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Fishing Tackle Basics

There is no set-up out there that will have you ready to catch every fish that roam these waters, but some work a lot better than others. 

Basic Setup:

Penn Battle 4000 Rod and Reel combo
Main line - 15lb PowerPro Braid (I like green or yellow, no real reason why)
Leader - 2-3ft of 20-30lb Flourocarbon leader
Hooks - Size 1 or 1/0 circle hooks (live bait) or 1/4oz Jigheads (white or red)
Add ons - A cheap popping cork if you want to keep your bait up, some 1/4 oz split shot to keep it down.

 

Lesson Learned #1: Don't skimp on a reel

I'm not saying that you need to go and spend $1000 on a new Shimano Stella, or even $200 on a new Penn Spinfisher V, but it turns out there is a substantial difference between a $30 plastic reel and even a $60 Plueger President. Steer clear of the cheap combos available everywhere from Bass Pro to Walgreens, as you'll end up needing to buy 2 of those a year. A quality reel not only lasts much longer, but will make a considerable difference when catching fish. A smoother feel and a much stronger drag are essential if you happen to hook into a big snook, redfish, or even a shark.

As far as sizes go, inshore fishing in Florida usually doesn't require more than a size 40 (or 4000, depending on the brand) reel. The Penn Battle combo is very popular starter combo for around $120. It is a quality reel paired with a quality rod that will take a bit of abuse and keep on ticking. If you are after tarpon or big breeder snook, you may want to beef up your setup to a 5000 or 6000 size reel for only $10 more. 

One last note on reels for anyone new to saltwater or new to the sport, or anyone wondering why their reels keep corroding and seizing up: rinse your entire rod and reel after EVERY use. Salt water is extremely corrosive when left to dry on a rod or reel. Giving your equipment a good blast from the hose will extend the life of your gear and save you money. 

Lesson Learned #2: A variety of rods keeps things interesting

While spending a little extra on a reel has made a big difference for me, I've had good luck with relatively cheap Ugly Stick rods that came with the combos I bought early on. Replacing a few eyelets has kept me casting time after time, year after year. However, just like anything else, if you are able to spend a little more, you will more than likely be happy with the results.

A lighter, longer rod with more flex can add critical distance to your cast. When fishing the flats or mangroves in SW Florida, those long casts keep you a safe distance from the fish and prevent them from getting spooked. I would recommend having 1 light to medium action rod for trout and mangrove snapper fishing and one medium heavy rod for dragging in the snook, reds, and big jack crevalle, both around 7' in length. While you don't need two, it is certainly very convenient to not have to re-rig your whole set up if a fish takes your line around a mangrove root or the fish just aren't biting on what you have. There's nothing worse than watching that school of reds swim off into the distance while your fat oily fingers are desperately trying to retie your one and only rod. Or maybe I'm just projecting. Additionally, catching a 15 inch trout on a light rod is an awful lot more fun than it is on your medium/heavy rigged-for-tarpon setup. 

Lesson Learned #3: Keep your line clean and don't be afraid to replace it

Especially when fishing around mangroves, oysters, bridges, or docks, your line is going to get nicked up. Like any old chain metaphor, the strength of a fishing line, whether it is monofilament, braid, or flourocarbon, depends on the strength of every square inch of that line. Any nicks, knots, or fraying will drastically reduce the strength of the line--believe me, you're speaking to the master on this topic. I don't say that because I know a lot about fishing line or knots, but rather because like clockwork, every time I spot a small weakness in my line and think "eh, it will be fine", I hook into the biggest fish I've ever seen. Without exaggeration, the top 5 biggest fish I have ever hooked have been lost to frayed or weakened line, and it's been increasingly frustrating every time. I've had to learn my lesson the hard way, but do as I say, not as I do and you'll avoid the pain of "it's my own stupid fault". Cut a few feet off your lead line every so often and retie a new leader at the first sign of nicks or weakness. 

