Once again, late December’s cold winds have blown in, dropping water temperatures and requiring anglers to adjust their strategies. Winter fishing can be challenging, but there are opportunities for some excellent action for anglers who adjust their tactics and “think” like a fish.
While there are no magic bullets, awareness of conditions and perseverance can pay dividends when the thermometer plunges.
Popular species including snook, redfish and trout will often concentrate in areas where the surrounding waters are more moderate. Snook, the most sensitive, will migrate to rivers, canals and protected bays where the sun heats seawalls, dark bottom and the surrounding water. Areas where shallow bays and bayous funnel temperate water on afternoon outgoing tides can be particularly productive.
When fishing, pay attention to water that receives the most sun during the day. Sun-warmed areas that are protected from cold winter winds produce conditions that are more desirable to cold-stressed species. The wind moves the water, keeping it from absorbing the sun’s rays. A combination of sun exposure, depth, and the color of the bottom all figure into the warm water equation.
When the weather prevents the sun from moderating water temperatures, look for deeper pockets to harbor fish. The deeper areas warm more slowly, but they also cool more slowly. Channels, holes under big boats in canals, deep potholes on the flats and boat basins are all potential refuges for fish during cold weather. Rivers and creeks are also good sanctuaries, depending on the conditions.
While many local species are negatively affected by the cold water, many, like trout and redfish, have a high tolerance. Others actually thrive on it. The best examples are sheepshead and black drum. These fish, while shunned by some anglers, are hard fighting, challenging to hook, and excellent to eat. Target sheepshead and drum around structure where they feed on barnacles and crustaceans like crabs and shrimp. One way to attract these species is to scrape barnacles from pilings on an outgoing or incoming tide. A small live shrimp or shrimp-tipped jig fished among the “chum” are good options. A small, stout and sharp hook is advised for a sheepshead’s tough mouth. A quick hookset is required for these bait stealers. It’s often said that you need to set the hook a split second before they bite! Tackle sensitive enough to detect their stealth bite is recommended.
Once you find the ideal conditions, remember to slow your presentation. Lures and bait fished slowly, and close to the bottom, will generally draw more strikes than a quick retrieve. If you’re in a promising area make sure you try varying your retrieve before moving on.
Another option for inshore anglers is to slow troll large swimming plugs along inshore ledges in the bay for grouper. Prime spots include areas along the Intracoastal Waterway as well as limestone outcroppings and structure in the Tampa Bay ship’s channel. Use your senses, experiment, be persistent, and you can experience some very good fishing during our cooler winter months.