I have been fishing the Tampa Bay for the last thirty years; it's almost weird saying that because I still don't know where the time has gone. However, I have countless blessed hours on the flats of Tampa Bay, and today I want to share little tidbits that I think could help make your next wade fishing adventure successful. I will be covering everything from wade fishing gear, tackle, and spots. I will also be discussing lure recommendations, live bait setups, and so forth. So hang on and soak up decades of knowledge in a 3000-word article. If you enjoy this content, please like and share. Also, consider subscribing to my fishing YouTube channel here: Fishing Channel
About Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay is Florida's largest open-water estuary expanding more than 400 square miles. Interestingly enough, the bay averages only 11 feet deep, the majority of the deeper cuts are man-made dredged channels. The coastline is full of wade fishing opportunities. Rich grass and sandy potholes give the inshore game an abundance of protection and opportunity. The shoreline also has no shortage of mangrove trees; four types of trees host a wide array of feeder fish, bait, and prey. They are as follows: red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), black mangrove (Avicennia germinans), white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa), and buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus). This article will provide high-quality satellite images pinpointing optimal wade fishing spots that will produce quality catches for many years to come but first, let's touch on some necessary items you will need to get started.
Rod & Reel for Wade Fishing Tampa Bay
There are dozens of excellent rods and reels that you can choose from, and I am not here to tell you any brand is better than the other. However, the setups that I am referring to will work efficiently and have worked for many years. The first rule of wade fishing is to pack LIGHT. I prefer one rod and reel, and this usually consists of a 2500 to 3000 size spinning reel and a 7-foot medium-fast spinning rod. I have been using the Shimano Stradics for what seems to be decades now, and they never let me down. I especially like the newer Shimano Ci4; the lightweight MGL rotor and G-free body make it one of the lightest spinning reels that Shimano has created to date.
Spool the spinning reel with your choice of 10 to 15lb braid, and you will have a finesse setup that can cast to the moon. Not really, but when you equip the reel with a seven or seven in a half-foot fishing rod, you will make a more extended cast that will help cover more water and prevent spooking fish. Just a heads up, I am not affiliated with Shimano in any way; I don't even receive a guide discount. I have also enjoyed the Okuma Helios SX spinning reel; the light carbon frame makes it an ideal product to tote long distances. A cool feature on the Okuma is the Cyclonic flow rotor; the rotor increases airflow beneath and around the rotor to aid in fast-drying if the reel gets wet. The design ultimately helps in preventing corrosion and increasing longevity over the months and years to come.
Wade Fishing Attire
Wade fishing attire for Tampa Bay. What you need and why. I recommend a high-quality long sleeve fishing shirt that will protect you from harmful UV rays. I may be a little biased, but Salty Scales is the way to go; we appreciate your business and support. A good shirt, swim shorts, and wading boots are all that is required to get started in the summer. Winter can be slightly different; water temps vary based on cold fronts, but I would typically recommend a pair of high-quality neoprene waders. I have found the Red's waders at Bass Pro to be affordable and comfortable. They have held up well over the last few seasons, which is a plus. I also like the waders with the boots attached; I am not a big fan of the separated booties personally. Insulated waders will help keep you dry and warm on those frigid days, and yes, you do want to be wade fishing in the cool of the winter. I will be covering why a little later.
I don't want to forget to mention the headwear. A quality fishing hat and polarized sunglasses are essential. One of the benefits of wade fishing is stealth; the opportunity to stalk unsuspecting fish and see them before seeing you is pivotal to your catching success.
Winter Wade Fishing
If you ask anyone who wades the Tampa Bay, most anglers would agree the best time to wade fish is in the cooler months. Negative lows and crystal clear water give the advantages of learning the terrain and sight fishing redfish, snook, and trout in inches of water. The extreme lows allow you to observe areas that hold troughs, oyster beds, and deeper drops. Often, fish are trapped in deeper pockets until the tide pushes back in. What is the old adage? It's like shooting fish in a barrel, and this couldn't be more true. I have to be honest; fishing in the winter is much more pleasurable than in the dog days of summer. Which do you enjoy more? Comment down below.
Start planning your trips on the low tides, mostly the negative lows. The idea is to get out and look for deeper troughs that hold water and setup, be patient. Let the fish come to you because they will. Fish are like all wild game; they take the path of least resistance, and believe it or not, they too can be patterned. The beauty of low water will allow you to see the entrance points but also the fish themselves. The exciting part, tailing redfish, waking fins, and the pure rush of fish moving towards you, looking for their next easy and vulnerable meal. That gets me excited just thinking about it now; I may have to take a quick break and go fishing.
