Extraordinary Fun Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico

  • Fishing sunrise to noon, we caught 8 species of saltwater fish, and well over 150 fish total, as a 3-man group.
  • Captain Terry Heller, Fish-On Sportfishing Charters, was savvy, funny, and deadly serious about having fun – we laughed a lot out there! So good for our pandemic souls!
  • We experimented with Circle-hooks vs. J-hooks. The circle-hooks hooked and landed fish 80% more effectively…a lesson for all.
Vietnam Veteran, Randy Baugus, retired minister from Burlington, KY, with a hard-fighting Gag Grouper that was released to swim another day.

By Forrest Fisher

It was dark when I left the house in Port Charlotte, Florida. The stars were spectacular, gleaming brightly above, but there was a warm orange glow on the eastern horizon, the sun was about to rise, suggesting a nice, warm February day – a sunscreen day. A great winter day.

About 30 minutes later – it was 6:25 a.m., I joined the right-hand turn signal line to enter the Placida Boat Launch area, a state park-like zone with a boat launch, ice-filling station, and restroom facilities that can accommodate about 100 cars and boat trailers. There is a frozen bait and live bait tackle shop (Eldred’s Marina) right next door, wonderfully convenient for boaters and anglers heading for Gasparilla Island shore fishing spots.

Affable Captain Randy Heller, Fish-On Sportfishing Charters, with another  nice porgy we caught, a tasty fish for the table.

Not long later, I met my fishing guide for the day, Captain Terry Heller of Fish-On Charter Sport Fishing, an ever-friendly source of fishing knowledge. He made catching fish easy and fun and seemingly transparent – like you’ve had the necessary skills all along, even with newbies and veteran anglers alike – young and old, no matter. Onboard, I met 70-years-young Randy Baugus from Burlington, Kentucky, a minister and Vietnam veteran, and his brother-in-law, 78-year-old Gary Barnes, originally from Columbus, Ohio, but now a happy southwest Florida native who is enjoying his retirement years in the Sunshine State.

Captain Terry started up his nearly silent 225Hp Yamaha as the wide, spacious and sturdy 24-ft Polar (fiberglass boat) gently idled away from the dock. As we moved into Lemon Bay toward the Boca Grande Causeway Bridge, a bald eagle showed her head on one of the nearby island treetop nests. The tide was at a complete low as we came up to plane in the channel in Gasparilla Pass.

With Captain Terry using the navigational GPS map technology onboard, he marked safe passage for us. It wasn’t long before we were at 35 mph cruising speed on the way to secret offshore spots that Heller has identified over his years of local fishing here. About 20 minutes later, we slowed, shore was no longer visible, and after making a few circles into an area seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Heller dropped a marker buoy for boat position reference. Settling his electric motor into the water (with a 7-foot long shaft), he used blue-tooth technology to move away from the buoy toward one of three spots that we would eventually fish. All of them were within 200 yards of the brightly colored marker. “The marker is for letting others know that this is our fishing area for the moment. Other guys usually honor the courtesy of staying away from your fishing zone,” he said that with a half-smile.

Heller opened up two of his three live bait wells to show us that if we wanted to keep any fish, they could go in there and that he would let us know what fish was legal and what was not. “Now for the fun, guys!” He passed out a fully-rigged rod for each of us with a small bucket of cut-bait ready to rig. The rods were 7-ft long and were equipped with open-face Penn fishing reels. The 30-pound test braid mainline was attached to a 2-ounce egg sinker, then an 18-inch long leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader, and a size 3/0 or 4/0 circle hook.

Randy Baugus with the second Remora that we caught that day, a nice 25 inch specimen. Remora usually are attached to the skin a shark. We released the fish to find a new shark buddy down below.

