by Captain Mel Berman, 970-WFLA & 620-WDAE
There’s a certain “crankiness” associated with winter fishing. Surely we personally are at our crankiest when the old alarm clock clangs us awake on a wintry morning, demanding that we leave a warm cozy bed for the chilly, foreboding outdoors. Even our equipment responds to the cooler weather with a large dose of crankiness. The engine needs a lot more “choke time” as it struggles to life. And our fishing equipment doesn’t quite operate with the smoothness and ease as during the warmer months. Then there is the necessity to dress appropriately. The “layered look” is mandatory, wearing several items of clothing to accommodate a typical Florida winter’s day. The temperatures range from downright cold first thing in the morning to balmy by midday.
Having said all that, most experienced anglers consider winter their favorite fishing season. It’s a time when mother nature gathers up all her various species and deposits them in concentrated groups at convenient locations. In most instances these hot spots in cozy, out-of-the-blustery-wind locales.
WINTER GROUPER DIGGING
Before Gulf waters get too cold, most of the grouper action is within a few miles from shore. Bait schools and tropicals disappear for the winter and it’s tough for the gags to locate a decent meal. Thus, the old frozen sardine they turned their nose up during summer now looks mighty tasty. And, according to offshore skipper Captain Dave Zalewski of Madeira Beach, if you want to drop down an item that, to a grouper, is a “chocolate fudge Sunday,” get yourself a batch of live pinfish. Each one is good for a fish. Captain Dave also suggests that winter is an ideal time to get really good action bottom fishing for grouper using jigs. The skipper favors the 2-ounce 12-Fathoms, but most any brand works. I’ve also had enormous success dropping down everything from big bucktails. Zalewski advises that, when you deploy those grouper jigs, use lighter spinning tackle with about 30-pound test line, a 50-pound leader and no lead weights. The jig head should get you down to where the fish are. Drop the lure down and let it sit there. You don’t have to be jigging it around. There’s enough movement supplied by the tides and currents to make an ideal presentation. The beauty of artificials is that grouper have a heck of a time eating them off the hook as they do with frozen sardines.
GROUPER IN BAY
During winter, most bay anglers, without even realizing it, skim blithely over thousands of very large hungry grouper. These are brood stocks which slip into our bays and estuaries to spawn. Then like a “snowbird” they spend the winter luxuriating in the relatively warmer climate. In this case it’s the Gulfcoast’s relatively shallower inshore waters which, by most Winter middays, are heated to a right agreeable temperature. Over the last several years many have specialized in trolling the bays for gags… and it is not brain surgery. Anyone with a boat and a rodholder can get in on the fun (and fillets.)
The first thing you must do is locate any kind of structure in the bay. One good starting point is the Intracoastal Waterway or the shipping channel. There are usually piles of rubble stacked up along the edges which make fore a nice grouper winter home. A good depth recorder is mandatory in locating these structures. You do not need the ultra- heavy artillery. A stout boat rod fitted with small No. 2 or No. 3 planers get the job done nicely. Use at least 30-feet of 60-pound mono for the leader that is attached to your planer. Never use wire leader. It really turns the grouper off. Tie your bait directly to the leader with a loop knot. However, you should put a barrel swivel somewhere in the middle of the leader to minimize line twist. Then choose your weapon.
Many favor the largish Clark’s No.5 Spoon Squid, 7-inch, small-lipped Bomber plugs, or the new Mann’s Stretch Baits. Most colors work, but several skippers favor plugs with a blue back and clear sides. I have always been partial to the chartreuse versions. Again, most colors get the job done. Many other large plugs work as well — including such celebrated lures as the Rebels, 100-series MirrOlures, Rapalas, Jawbreaker, etc.
Set up your trolling speed just a tick above idle, maybe 3 or 4 knots. Now, here’s the big secret to successful bay grouper trolling… MAKE SURE YOUR BAIT IS RIGHT DOWN ON THE BOTTOM. You could troll all day long a couple of feet above the bottom and I guarantee you that nothing will trip your planer. But get that rascal right down to where it just begins to bounce around and you will bring home the bacon… er.. fillets.
When he determines the right depth for a given area, experienced skippers will actually mark the line with permanent marker. This way, if a clump of grass, Seabass or lizard fish should have eyes bigger than their stomach and inadvertently trip the planer, you can reel it in and clear it and drop it right back down precisely where you had it.