The truth of the matter is, you can read and watch all that you want on the internet, but you will not become a polished fisherman until you get out there and fish the different flats around Tampa Bay or anywhere for that matter. Nothing beats experience, and when I say fish the flat, I mean fish around specific moons, tides, and seasons. Make a fishing journal and take notes of critical details; you will be surprised how they play out the same way with similar conditions. What tide did you fish, wind direction, barometer, was there inclement weather? What many might think to be insignificant details could be the reason you catch your next trophy fish. Mother nature can be the best teacher but be careful because she can also test you in the mightiest ways.
If you have never experienced a school of tailing redfish, it can be life-altering. Meaning it can create a fishing addiction as you have never had. Tampa Bay receives a ton of pressure, but when you escape into the backcountry where you can only get to by foot, the things you can see are astonishing. Not to mention the insatiable connection that you have with mother nature and the elements. Tailing redfish is a shallow water wonder, and sometimes it can make for easy catching. Redfish tail when they stick their head in the mud to feed on crabs and other crustaceans. When doing so, their tails are exposed, and they are easily spotted. It can be a double-edged sword. Remember, when you are fishing this shallow, every little movement can spook fish. If you frighten redfish in shallow water, they can become what we call "Lock Jaw." Slow and subtle cast is often vital to a successful tailing redfish excursion.
Mullet Is Key
A simple way to locate game fish is to find healthy striped mullet schools that swim the shoreline. You have probably heard this a time or two, and it is very accurate. Mullet schools offer the perfect opportunity for redfish, snook, and trout to feel secure in a pack and take advantage of easy meals. The mullet will frequently kick up sediment, crabs, and other easy food sources that redfish and game fish alike cannot resist. It's the perfect camouflage and helps prevent being singled out by larger predator fish. How do you locate the mullet? Look for jumping fish or surface commotion; once you spot them, they are pretty easy to track. If there are NO mullet in the vicinity you are fishing; I would suggest moving until you locate the schools. If you are tossing a fly into mullet schools, don't be alarmed if you hook a mullet. They will consume a fly when presented properly.
You are probably curious as to how you should fish the school of mullet? I like to cast my lure ahead of the school, allowing the fish to swim over my artificial, and then I slowly start my retrieve. This way, it looks like a natural food source, and you don't spook the fish by casting directly into them.
Wade Fishing Safety
Wade fishing is relatively safe, but there are dangers that you need to be aware of in Tampa Bay that can turn a great day into a trip to the ER fast if you are not careful. The most obvious danger is stingrays and the serrated barb that they use as a defense mechanism. There is NO shortage of rays, and Tampa Bay is home to over a dozen species. The ones that pose the most danger to wade fisherman include:
- Southern Stingray (Dasyatis Americana) The southern ray is one of the enormous rays you may encounter, with a wingspan of four to five feet and can weigh up to 200 pounds. Their barb is massive and can inflict a serious if not a deadly wound.
- Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis Sabina) The Atlantic stingray is considerably smaller and poses much less of a threat, with a maximum wingspan of two feet. The Atlantic stingray is typically brown, nonaggressive but they still have a poisonous barb that can cause damage if stung. They prefer to linger around coastal water, lagoons and estuaries.
- Bluntnose Stingray (Dasyatis say) The bluntnose ray is very common in Tampa Bay; I see them by the dozens when wading. They are typically much smaller but can grow to three feet wide. They have a very distinctive blunt nose, hence the name. They, too, are nonaggressive.
Now that you're familiar with the more common ray that you will likely stumble into, how do you make sure your interaction is a safe and pleasant one? Have you ever heard of the stingray shuffle? Slowly and gradually move your feet across the ocean floor while quietly shuffling your feet, especially in deeper water where water clarity is obscure.