Heller is a happy sort of guy as he quipped, “Now guys, listen, you’re gonna catch a lot of fish out here, so if you get tired of reeling ’em in, don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of beverages onboard, and you can rest up.” We all looked at each other and sort of rolled our eyes a bit. Randy said, “Sounds like your pretty confident Captain!” Gary said, “I wanna drop my line.” A moment later, Heller showed us how to slide the cut baits onto the hook. He rigged all the lines for us.

“The water is 48-feet deep here, guys, so it won’t take too long for your baits to reach the bottom. When they do, reel up two turns or so and watch closely for a bite. When you get one, start reeling to set the hook. One more thing, there is one rule on board here, for good luck, you gotta yell, FISH-ON! You all know that’s the name of my charter. It’s for a good reason.  Our adrenalin flow talks to the fish!”

About 10 seconds later, Randy hollered,” FISH-ON!” His rod enjoyed a healthy bend toward the water. A few moments later, Gary shouted, “FISH-ON!” Before both lines were not yet in the boat when I, too, shouted out the same. A 3-Fer! Half-giggling and laughing a bit, Captain Terry said, “Are we having fun yet?!” We all agreed.

We moved around to a few other fishing zones on the bottom. They were configured sort of like the moon surface with craters and high points, next to cavernous hollows a few feet deeper around the crater edges. “The fish come out of those little holes down there to test your baits. They’re always hungry out here in this secret place.”

Gary Barnes, originally from Columbus, OH, is now a Florida resident and enjoys fishing in his retirement years. He released this small grouper.

We moved to other spots a few times, and in each location, we caught at least 50 fish among the three of us.

The live wells were getting crowded with good-eating reef fish. These included Porgy, Squirrel Perch, and some Key West Grunts., some were nearly 2-pounds each. We also caught Blowfish, Remora, Gag Grouper, Red Grouper, and Spottail Snapper. My shoulders and arms were getting sore as Heller said, “C’mon guys, let’s reel up and go try one more spot where there might be some bigger snapper and grouper.

About 10-minutes later, we motored northward, we arrived about 1/2 mile from the 9-mile reef. The electric motor came down, and we were fishing. Wham! “FISH-ON! Randy hollered. A few seconds later, Gary screamed out too, then me. Four hours into our trip, it had been a fantastic day on the water. The sea was smooth, the water so clear, and the fish were definitely biting.

Our cut baits consisted of octopus, shrimp, squid, and sardines. All of these worked.  One of the cool things about fishing with Heller, his charter – Fish-On Sport Fishing, provides all the licenses, all the gear, and all the bait you need. Plus, you are welcome to keep your catch, and Heller will clean and fillet it for you. Maybe the most significant part not mentioned with “things provided” is Heller’s precision savvy about where to drop your line. That part is priceless!

Happiness is! Fishing dreams are made for days like this. I met new friends, caught lots of fish, laughed for about 5-hours! So fun. We released this small, hard-fighting grouper. Terry Heller Photo.

As we motored back to the Placida boat launch, it was 1:30 p.m., and the air temp was 87 degrees. A slight sunburn on all of our faces, I joked to Gary, “Pinch me, I think I miss shoveling my driveway back home in East Aurora, NY.” He groused back, “Yea, me too, NOT! I love it down here.”

Captain Heller asked us to follow him back to his nearby home, and he cleaned 81 keepers. It was probably about 1/3 of the number of fish we actually landed, as we had to release all the short gag grouper and red grouper. We had caught dozens of them—an excellent sign for the future of Florida fishing. We split ’em up, and there is only one or two choice words for the meal that followed later at my home. Scrumptious! Delicious!

There is nothing quite like a fresh caught fish fry! My better half does these up with four, egg and crushed crackers coked in olive oil…healthy!

