Coastal anglers can pretty much target any fish species they enjoy catching this month and have a really good shot at success, with both water temperature and weather about as good as it gets.
Off the beach
King mackerel are around in massive schools this month after migrating in behind the bait schools from South Florida in April. The fish can be found from anywhere just outside the inlets to many miles offshore, and where you catch one, you may catch a dozen. Average size is seven to 10 pounds, but there are plenty of “smokers” in the mix, fish that can literally make a reel smoke as they scream off drag, and these fish regularly exceed 20 pounds.
Get out at first light and watch for diving birds and beneath them you’ll usually find skyrocketing kings, along with more bonito than you want to reel in. The fish drive bait to the surface at dawn, creating a melee where you can catch them on big topwater lures as well as spoons or live bait. Get up to the school quietly, a trolling motor helps a lot, make long casts and bring the lure back at warp speed to draw the strikes.
After the sun gets up, both bait and kings drop off to deeper water, typically 30 feet or more, so it becomes a trolling game - a spoon pulled behind a number 2 planer or a 4- to 8-ounce trolling lead, or a large diving plug like a Mann’s Stretch 25 will get down to these fish and catch them. A few birds sitting on the surface may mark a school of bait deep below, so check your sonar. They also hang around wrecks and reefs, where a live LY or cigar minnow is the top bait. Anchor uptide, put out a chum block, and watch for the fish to come to the slick.
Anglers who target tournament-size kings of 40 pounds and more often connect by slow trolling large live baits like ladyfish or bluefish 12 to 14 inches long along the color line where the dark water from the inlets meets the green water of the gulf.
Spanish are found from anywhere just outside the beach bar to far up inside the large bays. Like kings, they often drive bait to the surface at dawn and can be caught on fast-cranked spoons, jigs and Rat-L-Traps in chrome colors. Later in the day, trolling with a Clark spoon about three inches long behind a cigar weight of several ounces finds them. Like kings, they like a fast-moving lure. They also readily attack all sorts of small live baitfish as well as shrimp. Average weight is around two pounds, but five-pounders are not uncommon.
Pier fishermen can catch both species by casting frozen cigar minnows off the end of the pier. Nose-hook the bait with a size 2 treble, throw uptide and let the current carry the bait down the flow, then reel in and repeat. With all kingfish rigs, you’ll need at least 12 inches of number 4 to number 6 wire to prevent cutoffs. For Spanish, 40-pound-test fluorocarbon is adequate, and draws more strikes than wire.
Sea trout and redfish are easy to find most May days inside the bays from St. Joseph’s Sound to Pensacola Bay.
One easy pattern is fishing the longest private docks extending out into the bay. Those with a deep hole at the end usually hold trout ready to grab a live shrimp under a popping cork. (Lighted docks produce particularly well if you visit after sundown, but may also hold fish all day long.)
The big bridges crossing the bays usually hold redfish early in the month; find them by pulling a large diving plug close to the pilings, or ease along with a couple of live croakers trailed behind the boat at depths of 10 feet or more. Over-slot reds also hang around the inlets off and on all summer and fall. These are big fish, 20 pounds and more, requiring stout tackle. Remember, all must be released.
Both trout and reds also prowl the grass flats at this time of year. Find an area with grass in water 1 to 3 feet deep and you can catch both on a shallow runner like the LIVETARGET Scaled Sardine or the MirrODine. These lures are best fished in a series of short, sharp twitches. Inshore spinning gear with 15-pound-test braid and 18 inches of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader gives the best action. Wade-fishing works well if you can find an area with plenty of bait and active fish, but a kayak or flats boat to allow moving to various spots is a big plus.
There are pompano, whiting and reds in the swash along the beach, and the offshore pelagics and reef fish are also on a tear this month, so pretty much any sort of fishing you like can be enjoyed somewhere around the waters of the Panhandle.