The past few weeks on the Suncoast have been crazy in terms of weather. Coming off one of the warmest winter starts I can remember, we're finally into some "frosty" mornings.
The huge swings from the 80s to the 30s make for some really unstable conditions in fishing. Consistency is hard to master when fish can't settle into a pattern without having to move or readjust their living quarters and feeding habits. Because fish are cold-blooded and their metabolic rates are governed by water temperature, where fish are and how warm the water is will have an effect on how hungry they are.
Finding fish that are hungry requires a good thermometer that reads water temperature. Temperature ranges can vary as much as 10 degrees in some estuaries or bays. Terra Ceia and Tampa bays are two such bodies of water. On days that I scout for fish I will run the boat slowly around the bay while paying close attention to the thermometer on my Lowrance bottom machine, noting changes in temperature with relationship to the depth and bottom make-up. Soft muddy dark bottoms that absorb heat in the shallows that are protected from wind are typically warm quickly on sunny days, but areas with good depth can also have thermoclines where layers of water with different temperatures at different depths exist. Noting where fish are in the water column on the depth recorder may clue you in to a warm water layer if fish suspend at a certain depth, but as a rule, fish tend to hang on the bottom when it's cold.
The kind of lures that I throw and my presentation in cold conditions differ from those thrown and how I work them on warm days. Cold, lethargic fish will not chase a live or artificial bait. They just don't want to expend the energy to feed, nor do they have much of an appetite. But an "in your face" presentation that's dead slow will garner the most attention from a marginally hungry fish. My top-producing lures in cold conditions are usually smaller baits that both look natural doing nothing but sitting still or those that are flexible and have a lot of 'action' while moving very slowly. For me, the DOA Shrimp and CAL Curly tail Jig fished on a1/4-ounce CAL Jig head have been my two 'go-to' baits when fishing for trout, snook, flounder, or redfish. In recent months, new lures from MirrOlure like the MirrOdine and Lil' John and Lil' John XL along with the Paul Brown Soft Dine have also answered the call as top meat-getters.
Over the past weeks, a wide variety of fish have been caught. Spanish mackerel to 5-pounds were caught on some patches of hard bottom on lower Tampa Bay. We threw CAL Shads retrieved erratically and quickly. We also had bluefish to 4-pounds get in on the action in the same locations. Ladyfish and jack crevalle were also plentiful and were feeding on glass minnows that were balled up before the chilling air blew south.
When approaching fronts blew from the south and southwest, water levels rose and we caught schooling redfish to 31-inches on the Bulkhead near the mouth of the Manatee River with Eppinger Rex Spoons and CAL Jigs with Shad tails. This area is an open water shallow grassy flat with dips, potholes, and run-outs that meander out to deep water, providing and escape route for redfish and trout. The primary forage here were scaled sardines, glass minnows, small pinfish, and killifish.
With approaching fronts bearing down on us, we fished the protected back waters of Terra Ceia and Miguel Bays where we worked oyster bars, swash channels, and mosquito cuts that drain the mangroves on outgoing tides for both snook and redfish. The Paul Brown Soft Dine, Eppinger Rex Spoon, and CAL Jigs with Shad tails garnered the most attention from reds and snook with a monster snook coming from the mangroves tipping the scales at over 20-pounds on a CAL Shad. Mid-to upper slot redfish hung in the depressions and in dark brown or reddish mossy bottoms. Grand Slams were easiest when these fish were aggressively feeding as the fronts approached.
After frontal passages and when the cold weather settled in, bluebird skies and high pressure reined, making the fishing challenging, but doable. Snook moved back into residential canals and backwaters with good depths, dark bottoms, and tannin-stained waters. A dead slow presentation with DOA Shrimp was required to get fish to chew. Skipping the baits back under mangroves and under boat docks produced numerous snook on the shrimp. Most were smaller male fish that were feeding aggressively. Grand Slams were the order of the day when we pursued all three species, (snook, trout, and redfish), but we had to work for them.
Several days after fronts, we moved back out to the channels were we worked deeper water with CAL Shads and Curly tails for flounder, trout, and redfish. Steady action was had on most trips once the waters cleared and winds subsided. At times dropping down in leader size from 25 to 20-pound test Ande Backcountry made a difference in the number of strikes we got. As cooler conditions and calm weather move in, algae will disappear in the water and turbidity will subside making water gin-clear. Stepping down the size of the leader to 15-pound test may again improve the hit ratio. For those ultra-clear conditions, Ande or Seaguar fluorocarbon leader ranging from 15-to 20-pound test may be the key to an improved bite.
These fronts are normal, yet we have seen some extreme swings from high and low temperatures, making consistency difficult, and fishing a challenge, but in the end, we always caught fish. Keeping your knees bent and staying flexible is the name of the game for winter fishing, and constant adjustments to your tactics are required to produce fish on a regular basis. If you can do that, you're half-way there to having a great day on the water. 'Til then...I'll catch ya later!
Capt. Ray Markham, of Backwater Promotions runs the Flat Back II, an 1820 custom Action Craft flats skiff specializing in light tackle spin, plug, and fly fishing with artificial lures out of Terra Ceia/Tampa Bay.
Capt. Ray Markham
Flat Back II