As the days become shorter and license plates start to change color, we know cooler weather is on the horizon. Although there will certainly be a few brisk mornings with numbing breezes, winter is not such a scary proposition for Floridians and we’re fortunate to fish year-round. Falling water temperatures may cause inshore game fish to demonstrate slightly sluggish behaviors, with periods of heightened feeding activity shorter in duration and more difficult to predict, but redfish can still be caught with relative consistency.
When conditions are deteriorating, game fish in any inshore ecosystem will gravitate to and concentrate in environments that provide the greatest thermal resistance in the vicinity of a steady food supply. Tidal movement dictates daily forays, but the fish you seek won’t ever travel too far from the safety and comfort of their chosen winter retreat. Redfish present a wide range of behaviors in the winter and can be seen tailing, cruising a flat or working in a circular pattern in and out of deep water, largely preferring to patrol rather than hunker down in a pothole like a seatrout.
Redfish also tend to gather in large schools during the winter and can be much spookier than in warm water. This can be attributed to gin clear water and lack of rain limiting algae growth, which leads to prime sight fishing conditions, albeit with flighty fish. And although redfish are more tolerant to cooler weather compared to lethargic linesiders, it doesn’t mean they are completely unaffected. Approaching cold fronts determine water levels, water temperatures and when and where you are most likely to encounter blue-tipped redfish tails.
We saw the first cold fronts push south in late October, although the most significant storms that really influence air and water temperatures won’t make their presence known until December. Ahead of an approaching winter weather system winds typically blow from southern quadrants as they eventually veer to the southwest. When a storm strikes it is generally accompanied with a severe squall line complete with heavy winds, rain, hail and lightning. A cold front is essentially a boundary of two air masses. As the system passes winds veer in a clockwise direction while air temperatures begin to drop. Although prevailing winds can influence feeding behavior and water levels, barometric pressure also plays a significant role. Every front is accompanied with different conditions and it’s not always about high or low pressure, rather how stable the pattern is.
As cold fronts settle, winds continue to shift clockwise to northerly quadrants and eventually east. It’s often best to get out prior to an approaching cold front as pressure is dropping at a steady rate, but if this is not feasible it will be in your best interest to wait a day or two after its passing. Temperatures will have warmed, winds settled, the tide will begin to return to normal levels and barometric pressure will stabilize. Redfish will be ready to feed, and the action will be on fire.
In back bays and pockets of water that are sheltered from the wind, shallow water can rise a few degrees in just a few hours. Mud flats, oyster bars and other dark inshore areas retain heat throughout the day and are favored haunts for winter redfish. While low tide can concentrate fish, the effects are much longer lasting than just a few hours of non-stop action. Exposed bottom absorbs heat from the sun and as soon as the flooding tide allows access, game fish gravitate to the slightly warmed real estate. The entire food chain will come out to revel in the sunbaked shallows and you can expect the bite to continue through the rising tide. In regions with limited tides, the fish usually forage into the wind. Keep in mind that wind direction, moon phase and coastal topography can all influence published tides significantly.
In the winter, awareness of nearby bottlenose dolphin is essential. With mullet and other finfish scarce on the flats, dolphin turn to redfish for forage and this is part of the reason why reds gather in large schools atop the shallowest water they can access. Even though redfish are more active than other species during the winter, they don’t cover as much ground on a daily basis as they would in the summer. If you locate a school, odds are they will likely feed in the same general area until severe weather disrupts their pattern. Recognize key changes in residency and feeding and in short notice you should be able to predict where the fish will be during any stage of the tide.
Redfish don’t shut down like snook, but during the coldest months of the year it takes a bit more to trigger a strike. Since lower water temperatures result in the diminishing availability of forage, this is the ultimate time to fish with artificial enticements. Diet data collected by the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute demonstrates that redfish foraging Tampa Bay in the summer mainly feed on pinfish and pink shrimp. During the winter their attention turns to snapping shrimp and mud crabs. Shrimp imitations are widely effective as they can be popped ever so slowly, but jerkbaits are also proficient in their abilities to finesse spooky schools in shallow water. Lures in root beer, pumpkin or olive are the best choices when presented with clear, cold water. Scented varieties are advantageous and pair perfectly with a 1/8 oz. jighead to help cut through the breeze. Low, sidearm casts enhance castability in windy conditions.
Gold spoons are also great baits for casting into the wind. When your spoon plops in the water manually close the bail and slowly lift your rod tip. Gently retrieve the slack as you lower the tip back to the 3 o’clock position, allowing the spoon to wobble six to eight inches before repeating. Slowly fluttering a spoon is deadly effective and a simple technique to master. The irresistible approach works great over grass beds as it allows the angler to work the top portion of shallow depths, but also enables the lure a chance to sink into the grass where it mimics hiding crustaceans.
The same technique can be used around the perimeter of oyster bars. Remember, the meal that foraging redfish are after may not be crawling along the bottom. If pinfish are prevalent, then the local redfish population will be on the hunt for a shimmering snack just below the surface. If crabs are on the menu, then they may have their heads buried. Although bait and lure selection are important factors, the key to shallow water success relies on your ability to slow your retrieve and remain stealthy. Proceed with extreme caution and avoid slamming of hatches and heavy footsteps.
Though most of the winter’s focus is related to shallow estuarine systems, along the Panhandle mayhem ensues in a much different environment. With depths exceeding 60 feet, Pensacola Bay hosts an epic bull redfish run. Starting right around Halloween, thousands of bull redfish leave the Gulf of Mexico and filter through the bay to spawn and feed on the millions of blood minnows and menhaden that are flushed out of the upper estuary.
Breeder schools comprising hundreds of fish are most often encountered in open water just west of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, with the action peaking on an outgoing tide as it pulls forage from the upper watershed in the direction of Pensacola Pass and into the open Gulf. This annual spawn is governed by several environmental factors that determine the timing and capacity including water temperature, which is usually around 63 degrees, water level and salinity, which can be influenced by prevalent rains and river discharges. Again, artificial offerings are the best bets, though large poppers, swimbaits and paddletails pinned to 2 oz. jigheads are more inclined to elicit strikes from redfish at the top of their class.
Rarely are they found roaming solitary, winter redfish are extremely savvy using the tide and regional variations in habitat to their thermal advantage. While you may not be inclined to crawl out of bed before dawn on a chilly December morning, trust us when we tell you that exciting action awaits.