Anglers up north have surely had enough of snow and ice at this point in the season, and fishermen in Florida can stop laughing at the rest of us, now that winter is drawing to a close. Fisheries up and down the coast are about to shift into high gear for the spring. We’re all excited to see new species swimming in waters close to home. These three much-anticipated spring bites will be some of the first to start ringing in the new season.
Maine to Maryland
Northern anglers can get an early start on 2019 by targeting yellow perch. Though they’re small in stature yellow perch are some of the tastiest panfish on the face of the planet. Whether your neck of the woods is about to experience the ice-out or merely a warm-up, yellow perch feed hard as they move into their spawning grounds in both freshwater and brackish rivers. Perch spawn in waters between 40 and 50 degrees, and they become highly concentrated as they stage in pre-spawn areas. Just where they stage during this timeframe varies from fishery to fishery, but as a general rule of thumb simply look for areas with abrupt contour changes, deep holes or weed beds, as these features are near channels just downstream of known spawning areas.
Few offerings are as effective for perch-jerking as a regular old minnow or a 2- to 3-inch shad dart or a tube jig that mimics one. For a killer combination, lip-hook a minnow on a dart.
Fishermen in search of a serious challenge can welcome in spring by facing down the brutish bluefin tuna. You could get a shot at the fish of a lifetime off the Carolina coast this month. These giants may over-winter in these waters or they may not appear until spring; it all depends on how cold it’s been. However, March is usually prime time to find them somewhere between Oregon Inlet and Southport, North Carolina. Fish of several hundred pounds are common. In March of last year a new North Carolina state record was set with an 877-pound bluefin. In 2015, a commercial fisherman brought in a 1,005-pound fish.
The unique thing about this fishery, beyond the sheer size of the quarry, is that the tuna can be targeted with much lighter gear than the 130s and 80s commonly used for giants elsewhere. Because the fish are so concentrated it’s possible to catch them on jigging tackle spooled with powerful braid lines. For this fishery, a 40-class reel spooled with 200-pound braid qualifies as ultra-light gear and presents the ultimate ultra-light challenge.
And here’s a pro tip: Charter a local charter fishing boat instead of using your own. There are dangers associated with being on the waters off North Carolina in the cooler months, as well as ever-shifting inlet channels.
Anglers in this part of the country have enjoyed fishing right through the winter, yet spring is still an exciting time to get your lines in the water. In different areas offshore, March is often a peak month for species like blackfin tuna, sailfish and big dolphin. Tarpon season begins in earnest in the backcountry of the Keys and the flats come alive with permit just prior to their departure for deeper waters to spawn. Snook and cobia fishing heats up along the Gulf coast.
One fishery that gets many anglers excited in March is big blackfin in the Gulf of Mexico. At this time of year specimens of 20 pounds and up—which is quite large for the species—often cluster around shrimp boats and go into an utter frenzy when the shrimpers shovel bycatch over the side. Savvy anglers draw the fish away from the commercial guys and close to their own boats by tossing chum into the water. If your chumming tactic is good, you’ll see dozens of tuna competing to eat your bait the moment it hits the water. These frenzies also offer fly anglers a shot at catching blackfin on the fly.
Spring fisheries are so varied in Florida that it can be challenging for anglers to focus on just a few species. If you want to try something new, there are many guides statewide—the Florida Guides Association lists 170 members from Fernandina Beach through the Keys, and up to Pensacola.
Whether you fish with a guide or with friends from your own boat, there’s plenty of action here at this time of year. But don’t let those first hot bites of spring fool you; this is just a taste of a new fishing season. There are many more bites to come.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.