I fell asleep that night with my ears ringing a bit. It was that tune from earlier in the day…”Fish On!” Can’t wait for the next time out. To fish with Captain Heller yourself, you can check schedules and open dates at: Fishing Booker.com 

Shark Teeth, Beach Treasure for Fun in the Sun…from Ancient times

  • HOW and WHERE to find them ON THE BEACH – 5 Methods
  • Shark Teeth found on the beach are fossilized – 10,000 to 15 million years old!
  • Back to the Future…fun on the beaches at Manatee Key in Southwest Florida
Southwest Florida beach shark teeth are found in all colors and sizes, drawing the attention of beachgoers from near and far. Forrest Fisher Photo

By Forrest Fisher
There are shark teeth to be found all over the world.  If you are looking for a great place to spend the day frolicking in the Gulf of Mexico, lying in the sun, taking a long walk at water’s edge and looking for the treasure of fossilized shark teeth, here are a few tips on what, where, and how.

Shark Teeth are a precious authentic prize for vacationing visitors to Southwest Florida.  You can find them on your own, it’s fun, and it’s the best excuse to RE-VISIT the beaches…”TREASURE!”  If you are new to shark tooth treasure hunting, here is some advice on gear, methods to use, and places to go.

Gear: For first-timers that want to stay very affordable, visit a local store to buy a (noodle strainer) colander ($1-$3).  If you want to spend a bit more, visit a local beach store to purchase a “sand flea scooper” with ¼ inch mesh ($10-$20). Folks use the colander or sand flea scoopers to scoop the surf for shark teeth. Of course, you can also just pick up shark teeth when you see them at the top of the surf on the beach with your bare hands. Lastly, carry an empty prescription jar or plastic bag to store your shark teeth as you continue the hunt.  Now you’re set.

Finding Shark Teeth – 5 Methods:

  • Method 1: The Surf Line. Keep it simple, put your sunscreen on, keep your head down, and just saunter along the surf line, where the waves hit the beach, being careful not to bump into any beachgoers doing the same thing going in the other direction. Remember, keep your head down!
    Shark teeth, seashells, sunshine, and gentle surf offer appeal and fun for all age groups.

    The usually black-color shark teeth are easily and clearly visible as they sort of pop-up in the firm sand. Each wave can bring more than one, at times. Just pick them up and add them to your collection bag, usually a small sealable plastic bag or an old plastic medicine bottle.

  • Method 2: The Storm Line. If you look along the beach between the tall marsh grass to the water’s edge, you will note that there is a distinct line of demarcation where the sand sort of changes texture and composition. You will usually see a collection of millions of small shells here too, yes, right in the middle of the beach, parallel to the waterline. There are tons of shark teeth here. You might not be the first to search, so look around for a 10 by 10-foot area that appears to be untouched. Drop your picnic blanket down, open up your lawn chairs, put up your portable beach umbrella, and set your cooler down.
    Amidst the thousands of feet of the shell lines to be found on nearly every Manasota Key beach, look closely at this photo, there are treasured shark teeth!

    The sound of the surf will put you to sleep as you sift the sand “down the line” of your intended search area. My family and usually do this and find about 100 teeth per beach visit. As we talk about life, listen to the sea birds in constant chatter too, we enjoy a cool beverage and thank the good Lord for this blessing of a sunny day at the beach…with shark teeth.

