While the winter season is settling in and anglers are becoming accustomed to fewer days on the water, there’s a group of die-hards that can’t get enough. These salts aren’t scared of a stiff breeze and they don’t care how rough the ocean gets. You see, with 663 miles of beaches and easy access to fishing piers statewide, Florida’s strong-willed shore bound anglers have incredible access to numerous species of hard-fighting, great tasting game fish that routinely feed only feet from dry sand. Better yet, it’s likely you’ll spend less than $20 for a rewarding day of fishing. And don’t for one second think that surf fishing and pier hopping is reserved for boatless anglers because we’ve fished elbow to elbow with charter boat skippers and serious tournament competitors.
No matter where you fish and what species you choose to target you must remember there’s nothing more valuable than local knowledge. There are no charts or modern fishing gadgets that can keep up with the ever-changing distribution of sand, so if you’re unfamiliar be sure to talk to area tackle shops and those working bait houses on piers. Even the smallest local tip can make a big difference. You should also keep your eyes on the most successful anglers and try to spark up conversation. If the seasoned salts are reluctant to divulge any valuable intel just try and mimic what they are doing. There are however many anglers around the state that are happy to share accurate reports and informative tips. If you’re looking to get tight this winter, there’s no better season to stroll your local beaches and fishing piers for rewarding action with drum, sharks, mackerel, pompano, bluefish, whiting, croaker and more.
Before you post up and start fishing you’ll want to scout out a plot of sand that has a pronounced trough between the first sandbar and shorebreak.
Often nervous and unpredictable, pompano are considered a delicacy and can be found cruising sandy, sloping shorelines as they hunt the stirred sediment for exposed crustaceans and mollusks. Cooler waters of the fall and winter provide exciting shore bound opportunities and schooling pompano can be found throughout the entire state as they forage the shallowest waters. Polarized sunglasses and ideal lighting angles will enable anglers to see the structure and formation of sandbars and exposed reef along area beaches—perched atop a pier and you’ll have even greater visibility. Before you post up and start fishing you’ll want to scout out a plot of sand that has a pronounced trough between the first sandbar and shorebreak. This is where pompano will be hunting and often times they can be seen right along the shoreline as they flicker sideways while foraging in the trough.
Technical Tips: Ideal conditions exist with small swells that stir the water. Gin clear water puts pompano on edge, although extremely poor visibility will make it hard for your offerings to get noticed.
While rip currents are dangerous for swimmers, pompano often race through these areas of disturbed water to snatch disoriented prey. Formed when water rushes from the beach out to sea through a narrow cut in the sandbar, rip currents can be incredibly fishy.
Early morning high tides are ideal, with the high water creating a pronounced pompano highway in the first trough and the low light conditions taking the edge off spooky pomps.
Rig It Right: Pink and yellow Doc Goofy, swivel jigs and small bucktails look like sand fleas tumbling in the surf so you’ll want to mimic the action with a lightweight spinning rod. A light action, 7½ foot spinning outfit loaded with 10 lb. braid lets anglers comfortably work jigs with short, precise hops.
A two-hook dropper rig baited with fresh shrimp, clams or sand fleas is best fished on an 8- to 10-foot surf rod spooled with 20 lb. monofilament. The lengthy rod enables anglers to cast well beyond the first trough when fish are holding outside the bars.
Hot Spots: Destin East Pass Jetty, New Smyrna Beach, Juno Beach Pier
Blacktip Shark, Bull Shark & Lemon Shark
Evoking a sense of fear in the minds of those familiar with Shark Week, the apex predators many think are out for blood are simply misunderstood. Each year sharks migrate along the coast as baitfish and predators search for warmer waters to ride out the winter. Some municipalities have ordinances against shark fishing so be sure to make sure you aren’t breaking any laws. Although shark fishing is often blamed for shark attacks and an increase in their presence, sharks are already here feeding in local waters and anglers are simply capitalizing on incredible shore bound angling opportunities. While shark fishing is exciting, it’s important you fish stretches of sand that lack beachgoers and lifeguards.
Technical Tips: Unless offshore winds enable you to float baits to the zone, a kayak or SUP will make deploying baits beyond the break a breeze.
Fresh bait is crucial, with barracuda, kingfish, bonito, mullet, ladyfish, whiting and bluefish all providing an oily slick and eliciting intense strikes.
Target your efforts along isolated beaches within the vicinity of a pier or pass.
Rig It Right: For smaller sharks and casting scenarios anglers can keep fights sporty with offshore spinning outfits. Circle-hooks and wire leaders are essential.
