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MONDAY, MAY 21, 2007
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For saltwater fishing, hit the beach for big day

As school bells begin to silence across North Alabama, many area residents are thinking about summer vacations. And as it is every year, many of those vacations will be spent at my favorite getaway — the Alabama and Florida coast.

Itís clear what some of these vacationers are planning to do, because Iím asked constantly about my knowledge of saltwater fishing.

The most common question I receive is how to fish the Gulf of Mexico from the beach. In years past, I was asked about casting from the Gulf State Park Pier, but Hurricane Ivan took my home-away-from-home fishing pier away from us.

When fishing from the beach, you have to be careful in selecting a bait or lure. Believe it or not, catching a 15-pound jack crevalle, a 10-pound bonita, a 8-pound bluefish or a 50-pound cobia (also known as ling) isnít unusual when fishing from the beach in Alabama and the Northwest panhandle of Florida.

I strongly advise that you use at least light saltwater tackle when using live pinfish, live or dead cigar minnows, live LYís or live crabs for bait. These live baits are favorites for jack crevalle, redfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, bonita, tarpon and even sharks.

Even throwing lures such as large bucktail jigs, ling rigs, 6- to 12-inch or larger crankbaits or other big baitfish and eel imitators can have negative results unless the angler is using saltwater gear.

When casting for the larger species of fish, it is a great idea to stay away from areas where people are going into water. Hooking up with big gamefish can attract sharks. Also, hooking up with big gamefish requires a lot of line. When these fish make a run, you easily could spool out more than 100 yards of line. If the line tangles with people, that can be serious.

When casting from the beach, my favorite techniques are fishing for some of the smaller species that feed in the surf and beyond. A few of the surf species include pompano, ladyfish, croaker, whiting (also called sand or white trout), speckled trout, hardtail, spadefish, pinfish, small bluefish, small Spanish mackerel and even an occasional catfish.

The fishing definitely would have to be slow for me to enjoy catching catfish unless it is a sail cat (big, vertical, dorsal fin). The gafftop-sail cats are sometimes bigger (3 pounds and up) and are considered table food by many. They are not what many call a messy fish, such as a hardhead catfish.

The hardhead cat is smaller (usually less than 2 pounds) and extremely slimy. If you get stuck by one of its fins, youíll experience a lot of pain. The sharp, pointed fins are covered in a poison of sorts, which protects the hardhead from predator fish.

They can lock their fins into position where a fish canít swallow them or a human canít handle them unless he or she is experienced in missing the sharp spines. I suggest using a thick towel when grabbing hold of a hardhead catfish to remove the hook.

As far as baits go, the hardhead and the sail cats will eat just about any edible thing you put in the water. They are well known for their scavenging, much like many shark species. People who actually fish for them normally use cutbait and squid.

Frozen shrimp, which can be bought in most bait and tackle shops or grocery stores, is extremely popular when it comes to catching croaker, whiting, pinfish and at times a small hardtail.

As for the bluefish, ladyfish, Spanish mackerel and larger hardtail, these fish prefer fast-moving lures that imitate a baitfish. For these, I try to throw 2- to 3-inch torpedo jigs (red head/white bucktail), spoons, jerkbaits and crankbaits.

My favorite species to catch from the beach is pompano. These silver bullets put up a great fight and are a delicious table food. Most of the pompano caught are fewer than 3 pounds.

There are lures you can buy in stores, such as bucktail jigs or pompano rigs, to catch the fish, or you can do what I call the fun way to go fishing. Some people use long-handled nets, but I use my hands to catch sand fleas that wash up in the surf. You have to be quick or they will tunnel under the sand or move back into the surf before being caught. After catching them, I put the sand fleas in a small bucket that is partially filled with sand and salt water.

Also on my list of live baits are the smaller-sized white sand crabs that you see running on the beach day and night. Pompano, as well as a few other species, will engulf a sand crab quickly just like they would with a live sand flea.

For me, one of the best things about going after the smaller species is that I use medium/heavy bass fishing tackle, which I already own. Itís nice not having to purchase new equipment to fish from the beach. I normally use 15-pound-test monofilament fishing line, and itís a good idea to use a heavy-test or steel leader as most of saltwater fish you catch have sharp teeth and should be handled carefully.

Finally, be sure to check the local regulations concerning saltwater fishing. For those who are 16 and older, itís a good idea to buy a saltwater fishing license, as law enforcement keeps a close watch on anglers casting from the beach. They also watch the smaller piers and bridges that people fish from.

Donít let something like a court summons for not having a saltwater fishing license ruin your summer vacation.

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Paul Stackhouse
Outdoors
Paul Stackhouse

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