You also have to pay attention to sharks, Tampa Bay is loaded with sharks, and we have an array of different species, including the Bull shark, blacktip, bonnethead, and hammerhead sharks, to name a few. Short storytime. One trip, I was wading out near the Little Manatee river's mouth, and I had a stringer full of fish, trout, and redfish. I was having a fantastic morning, and the bite was on fire. I was primarily throwing a D.O.A Shrimp and topwater on that particular morning. However, near the end of my trip, I caught another stud trout that I decided to keep. I pulled in my stringer to find that all of my fish bodies were eaten. All I had remaining was the heads of my fish. I knew it was a smaller shark, but it still made me very uneasy knowing something was feasting on my fish four feet from my leg, and I never even knew it. From then on, I make sure to let out plenty of rope to keep my fish from my legs. I also try and wade clearer water so that I can keep a better eye on my surroundings. Make sure you stay aware out there.
Where to Wade Fish Tampa Bay
Okay, this is the part you have probably been waiting for, but I will share some locations that make fantastic wading spots yer around. I will also include aerial photos indicating why they hold fish. Be sure to pay attention because this information is the information you typically can only obtain by going and adventuring yourself.
Map of Great Wading Spots in Tampa Bay
Here is a map key showing you four excellent wade fishing locations that have produced for me for many years. I will dissect each spot and show you why they are significant fishing areas, and hopefully, this will help you in your search for your next honey hole.
1. North Skyway Flat
The north skyway flat has been a long time productive area to wade fish, and it is home to dozens of species. As you can see in the diagram, a man-made channel runs along the flat. If you head north, you have the bridge, and if you head south, you run into the pier and rock piles. The flats themselves are abundant with grass and sea life. The potholes are very vivid and easily spotted. The shoreline is loaded with rocks to protect the road and is home to sheepshead, snook, and flounder. Redfish sit and wait in the grass. Don't be surprised if you bump into tarpon, pompano, sharks, or cobia. The rich water that flows from the Gulf brings an abundance of baitfish that attract larger gamefish.
2. Mule Key Flat
The Mule Key flat is a great spot because it is easily accessible and has many different structures you can target. The pocket that you are greeted with is relatively deep, especially on high tide. In the winter, this is a fantastic spot to locate fish on the negative lows. You can fish the mangrove trees for sunbathing redfish or moving to the expansive open grass flat for trout, snook, and redfish. I also like that you can wade to the deeper channel surrounded by docks. Fish love the security and call the structure home. It is ubiquitous in the winter months to catch grouper along with snook, so you may need to beef up the tackle. The water visibility is crystal clear in the winter months, making it an excellent location for sight casting. I have had great success with live shrimp on a popping cork in this area. Fish the edges of potholes, and you will locate fish.
3. Piney Point
I love Piney Point; you can drive right up to the shoreline and, within minutes be catching quality inshore fish. The water is always very clear, and the bottom has an abundance of healthy sea life. Just out from the road, you will see the remnants of what used to be an old bridge or concrete structure. This structure holds sheepshead, snook, redfish, and tarpon in the deeper holes. It also makes for a great spot to snorkel or spearfish. To the right of the road, you will see a residential dock. Off the dock, there is a nice oyster bed that holds redfish and sheepshead on high tide. The grass is abundant and healthy; some of my largest trout to date have come from that flat. Look for the grass edge and throw your favorite artificial or live shrimp. I like the variety of structures given at this location—Fish the rubble, potholes, the port-channel, or just the underwater structure. I have found that you want to really be cautious of broken glass; unfortunately, there are imbeciles that frequent the area, and they trash the spot. It's a shame because people that do this could put this spot in jeopardy of closing. Let's all try and do our part to keep Tampa Bay pristine, it needs improving, and we can do it collectively.
4. Picnic Island
Picnic Island is an awesome area for wade and shore fishermen. Take a right on Interbay Blvd from S. Westshore and follow the signs to the park. This spot allows you to fish between the park and Macdill Airforce base, which has a plethora of great fishing. You can fish the piers, the flats, the rocks, or the deeper channel of the port. You can catch pretty much all inshore species here. I think the most productive area is the South end flats and cuts, the slough between Picnic and MacDill, and the west side grass and sand. It can get crowded with waders and yaks, but it still produces regularly.
Overall, these four locations can definitely get you started wade fishing Tampa Bay, but it is up to you to get out there and put the time in. The more time, the more you learn, and the more you catch! Here is a video of a little Tampa Bay Wade fishing we did not too long ago; if you are new to wade fishing and don't know what to expect, this might shed some light on what you are getting into. I will work on putting together a more informative wade video that I will post soon on my YouTube channel. Be sure to subscribe and interact. Have questions? Don't hesitate to comment below or on the YouTube page. I enjoy teaching and try to respond at my earliest convenience.