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Saturday, February 24, 2024

FISHING REPORT: ‘Angler of the Year’ got it done with the humble sheepshead

NewsFISHING REPORT: 'Angler of the Year' got it done with the humble sheepshead

Some respect, folks. Sit up straight. 

Anthony Petracca wasn’t just honored as the best fisherman in a local bowling league.

Not tops among local concrete specialists, though, come to think of it, he probably is. 

Nope, Anthony isn’t just any angler. He’s “Angler of the Year.” 

Of the Anglers Club, no less — that New Smyrna Beach outfit, founded in 1913, consisting of some serious fishermen who fish hard before retiring to the club for discussions on Russian literature and old-world architecture. Or something like that.

“It’s really just luck,” says Petracca, who’s only been a club member since 2021.

Yeah, but it sure seems like the guys who try harder and file away productive knowledge get luckier than the rest of us.

“I didn’t set the world on fire, by no means, but it was enough,” he says.

SHEEPSHEAD TIPSThey’re good to espant, hspanrd to eyebspanll (ugly!); here spanre some pointers

FISHBITESThe idespan for Fishbites begspann with young Billy Cspanrr in New Smyrnspan Bespanch

Anthony Petracca outside the Anglers Club, where he has bragging rights among the club's most serious anglers for the coming year.

It was late December and the last Sunday before the annual deadline to complete the year-long competition. Petracca, within easy striking distance of first place, could look at the contest board, with 21 different species of fish listed, and see an empty and enticing box under his name — especially for wintertime.

That’s right: Sheepshead.

Marlin, swordfish, sailfish, mahi, cobia, tarpon, snapper … all are sexier categories on the big board, but they all add up, right down to that striped dock dweller. Petracca’s biggest catches over the year were a 37-pound bull mahi and 35-pound cobia, on a day when he checked six offshore species off the contest list.

But a few pounds of the humble sheepshead — totaled from the max catch of five — made the difference..

“We fished the (NSB) south causeway up to the north causeway, fished the docks along the way,” says Petracca, who was joined that day by his 16-year-old son, Jeret. “Got ’em with fiddler crabs. We went out about 8 or 9 o’clock, caught three fish, went to Outriggers for lunch, then back out to get the last two.”

See? It’s easy.

Petracca, 47, is a New Smyrna Beach lifer and owner of Rock Solid Resurfacing and Removal, a concrete repair and restoration company. He’s been fishing as long as he can remember, knows the intracoastal up and back, and frankly, he’s one of the few you can find who speaks optimistically about the river’s future. 

First, the down side. The fishery is nothing like it was, even up to just 10 years ago. 

“The ocean ain’t what it used to be, either,” Petracca says. “The cobia … when I was a kid, when the manta rays were here, shoot, each ray would have eight or 10 fish under it. Not now.”

The problem, as he sees it: Pressure, as in fishing pressure. Too many people catching too many fish, over-thinning the herd.

“Just like the lagoon,” he says. “Yeah, there’s a lack of grass, but it’s the pressure, too.”

His good news focuses on green sprouts on the river bottom, and additional crackdowns through catch-and-release, offseason regulations.

“We’re starting to see more grass growing in the river,” he says. “The grass is growing back, the clarity of the water is getting better. The redfish schools are getting better. You know, they stopped killing redfish south of the (south) bridge, which helps.”

Finally, you might wonder, what are those rewards for an Angler of the Year? Like all good fishermen, Petracca can quickly lose his voice. 

“Nothin’ really, he says. “It’s more of a chest-banging, feather-in-the-cap thing.”

Halifax/Indian River

The clearing water, a usual byproduct of cold fronts, has made this a great time for those who like to see what they’re targeting.

“With each cold front the redfish and trout move up onto the mudflats for warmth, making them a perfect target for sight-fishing,” says Craig Patterson (Donald’s Bait and Tackle, Port Orange). “A well-placed live shrimp , baitfish, or artificial lure usually results in an instant hookup.”

The river is still thick with bluefish — that’s good news if you like a sporty fight or own a smoker, bad news if you’re craving better prizes. There are tons of smaller blues — “choppers” — ready to pick you apart, but also some bigger bluefish in places. Reminder: 12-inch minimum, and daily bag limit of three.

“Cut mullet and shiny artificials are best,” Craig says, and guess what — he sells both!

He’s also hearing talk of bonnethead and black-tip sharks working their way deeper into the river, likely following the blues.

Capt. Jamie Thrappas put this happy customer on a school of sheepshead this week.

Midweek winds slowed things somewhat, Ike Leary says from his Granada Pier shop and pier, but when workable, “sheepshead and black drum, plenty of bluefish, all sizes up to 16 inches,” he says. 

Capt. Jamie Thrappas (Yellow Dawg Bait & Tackle at Highbridge) reminds us of a solid way to target sheepshead when you can’t find sand fleas (never, these days) or fiddler crabs (also occasionally scarce). 

 “Tip your hook or jig head with sand-flea-flavored Fishbites,” he says. “That always seems to help.”