  • Method 3: The Chair Line. My shark tooth collection expert friends, Tim and Jeanie Snyder, internationally infamous and brazenly simple in their shark tooth-finding process, they are extremely efficient and prefer this method to find beach teeth by the hundred. Bring your own or rent a shallow height beach chair. Walk to the water’s edge, now look left and look right. Find a little feature point of sand that sort of sticks out along the usually long and straight beach line. Go there. Set your chair in the surf line on either side of this point and about 3-feet or so into the water. You’re about to get wet (feels so good). Use your hands, a small screen scooper, a colander, or a little minnow net with an extension handle. Put your sunglasses on, keep your eyes open and watch for the shark teeth with each wave. You might find many dozens per hour this way, fresh from the sea!
  • Method 4: The Snorkel/Mask Line. Don your snorkel and mask, walk out 20 to 40 feet from the beach sand and you’ll note a sort of “deep spot” before it starts to get shallower as you continue to walk out. Go back to the trench, this is the “shark tooth trench!” If the water is clear and not too wavy, walk-swim-float, and search the bottom. You’ll often see multiple sets of teeth laying right there for the picking. Shells too. This method can be very productive when the waves are soft and small.
  • Method 5: the EASY WAY – Shark Art Online. Even if you are happy with what you collected, or maybe your trip was cancelled, if you want a perfect collection of shark teeth for vacation talking-moments at your next family gathering, consider this: You can buy assorted shark teeth collections or buy shark tooth art, fully supplied in a small kit for very little money. Prices for simple shark teeth package assortments vary from $3 (for 30 teeth and a free shark tooth necklace) to about $15, based on size and number of shark teeth. The shark art kits vary from $10 to $20 plus shipping – these are 5 x 7 and 8 x 10-inch art, respectively, and are awesome. Each of the art kits is all-inclusive with the shark teeth, artboard (complete with the profile where you glue the teeth), and directions. These kits are inexpensive and make an awesome gift.
    Tim Snyder, the Shark Art Guy, in his favorite shark-tooth treasure hunting place, the Peace River, 25 to 50 miles from where it enters the Gulf of Mexico.

    Visit this link to order direct: https://www.ebay.com/str/sharkteethandsharkartbyclark or email sharkartbyclark@gmail.com. If you become a repeat customer with three orders of $50 or more, Snyder will offer an invitation to you for a day of collecting teeth and fossils (get your Florida fossil permit, the cost is $5) on the Peace River (Tim reminds each guest that there are no guarantees on weather, water conditions, water level, how many teeth or fossils are collected and, of course, he is not responsible for any accidents or injuries. You are invited as a friend taking a friend to the river.) I did this trip! Under Tim’s direction of the process, Tim’s shovel and Tim’s sifter in hand, I collected 386 teeth in 5 hours! These are perfect teeth, no rounded edges from the surf. Unreal! It was such fun!

Where to find Shark Teeth – 1 Florida Key, 4 Beaches:

Shark tooth hunters of all sizes, young and old, head for the beach to find prehistoric treasure. Not everyone is successful but study the methods outlined here to learn shark tooth hunting options for your success.

Manasota Key is an long island-like land mass near Port Charlotte, Florida, that offers four popular shark tooth hunting beach spots. All of them are among favorites for locals and visitors alike, and include (north to south): Manasota Beach Park, Blind Pass Beach Park, Englewood Beach, and Stump Pass State Park.

Large and small shark teeth are a common find on the beach. The lightly worn edges of the shark teeth found on the beach is common, this wear is from the rolling wave action. All shark teeth are a treasure.

There is no fee or toll to enter Manasota Key on the north bridge or the south bridge that crosses Lemon Bay.

  • Manasota Key Beach, located at the north end of Manasota Key, offers easy access to the Gulf of Mexico and Lemon Bay (bay side), has free parking (6 a.m. – midnight), is not usually over-crowded and like so many Florida Gulf beaches, offers that perfect orange-sky sunset. The facility building offers changing rooms and restrooms, multiple beach access points to the ocean, squeaky-clean sand, there are often lots of sharks teeth and even more tranquility here.
  • Blind Pass Beach, also known as Middle Beach, offers access to the Gulf and to Lemon Bay, more than ½ mile of beach frontage, a hiking trail through the mangrove forest on the bayside, and a fishing dock.
    A good day on the shark tooth treasure hunt! 

    We have never found less than 50 shark teeth here during a day at this beach. Great spot, relaxing, quiet, wonderful. Changing and restroom facility here too, free parking (6 a.m. – midnight).

