Though Panhandle temperatures may occasionally get on the wrong side of freezing this month, inshore fish are still around St. Andrews, Choctawhatchee, Pensacola. St. Joe and Apalachicola bays, sometimes in spots that make them exceptionally easy to catch.
Trout, reds and sheepshead tend to move to “blackwater” areas at this time of year, with some traveling well up coastal creeks and rivers looking for deep holes and warmer water compared to that on the flats. It’s likely that the tannin-stained waters absorb the sun’s heat more readily than the flats, and the inside holes also give the fish some escape from bottle-nosed dolphin that feed on them. The warm-blooded “porpoises” can readily outrun a cold-slowed trout or red, so the fish find potholes with access too shallow for the marine mammals to enter.
Holes on the flats are the first place to try, and the best time to find these spots is often just after a cold front has passed. With winds out of the north and northwest, much of the water is pushed out of the bays, leaving the few deep cuts and holes clearly visible. This allows anglers in shallow draft boats and kayaks to ease up on them and sometimes find real bonanzas.
It’s not uncommon to find a hole three or four feet deep containing dozens of trout and reds, surrounded by water that may be only six inches deep at low tide, at this time of year.
Naturally, it takes a slow, silent approach to catch these fish. They’re easily spooked, and even though they may have no place to go, alerting them will keep them from biting. Some anglers ease in on the trolling motor, then go over the side in waders to make the quietest approach possible. Kayaks, which float in only inches of water, also have an advantage here.
It may take visiting a half-dozen of these spots, or more, before you find one that’s “on,” but when you do, you can sit there for hours and catch fish. (Just remember the bag limits.)
Best bait, by far, is live shrimp fished on a size 1/0 octopus style hook, with just enough weight to reach bottom. This is easiest to cast on typical flats spinning gear, a seven-foot medium-light rod, 2500-sized reel and 10- to 15-pound test braid. Add the usual 18 inches of 20-pound test mono as leader, tied in with a double uniknot.
Jigs also work; those weighing less than a quarter ounce are usually best, because a slow fall seems to turn on the bites. A plastic shrimp or shad tail three to four inches long completes the rig. I like the Z-Man tails because they’re very tough, and also because they add flotation, slowing the drop of the lure. Also good are twitchbaits like the LIVETARGET Scaled Sardine and the MirrOlure MirrODine, worked very slowly.
Sheepshead are sometimes found in the same holes as reds and trout, but in general they’re more common around bridge and pier pilings, docks and in rock- or shell-lined holes which hold their favored forage. They also drop into rocky holes in the coastal rivers.
The easy way to turn on a sheepshead bite is to scrape barnacles and mussels off rocks and pilings with a spud hoe, allowing the meat and shells to create a chumline that will draw in the sheepshead. You then drop down a piece of fresh-cut shrimp tail about two inches long on a size 1/0 long-shank hook and the sheepshead does the rest. The long shank hook prevents them from biting through the leader; their teeth are amazingly sharp. It can be tricky hooking them, so wait for pressure on the line, after that first bump, before setting the hook.
Another good winter rig for all three species is the “shrimp jig.” It’s just a bare jig, no plastic tail, with a chunk of shrimp in place of the tail. This thing, crawled across bottom, draws strikes like nothing else, though it’s difficult to fish if there are also pinfish in the hole you’re working. Again, jigs smaller than one-quarter ounce work best in this type of fishing.
The biggest caution in winter fishing on the flats is to avoid getting trapped by falling water. Some flats and even the channels into them get too shallow to float a bay boat or even most technical skiffs with strong, sustained north winds. If you go out on the bottom of the low tide, you’ll not only find the holes easily, but you’ll also be assured of a few more inches of water coming back to help float you out when you’re ready to go home.
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Slow, quiet approach best for chilly inshore angling
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