Capt. Jamie, who has discovered that the biggest sheepshead have the lightest bite, says he has some jig heads at the shop designed specifically for catching sheepshead. Somebody prove him right and get back to us!

Capt. Jeff Patterson (Pole Dancer charter) says the winds have kept him tucked closer to the backwater action, where he’s been “getting some really nice whiting and weakfish in some of the deeper creeks and channels,” he says. 

“Those are good places to target them during the winter.”

Guess what he’s been hooking while targeting those fish? That’s right — blues. But also some big ladyfish and some trout.

He says he’s also finding reds, trout and snook around the docks in Ormond Beach. Remember, while trout are back in play, snook are catch-and-(carefully)-release until Feb. 1, and reds are completely off-limits north of the south causeway in New Smyrna Beach.

Mel Stack with a 6-pound redfish he caught (and released) while fishing with Capt. Joe Catigano in the Mosquito Lagoon recently.

On the Fly

Last week, Geno Giza offered his Clouser Minnow tips to anyone asking, and says about a dozen local fly-fishermen took him up on it.

“Good to know that not only bait-and-hardware anglers read your column, but more fly-fishers than I realized are in the area,” says Gene, who spends winters here and heads back to Pennsylvania when it warms. 

Offer still stands, he says. His email address: [email protected].

Some of Geno Giza's fly-tying gear.

Surf

Somewhat good news for Dustin Smith (NSB Shark Hunters). He’s back in business at Bethune Beach, south of NSB. But walkway conditions are still making it a chore. 

He did bring to shore a pair of blacktips this past week, both angrily stretching the tape to  5½ feet. He got one in Bethune and the other to the south in Canaveral.

Our newest contributor here, surf-fishing guide Marco Pompano, says most recent days have produced marvelous conditions in the surf. And while the cold has sent many (most?) pompano deeper down the coast in search of their beloved 68-degree waters, some are lingering.

“I’ve been pulling in two or three a day, along with some medium-sized whiting,” he says. 

"Yep, 11 inches." Ula, a year-old Irish wolfhound, checks out Marco Pompano's recent haul out of the surf, making sure they meet the mandated minimum length.

Offshore

Conditions forced the Sea Spirit to bag three midweek trips, but Capt. Mike Mulholland’s crew will be back at it this weekend. Before things went south this week, outings had been producing the usual pile of snapper — “mutton, mangrove and lane are super hot,” Capt. Mike says. 

Craig Patterson checks back in to say he’s getting reports of mackerel — Spanish and king — in good numbers, with grouper also showing up.

Recent offshore outings aboard the Sea Spirit have paid off with a variety of snapper.

St. Johns

Since the storms, Kerry McPherson’s South Moon Fish Camp in Astor has gone from under water, to digging out, to kinda-sorta opening, to now, nearly ’bout full speed.

“We’re not 100% yet but we’re real close. I think we will be by the end of the month,” he says. 

Now it’s back to dodging the cold front and wind, and taking advantage of the good days to go speck hunting. 

“It’s either/or,” Kerry says. “We’ve got got guys doing very well, then the weather will change and it goes to crap. With this wind and front coming through, we’ll see. We’ve got some bass fishermen coming in next week.”

To the south in DeLand, Capt. Bryn Adams (Highland Park Fish Camp) is also talking of ups and downs. 

“With these fronts moving in, we’ve had mostly slow days,” she says. “However, this week, fish have moved into shallow water, making it easy to target them against the bank, which some anglers love to do the most. We are seeing nice fish come in, as far as weight goes.”

Hook, line and clicker: Send us your fish pics

We want to see your most recent catch. Email your fish photos to [email protected].

Please include first and last name of angler(s), as well as type of fish (we’re occasionally stumped). All are included with our online fishing report, and some occasionally make the print edition.

Do I need a fishing license?

You can find all the license info, including exemptions, on Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission website: MyFWC.com. But the basics are: No: If you’re 65 or older, 15 or younger, you don’t need a license. No: If you’re fishing with a licensed guide or charter boat, both of which purchase commercial licenses that cover their customers. Yes: Most everyone else, including visitors from other states. Yes: Even if you’re a shore-based angler (shoreline, dock, pier, bridge, etc.). However: The shore-based license is free . . . But: You still need to register for that free license.

Where do I get a license and what does it cost?

Many bait shops sell licenses, as do the bigger retailers (Bass, Dick’s, Walmart, etc.).  Florida’s FWC uses a third-party site for buying or renewing fishing licenses:  GoOutdoorsFlorida.com. The cost: $17 for an annual license. Don’t forget: Whether you’re fishing fresh or saltwater, you need the specific license. Freshwater and saltwater licenses are both $17 annually.

I’m here on vacation, do I need a license?

Yes you do, and they’re also available at GoOutdoorsFlorida.com or certain bait shops and big retailers. Cost: $17 for three days, $30 for seven days, $47 for a year.Also: Non-residents need to purchase that license even if they’re just fishing from shoreline or shore-based structures. (Florida residents need that license, too, but they’re free.)

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