  • Englewood Beach, with Chadwick Park, is a favorite for residents and visitors, clear water and frequent blue skies bring kids of all ages here to go shelling and shark tooth hunting for hours on end. Life is all about “beach therapy” when visiting Florida. If you are thirsty, there is a little Volkswagen Bus business stand near the changing facility that offers tasty smoothies – they’re delicious! If you need food, walk across the street and choose from several walk-in restaurants. Eat, drink, and go back to the beach. Parking at Englewood is by parking pay stations (very reasonable/hr), open 6 a.m. – 9 p.m., they accept credit cards. There is a large changing and restroom facility here.
  • Stump Pass Beach State Park, our personal favorite shark tooth place. Open 8 a.m. – sundown, it’s located at the southernmost end of Manasota Key where visitors will find one mile of Gulf beach where seashells and shark teeth are wash ashore.
    If you had trouble finding shark teeth, there is one easy cure.  Try one of these Shark art kits, they include the shark teeth, artboard, and directions, are inexpensive, and make an awesome gift. Visit https://www.ebay.com/str/sharkteethandsharkartbyclark.

    Anglers can fish the surf too and there are lots of shark teeth here for everyone. It’s not a bad idea to arrive early and get one of the 60 or so parking spots. Cost is $3 for the day, bring the exact change, the park rangers are not allowed to make change. At least there is a fair system in place to wait for a spot to open. They have two lines, one to exit and one to wait for a spot to open up. We have never waited more than 20 minutes. The really good part about this beach is that the water is very close to the parking lot. Visitors come to this secluded beach to enjoy the year-round swimming and sun-soaking. Shelling and finding shark teeth in the wave wash is excellent during the winter months. A hiking trail with Lemon bay on one side and the Gulf on the other passes through five distinct natural eco-communities that provide a home for many species of wildlife; covered picnic tables are located along the trail. Visitors can launch a kayak and paddle around the two islands just east of the park land base. While at the park, watch dolphins, manatees, gopher tortoises, snowy egrets, terns, and many species of sea birds. Ranger-led nature hikes are on the calendar during winter months. There are stand-up paddleboard and kayak rentals, lessons, and guided boat tours here too.

At all of these beaches, the intra-coastal waterway side of the parks offers a diverse network of mangroves, marsh grass, many species of birds (more than 150), many species of fish (more than 200). It’s perfect for fishing, kayaking, birding, and wading. The Gulf-side of the parks offers sand, surf, sunshine, seashells, and lots of shark teeth.

The “Fish Coach” shares HOW-to-CATCH Saltwater Sheepshead – a Winter Fishing Delicacy

  • Fish close to structure: bridges, piers, docks
  • Sight feeders: use live or frozen bait – shrimp, clam strips, fiddler crabs
  • Gear: Open-face reel, sturdy rod, braided line, fluorocarbon leader
Everyone would like to know how to fish better, it’s just that not every vacation place offers a Fish Coach service.

By Forrest Fisher

When winter anglers from all across the United States travel to southwest Florida, they find sun, sand, warmth, and one fish species that is in abundance: saltwater sheepshead. These “pretty fish” keep close to bridge abutments, boat docks, fishing piers and similar in-water structure along saltwater harbors and canals of the Gulf Coast, and other places.

The sheepshead arrive close to shore in good numbers as the waters chill with the season (mid-60 water temps), they feist on shrimp, clams, blue crabs and other crustacean forage forms. This fish species is usually hungry, though they can be finicky. Sheepshead are a delicacy for table fare and that makes them a favored target for winter retirees, visitors, and local anglers alike.

One local celebrity angler, Josh Olive, also known as the “Fish Coach,” often makes time in his busy schedule to teach others how to catch fish, where to go, what to do and how to do it, all the while courteously sharing necessary details for folks to understand pertinent conservation issues, size limits and local ecology concerns. This gentleman has a lifetime of stories and expertise to share and is the editor of a widely popular weekly fishing magazine of The Charlotte Sun-News called the “WaterLine.” This issue is published weekly on Thursdays and can be ordered from anywhere in the country, it is complete with fishing tips and chef recipes from the sea.

