Winter Wonderland

Falling Temps Set The Stage For Sizzling Light Tackle Action

Capt. Steve Dougherty January 29, 2014

Compared to many regions of the country where snow, ice and freezing temperatures take a stronghold and are the norm during the winter, Florida’s temperate climate doesn’t offer much contrast. When locals talk about the changing of seasons it is usually focused on hurricanes, love bugs and sea turtles. Winter is often nothing more than a three-month period on the calendar that occurs around the holidays. Sure there will be a few brisk mornings across the northern stretches of the state with bone-chilling breezes, but it’s really not that cold. We don’t have to shovel snow…we don’t have to winterize boats…and we’re fortunate to be able to fish year-round.

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Fishing docks during the winter months provides anglers promising opportunities, but requires stealth and precise positioning. Photo: istockphoto.com/stephenmeese

Just like Canadian snowbirds migrating south for the winter, game fish also enjoy Florida’s mild winters and still have the need to feed, albeit their slower metabolisms. Though the stage will be set, rapidly changing conditions, year-to-year inconsistencies and additional influences can make noting a pattern and finding consistent success a challenge. To assist you in your search for pay dirt, don’t overlook the following hot spots. Each has the potential to keep you connected during the coolest months of the year.

Anglers from far and wide commonly fish the local jetties for monster drum and often pick off straggler flounder while doing so.

WEATHERED DOCKS
Whether it’s a commercial marina or dilapidated residential dock along a secluded backwater canal, docks provide essential refuge for a variety of inshore predatory game fish. Overlooked by many as promising sweet spots, docks typically provide nearby access to deep-water, ambush structure, and often see little fishing pressure. What makes many docks appealing during the winter is the dark substrate that holds warmth for longer periods of time, making for more comforting conditions for snook, redfish, grouper, sheepshead and trout. Docks also absorb heat from the sun and help keep adjacent waters slightly warmer than the surrounding area.

While impaling a live shrimp on a circle-hook and tossing it under a dock is a simple yet deadly effective approach during January and February, don’t overlook nearby seawalls—especially those with concrete abutments that deflect current flow and create distinct ambush points. Casting accuracy is essential for placing baits in prime territory, but it’s also critical you remain aware of overgrown barnacles and additional bivalves that often populate these crusty structures. Stiff drags and abrasion resistant braid are essential for this style of close combat fishing.

With the coolest water temperatures of the year, fish will be a lot slower to respond and usually aren’t too willing to chase forage. Instead, they prefer to have it delivered right to their front door. This means ninja-like stealth and expert boat control will help achieve optimal presentations. No slamming of hatches, no loud chatter or heavy footsteps, and avoid the use of a traditional anchor at all costs unless you position yourself far enough away from the intended target and are prepared to make long casts.

INLETS/BEACHES
Florida’s massive coastline is littered with large inlets and small passes that serve as thoroughfares for forage, game fish, and transitioning water from estuary to ocean. While many boaters simply use these passageways to reach open seas, anglers can’t overlook these likely hot spots. However, as fishy as these features are, you’ll want to focus your efforts during periods with light boat traffic.

The Space Coast in particular sees promising action as a plethora of game fish work their way down the beach. At the top of the list is Sebastian Inlet’s bull redfish. Anglers from far and wide commonly fish the local jetties for monster drum and often pick off straggler flounder while doing so. Snook may also be encountered, however they will be lethargic with the cool weather and require a very slow presentation. A bucktail jig fluttering in the current is a perfect approach. If you are new to fishing Sebastian, be sure to give fellow anglers plenty of elbow room. The jetties can get crowded when the bite is on so if a more solitary experience is for you, consider trying your luck at night.

Drifting the same inlet by boat is also an effective approach, but fishing from land enables anglers to soak baits directly in the strike zone for longer periods with greater effectiveness. As a general rule, for this inlet or any other, you’ll want to focus your efforts along the mouth of the inlet during outgoing tides and along any inshore bridges or distinct features of the same pass during incoming tides.

Although there will be periods of poor weather, Florida’s fabulous winter lends itself to some of the best land based fishing of the year. Depending on your particular region, beaches with public access in the vicinity of these same passes yield fantastic results with pompano, drum, whiting, trout, mackerel, sharks and bluefish.

In South Florida, cool, moonlit winter nights trigger a predictable shrimp run. From Miami to Palm Beach, the action typically kicks off a few days before or after the full moon due to the associated strong tides that flush the crustaceans out of their inshore habitats and straight out area inlets. Hungry tarpon are often on their tails, but there is a lot of unpredictability with this fishery. It is important to point out that because most of the action takes place within close proximity of jetties and bridge spans that provide cover from rough water, ambitious anglers can still score big during what would otherwise be unfishable conditions.

POWER PLANTS
There’s no telling how cold it will get this year and who knows if we will ever experience an unseasonably cold winter for as long as we did in 2010. Whether we face Antarctic conditions or a typically pleasant season, you can expect a host of inshore species to gravitate toward coastal power plants. These massive, energy-producing facilities discharge warm water into the nearest estuary via a man-made canal or series of pipes, providing just enough warmth to get fish through the winter season in comfort. Locating such a facility worthy of fishing isn’t very difficult and a quick Google search will point you in the right direction.

However, since these areas are such reliable producers during the coming months you likely wont get the action all to yourself. Don’t be discouraged, because the best bite doesn’t always occur directly by the discharge. Typical ambush points worth investigating include nearby sandbars, mangrove shorelines, docks, oyster bars and flats. These spots all hold hungry fish.

In addition to man-made discharges, the Big Bend has a unique attribute in the form of spring-fed rivers that provide thermal resistance from the cooler temperatures. The approach is similar to fishing a power plant, and it’s best to focus not only at the source but also along the canals and shorelines leading up to the outflow.

FLATS
Flats fishing can be the best of the entire year thanks to negative low tides influenced by new and full moon phases. Couple the low water with winter winds that push even more water off the shallows and you may find a real fishing hole. Depending on your location around the state, redfish, trout and possibly snook will hold in potholes, troughs, and depressions within these areas. While the fish will be stacked, there are a few considerations to make note of before gearing up and heading out.

First and foremost, the lowest water of the year will make navigating the shallows a true test of skill in an effort not to damage the frail ecosystem.

Some anglers may be reasonably leery about accessing distant shallows during negative low tides, and Navionics App for mobile devices is a great tool that displays an aerial view and helps navigate tricky water. With that being said, nothing substitutes local knowledge and personal experiences. Once on location it’s a good idea to keep an open mind and to have a plan of approach in place, but understand that inconsistencies in weather and forecasting can change things in a hurry. Anglers can also ferry kayaks to reach shallow areas inaccessible by larger flat skiffs and bay boats. Waders can come in handy too, and offer yet another option. Additionally, dropping water levels and cooling temperatures result in crystal clear water that puts fish on high alert, so stealthy presentations are an absolute must. Furthermore, mullet and other finfish have moved on so small crab and shrimp imitations with super slow presentations are required to entice lethargic game fish.

No matter what region you call home, inshore fishing can be red hot during the coolest months of the year…you just need to know where to look. If you only remember one thing, remember this. Shallow water game fish will concentrate in areas that provide the greatest thermal resistance and steadiest food supply. All you need to do is find a promising hot spot and you can be sure the fish you seek won’t travel too far from the safety and comfort of their chosen winter retreat.

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