaking in excitement I slowly reeled in the bare line.
After a couple of cuss words, I re-rigged and cast again.
Another quick strike. Was it a tarpon again? I wondered.
No — the way the fish fought was not right for a tarpon. In fact, it was not right for any fish I’m used to catching.
As the fish pulled out drag, it shook its head vigorously making the rod jerk in my hand.
And then I saw it.
A huge beak of teeth slashed back and forth above the surface of the water.
It was a long nose gar —a true exotic to catch in our waters. And what a battle it was. Once boat side I netted the fish, lifting it into the boat. Its hard body armor was rough on my hands as I held it tightly to avoid getting nicked by the long nose filled with sharp teeth. The hook was visible halfway up the nose and was easily removed with pliers. He measured out at 34 inches.
It was 9:30, and the sun was already in full force. I was drenched from head to toe in sweat and was ready to go home. The dark, sweet waters of the Manatee River had rewarded me with a great morning of fishing and I was satisfied to enjoy the cool breeze as I headed back to the marina.
I hope this river never changes. I’ve been fishing its water since I was a boy, and I hope to fish them the rest of my life.