Winter Wonderland

Passing cold fronts ignite hot action from coast to coast.

Capt. Steve Dougherty November 15, 2012

While many locals and transients call South Florida home due to the temperate conditions and lack of distinct seasons, there are parts of the state that actually experience frigid weather. At times, the entire peninsula can feel like it’s in the grips of Ol’ Man Winter. As much as it doesn’t seem like it, cold fronts are really as common here in the Sunshine State as they are across the blustery Northeast. However don’t break out your gloves and scarves just yet, as their brief duration and minimal strength leave us with much more favorable conditions than what New Englanders face nearly every winter day.

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Distinct frontal boundaries signal a change on the horizon. Photo: design pics/thinkstock

Whether you prefer to scout the shallows or spend your time prowling nutrient rich offshore currents, cold fronts determine what species you should target as well as when and where you are most likely to encounter them. We typically see the first cold fronts push south in October, although the most significant storms that really influence air and water temperatures won’t make their presence known until November. When a cold front is approaching state boundaries weather reports and newspaper headlines predict the storm’s intensity and amount of time it will influence our region. There are however limitations to forecasting abilities and accuracies, so you must take the noted predictions with a grain of salt. Because of this there’s nothing more important or reliable than your own observations. With only a little knowledge of cold fronts and their typical traits you can be more prepared for whatever you experience by simply studying the clouds, barometer and wind direction.

Ahead of an approaching front winds typically blow from southern quadrants as they eventually veer to the southwest. When a storm hits it is generally accompanied with a severe squall line complete with heavy winds, rain, hail and lightning. A cold front is no more than a boundary of two air masses, and as a front passes winds will veer in a clockwise direction as air temperatures begin to drop. Although the prevailing winds can influence feeding behaviors, barometric pressure also plays a significant role, with the lowest pressure often negatively influencing the bite.

As cold fronts settle, winds continue to shift clockwise to northerly quadrants and eventually east. This cycle will repeat itself every week or so and although somewhat predictable, there are no hard and fast rules regarding frontal boundaries. With that being said, some storms pass without much notice proving that every front must be carefully evaluated on an individual basis.

During the winter game fish along the Atlantic Coast cruise south as baitfish migrations are triggered by plummeting temperatures to the north. During these epic migrations a host of predators can be found trailing hot on the tails of the migrating forage. Perhaps none of these wintertime bites are as anticipated or as exciting as the epic sailfish migration experienced in South Florida.

For competitive anglers looking to raise release flags it simply doesn’t get any better than high pressure settling in and setting up veering winds from a northerly quadrant. This creates tailing conditions as sailfish use the northerly winds to assist in their southern migration to more comfortable climates. Because they are exhausting massive amounts of energy to fight the northbound Gulf Stream they are forced to feed more aggressively, thereby triggering incredible action for anglers ready to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the chilly weather.

In the Panhandle, north winds with skies lacking cloud coverage provide ideal near-shore sight casting opportunities. However, head offshore and the seas will kick up noticeably, keeping many anglers close to the coast.

No matter your location around the state, shallow inshore habitats see more drastic changes in water temperatures and require a greater understanding of game fish movements. Trout and drum are two of the most attainable winter species throughout Florida, and on cold days you can expect these game fish to be found staging in the warmest water they can find. This means you must look to deep holes and drop-offs in the vicinity of shallow water. You should also note that dark bottoms hold warmth longer and often sustain fish during the coldest snaps.

In addition to scouting out prime locations anglers must also consider the fact that cooler water slows metabolic rates, requiring game fish to feed less while also exerting less energy to feed. Because of this you’ll need to slow you presentation to make it more attainable.

In the Florida Keys north winds aren’t as big of an issue since the island chain’s landmass swings to the west and provides protection along the Atlantic Coast. While the flats action isn’t as consistent as during the warmer months of the year, targeting bonefish in the winter can offer up some incredible action. It is believed that mature bonefish are more tolerant to cool weather opposed to smaller schoolies, so the benefit of fishing in the winter is that you have a good chance of encountering trophy fish over 10 pounds. When searching for bonefish in the winter look to leeward shorelines since protection from the wind enables the water to warm quicker with the afternoon sunshine. You should also look to ocean-side flats that provide more consistent water temperatures than those affected by the cooler, shallow waters of Florida Bay.

Understanding the fundamentals of passing cold fronts is crucial to successful days on the water. This time of the year it’s essential anglers remain flexible. With a firm grasp of cold fronts and how they influence feeding patterns and game fish movements you won’t have to call in sick until the conditions are absolutely perfect!

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