Josh Olive, the “Fish Coach,” provides finny details about the tasty Sheepshead at a recent fishing club seminar in Port Charlotte, FL.

During a recent visit to the retirement community of Kingsgate in Port Charlotte, FL, I had the pleasure to listen to a seminar and learn from Josh during a monthly meeting of the Kingsgate Fishing Club. Following a colorful introduction by Charter Captain Tom Marks, the humble and direct manner of Josh Olive held the attention of every visitor in attendance. If you are a winter visitor to the Port Charlotte (Florida) area you can meet and talk with Josh yourself on any Saturday night at Fish’n Frank’s Tackle Shop, where he joins the work crew. Here is a summary of what Josh shared with us.  Go get ’em!

Topic: Fishing for Saltwater Sheepshead – Where, When, What, How…with the Fish Coach – Josh Olive

Short description: The Sheepshead is a visual food hunter. They are bottom feeders to be found close to near-shore structure such as docks, piers, and bridge abutments, as well as land-related reefs up to about 40’ deep. Sheepshead have human-like teeth with incisors and molars and actually look like human teeth. That means they can cut your line without too much difficulty.

Not many folks can share it all like this, but seminar goers learned details of lure to line hookup, lure to bait tactics, when to fish, where to go and how to be successful.

Methods: Spinning rods, 7ft, medium w/30 series or 40 series ope-face Penn reels, or equivalent. Use bait, live or frozen, can use jigheads (1/4-3/8 oz depending on current flow strength), Poor Man’s Jig (Size 4 hook w/large bb-shot) or Porgy Rig (double dropper loop for one hook and one sinker, 1-3 oz).

Line: 10-20 lb braid (Power Pro) mainline and 25-30 lb fluorocarbon leader, though when water is very clear and fish are spooky with a high mid-day sun, downsize fluoro to 15 lb or so. Use TG knot or double Uni-knot from the leader to the mainline attachment. Braid color: no preference in reality, but to help angler sight, use a bright color green or yellow. Leader length: about 6 feet or so.

Above, the standard jig head to live shrimp rig commonly used for sheepshead fishing.

Baits: Shrimp (frozen pieces or live), clam bits, red wigglers (worms), fiddler crabs (a good option when fishing in a heavily fished area), and Berkeley Bish Bites (pink/white color, E-Z clam flavor or E-Z shrimp flavor, both work -cut to ½” pieces, put 3 on a bare hook or jig head).

The correct way to hook up a live fiddler crab, a tricky process, but they work to fool and catch saltwater sheepshead where there is heavy angler traffic. 

Specific Places to fish: In southwest Florida, the Venice Jetty may be the best place for shore fishing. Casperson State Park rock jetties are only just ok, at times, Peace River docks are good, not so good when going upriver to Navigator Bar area. To fish rock jetty areas, use a poor man’s jig head with a float set 2-4 feet above the bait. Offshore-nearshore reefs such as Cape Hayes and Trembley are also excellent.

Times of Day: Middle of the day seems best for Sheepshead fishing

Advice: Get away from lines and rigs with beads, swivels, hardware, is spooky to fish these days, too many anglers in short, spook the fish.

Edibility: Very good, delicacy. Crustacean and blue crab eaters are usually tasty fish to eat. Can fillet, though fillet method will leave lots of delicious meat on the carcass. Better to use whole fish and simply gut the fish, remove the gills, boil, remove the meat on a platter as in a restaurant platter style. Or use the meat and boiled water residue from this method to make chowder, fish soup or fish bouillon.

Two common methods to hook frozen shrimp tails with a plain hook, commonly used with the Poor Man’s Porgy Rig (double loop knot rig).

Rules/Reg’s: See syllabus, but in Port Charlotte County general area, the minimum size is 12 inches and 8/person/day, or if in a boat, 50 fish boat limit max for any number of persons.