Lesson Learned #4: Get really good at tying a few knots

While there are dozens of knots that any good boy scout should know (I'm not one), you really only need a few good ones to get you started. I rely pretty heavily on the double uni knot for my tying my main line to my leader. When attaching a hook or a lure, I'll use a loop knot if I'm using a top water or am looking for a little more action from a jighead or live bait, and a clinch knot if I'm using cut bait or don't want my bait moving two much. I'm far from a knot expert, but since I've become proficient at these few knots, they haven't failed me. For more information on why I lose fish, reread Lesson Learned #3

Lesson Learned #5: Invest in a few essential lures...and a cast net

First things first: Nearly every inshore fish in Florida can and has been caught on artificials. With that said, the task becomes a lot easier when you are using live bait. A skilled angler can make his soft plastic paddle tail swim just like an injured baitfish, and probably outfish you in the process. However, until you learn to do that, live bait is the way to go. Learning to throw a cast net can save you hundreds compared to buying even a couple dozen shrimp every time you go out. It also makes the task of catching fish considerably easier most times. But bait can be scarce during certain times of the year (winter). That's when you need to reach into your old bag of tricks.

This list is far from complete and will definitely be hotly contested depending on who you ask, but in no particular order, these are a few easy to find lures no tackle box should be without:

Lures
- Johnson Weedless gold spoon
- Bucktail Jig in white and/or brown (tip with live or gulp shrimp for an extra boost)
- Heddon Super Spook Jr - I like white/chartreuse 
- Mirr O Lure MirrOdine (green/white)
- Rapala Skitterwalk
- Yo Zuri Crystal Minnow 3D

Jig Heads and Soft Plastics - Don't underestimate the importance of getting your bait on the hook straight and clean! A spinning or mangled bait looks very unnatural and is unlikely to get a bite. 

- Strike King Redfish Magic jig heads in white, red, and chartreuse (1/8 oz, 1/4 oz, and 3/8 oz)
- Gulp! Alive shrimp in new penny
- DOA TerrorEyez in rootbeer
- DOA CAL Paddle Tails in a variety of colors
- Z man Jerk shad in a variety of colors

Tools
- Lip Gripper
- Needle nose/fishing pliers

Buying all of these things would cost you well over $100 in lures alone, so I would start with just a few simple things. 1 topwater (skitterwalk), 1 suspending bait (MirrOlure), a pack of jig heads, some gulp shrimp, and some DOA paddle tails. That $25 is a great place to start to figure everything out. The confusing part, after matching up all other variables, is figuring out how to retrieve each of these. There is no hard and fast rule, but generally mixing up the speeds and the stops until you feel a bite is a great way to learn!

Lesson Learned #6: Understand your hook and lure sizes

Match the hatch. There are few better fishing tips out there. What this means is that the lures and baits that you should be throwing should be roughly the same size, color, and have the same action as the fish that are in the local waters. When using live bait, it's important to have the proper hook size as well. When using baits smaller than your palm, you don't need to go much larger than a 1/0. If you are using chunk bait or cut dead bait, smaller size 1 hooks should hold it just fine because dead bait doesn't move too much. However, when using smaller 2" live bait, drop the size down to a 2 or 3. A larger hook will kill the bait, impair it's movement, and/or fall off much more easily. Keep in mind the size of the mouth of your target fish. Sheepshead, for instance, sport some pearly chompers but have small mouths. 

A larger bait such as a mullet or ladyfish will require a larger hook. Bigger baits on bigger hooks will catch bigger fish, though typically this narrows your chances of catching a fish. If there are not many fish around, you may be better off with smaller hooks and smaller baits--that is unless you have a cooler of beer and time to kill. 

When using jig heads and soft plastics, you typically want to size the jig head with the amount of current there is. You want your jig head to be able to sink, so if you have lots of current you will need a heavier jig head, like a 1/2 oz. On the flats, you usually don't need much more than a 1/8th oz jig head unless you need some extra casting distance. Too heavy of a jig head will likely drag in the grass. 

Summary:

It's that simple. Follow those 621 easy rules and you'll be catching fish in no time. But seriously, fishing can be incredibly tough with all of these variables (we didn't even touch tide, weather, wind, clarity, temperature, time of day, moon phase, spot selection, barometric pressure, or type of underwear to have on). The best bet is just to fish. A lot. Have fun doing it whether you catch anything or not. Having the right gear doesn't guarantee success, but will get you pointed in the right direction. 

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