THE RESIDENTIAL CANAL BUFFET
Snook, the big boys, just love those deeper residential canals when area waters chill into the 60s. Their main menu item are the year-round populations of killifish or creek chubs which inhabit these venues. Many ambitious Winter anglers will make a killifish stop, netting a bunch of these hardy baits, and then head for the docks and sea walls. Not only snook, but reds, big trout, flounder, jack cravalle patrol these canals on the lookout for a snack. Captain Doug Hemmer has a few winter fishing residential canals whose location he guards with the intensity of a CIA agent. Doug’s preference is to work larger ½ -ounce striped shad tail jigs, emulating the aforementioned creek chubs for which most species forage. There is a definite difference in this jig fishing technique as opposed to ordinary jigging. Captain Doug will flip the lure out to a sea wall or under a dock, lets it drop all the way down to the bottom, and then ever so s-l-o-w-l-y reels. He never jigs it… just reels. As the lure bounces along the bottom it is almost impossible for a hungry snook to resist. Some of the biggest snook of the year have been caught using this technique. The larger D.O.A. “Select” imitation shrimp, worked in a similar fashion, is yet another good bait of choice for Winter residential canal fishing. Other winter anglers have also enjoyed a measure of success working 7-M or 52-M MirrOlures in these same areas. As a matter of fact, most plugs that tend to pull down below the surface work well.
SHALLOW BACK BAY FISHING
This is gonna sound like a fisherman stretching the truth, by my late fishing buddy Merrill “Canoeman” Chandler and I have racked up 50-plus catch and release snook days working the skinniest back bay waters during winter. Most of our catch was nabbed on the standard D.O.A. Shrimp. And as Merrill would say, “if you think your working the bait slow enough, slow it down some more!” For that matter, a slower fishing technique works best for all winter fishing. Just let that rascal drop all the way down to the bottom and reel very slowly, adding a slight twitch every now and again. When a snook strikes it feels like a slight “bink.” That’s when you set the hook and start reeling. Other lures, including the Old Bayside Skeleton Shad tails, the Love’s Lures popular Tandem Jig, and DOA’s CAL Jigs can be virtually as effective worked the same way.
Smaller topwater and medium sinker plugs also work well such as the MirrOlure 28-M and 38-M plugs. And don’t forget about “crutch bait” of m,any cold w
eather anglers — the good old ¼-oz gold spoon. The Love’s Lures “Lovin Spoonful, Johnson Sprite, Hobo, and Capt. Mike’s Spoons are great fish-getters in the shallow creeks and bayous. Again, I know I sound like a broken record, you must work them as slowly as humanly possible.
Winter is a great time to leave that fancy flats boat at the house and con a friend with a small Jon boat to take you sheepshead fishing. You going to have to do a lot of dock and piling scraping, and it can be a real mess. But the rewards are a mess of one of our most underrated and quite delicious table fish, the lowly sheepshead. Sometimes called “convict fish,” the sheepie is a wily target. They give you one shot to set the hook, and if you miss you’re ready to re-bait the hook.
Captain Woody Gore has mastered the techniques for hooking these crustacean eaters. The first thing he does is round up a mess of fiddler crabs or sand fleas. If they aren’t available, live shrimp, parchment worms, or even the innards of oysters work well. I’ve personally fished oyster like Woody, and can tell you it takes a great deal of patience. You see,… how can I put this delicately… the meat of an oyster has the same texture and consistency of mucous. The darn stuff works like a champ, but you need to wrap your hook with it so that you get at least one shot at hooking the sheepshead. Capt. Woody like to wrap the oyster innards in a light gauze to keep it together, while still oozing that great sheepshead attracting scent. But you can rest assured that that chunk of oyster meat will get immediate attention from any sheepie in the neighborhood.
As with all sheepshead fishing you almost have to set the hook before they bite. Captain Woody prefers to use a somewhat stouter rod so that he can set the hook and rip those stripped fishies right on up. A baitcaster with its more sensitive rod is a great sheepshead fishng combo. Just drop the bait down and, at the slightest tap, set the hook right now!
SILVER TROUT AND OTHER WINTER VISITORS
When the chill Winter winds blow the silver trout slip into our area. These shiny, spotless sea trout just love lollygagging in bug bunches way down in the deep channels and passes. Usually, they favor channels coming out of power plants, with its heated waters.
Captain Tom Tamanini deploys jigs right into the herd of silvers. Jig it around a couple of times, and one of these eager eaters nails the bait. Many folks will invest in 4 or 5 dozen live shrimp and, using a ½-ounce sinker or so, drop the shrimp down and wait for the pull!
Speaking of power plants, the warm water runoffs not only attract the manatee, they also make an inviting environment for swarms of cobia. Being related to the remora, cobia love playing affixing themselves on or near the big sea cows. Vance Tice, the “Bubba” of Bubba Jigs, flips out ½-ounce, blue back, white sides shad tails and twitches them back to the boat. If there are manatee in the area, you can rest assured cobia are somewhere nearby. Again, live shrimp, small pinfish and other natural baits work well, but Vance tells me he can outfish them all using his jigs.
Just remember, cobia must be at least 33-inches to the fork, and buddy, that’s a big fish. The FWC are making it a point to search out some short-cobia poachers.
Check out all these Winter possibilities. You too will look forward to that “long-john” time of year. A time when fish congregate into an almost captive audience for eager anglers. You may wake up cranky, but you’ll come home happy with your main course for dinner.