When you want to soak larger baits for monster sharks Penn 6/0s, or even larger conventional reels, are often employed. Here you can either pin a bait to the bottom with a pyramid sinker or keep it higher in the water column suspended beneath a balloon.
Hot Spots: Mexico Beach, Bonito Beach, Lake Worth
Bluefish & Spanish Mackerel
Marauding unsuspecting baitfish schools and leaving nothing but scales in their wake, ravenous bluefish and Spanish mackerel migrate through Florida waters as cooler temperatures settle in to the north. Along area beaches, piers and passes you should be able to easily locate these toothy predators, with diving birds, disturbed water and showering baits divulging their location. Some of the most convenient action takes place around passes that connect bait rich inshore shallows with the open ocean. This fishery is straightforward and doesn’t require sophisticated gear or years of experience. When you see the action going off you need to be ready to capitalize and this can be accomplished by having multiple rods rigged and ready to go. If you break off or catch a fish and need to re-rig simply grab another rod and get back to work.
Technical Tips: Unlike pompano that are dependent on water quality and conditions, Spanish mackerel and bluefish aren’t turned off by green, turbid water that lacks visibility.
Anglers fishing from piers must work their lures all the way back to the pilings. Many strikes come close so don’t give up early.
During periods of moving water tide lines form near inlet mouths and can be targeted from area jetties. Look for the best action on the beginning stages of tidal movements.
Rig It Right: While Spanish and blues have sharp teeth, you should opt for 40 lb. monofilament leader. Wire will save your lures, but mono will elicit many more strikes.
When fishing live baits, long shank hooks protect from cut-offs and further eliminate the need for highly visible wire.
Hot Spots: Stuart, Sanibel Pier, St. Petersburg
Red Drum & Black Drum
Fishing for drum along the shoreline is a longstanding tradition for many Floridians, with the cooling waters making for red-hot action. Most anglers agree redfish are much more impressive over black drum, although both make for impressive opponents. Surf casters can find drum along stretches of beach with points and sandbars, steep edges and small run outs. What these structures have in common is their ability to alter the current and disorient forage. Success lies in your ability to read the beach and distinguish between various formations in the sand. With a bit of knowledge you’ll have a much greater comprehension of what it takes to reach consistent success compared to hit or miss action.
Technical Tips: Since feeding activity occurs on the bottom the common goal no matter your approach is to keep your bait in the strike zone.
Shrimp, blue crab and clam are the best offerings. While you can set multiple rods in sand spikes and wait for a bite, be sure you are aware of other anglers in the vicinity.
It’s crucial you are able to identify the dynamics of the surf zone. Look for uniformity in waves, with slight differences signaling changes in bottom contour.
Rig It Right: When juvenile drum are common catches a double hook dropper rig is effective, although many choose to focus on one large bait with a fish finder rig.
Along the surf and off piers black drum rarely strike artificials, but redfish can be enticed with flair hawk jigs and diving plugs that penetrate the depths.
Hot Spots: Navarre Pier, St. George Island, Sebastian Inlet
Whiting & Croaker
Arguably the most common encounters along the surf no matter your location, whiting and croaker are fairly easy to tempt and make for great opponents on light tackle. These aren’t tackle testers and a two-pounder is a solid catch, but what they lack in size they more than make up for with tenacity and availability. When fishing natural baits it’s important you keep the line tight so you can detect a subtle strike. Make careful observations of the wave action and learn how to read the sandbars. Higher tidal stages offer the best action, as lower tides suck water from the first trough to the point where it may be too shallow to fish. If you really want some insight go to the beach at low tide and look for small channels and run outs that form with tidal swings. Return at high tide and you can expect consistent action.
Technical Tips: Small pieces of clam and peeled shrimp are the best offerings. If you’re missing bites scale down the hooks on your dropper loop rig.
Whiting tend to school in the first trough, so if you catch one there are likely more fish in the area.
Don’t make the mistake of casting too far. Whiting are often only a few feet from shore as they forage along the churned up surf.
Rig It Right: With advanced techniques often unnecessary to put together a solid catch, lightweight casting rods are all that’s needed. Whiting will occasionally strike jigs, but natural baits with scent are much more effective.
The previously mentioned dropper loop rig is effective, but a fish finder rig can also do the trick. Light leaders, small circle-hooks and light weights keep the presentation natural.
Hot Spots: Playalinda Beach, Amelia Island, Panama City