After the hottest October on record it looks like fall weather has finally arrived in Southwest Florida. With it comes a drop in water temperatures and that signals a change in fishing for inshore anglers.
It’s time to break out those jackets and long fishing pants and to also change gears when looking for angling opportunities.
In some cases fishing gets easier as we approach the winter months because there’s less water to hold fish in the backcountry. I’ve found this to be a very tough concept for many fishermen to understand. Let me explain.
As the sun moves toward our southern skies in the winter it pulls the water with it. It’s sort of like what the moon does, but it’s a much larger magnet. Our water tables begin to fall and our tidal range goes from zero to three feet in the summer to less than zero (a negative tide) to only about two feet in the winter. In other words we lose about a foot of water from our bays all winter long. That’s why you’ll see more oyster and sand bars in the bays during the winter months than you do in the summer.
The good news is there are less places for the fish to go when the water is low. It’s kind of like fishing in a barrel during those negative tides. However, boating becomes much more exciting. You really have to pay attention to channel markers, and it’s not a good idea to fish way in the back of a bay as the water levels drop. There’s many an angler who has spent the night waiting for the return of the tide so they can make it back to the dock. Don’t be one of those boaters.
As the water cools, the game fish of summer begin to slowly disappear. It gets harder to find snook, and the redfish seem to shrink in size. Oh, they are still around and will continue to bite on warmer days, but it’s much easier to catch pompano, seatrout, black drum and sheepshead. All of these species seem to actually like cooler water and don’t do the lockjaw thing December through February.
Pompano will school up just outside our passes. Look for a sandy bottom in about four to five feet of water and drag a small jig head tipped with shrimp across the bottom. It may take several drifts to locate them, but once found it won’t take long to get dinner.
Seatrout will move from the skinnier water of the flats to a depth of about four feet and deeper if colder weather sets in. I use a popping cork rig with live shrimp, however casting a jig with a soft plastic artificial shrimp or minnow will also work. Keep in mind that fish, being cold blooded, generally eat less in cold water so keep the retrieve slow and near the bottom.
Black drum are a bit difficult to pattern and target, but they do like the same areas where redfish are found during the summer months. Since the water table is lower in the winter you’ll have to wait until higher tides to look for drum. They love shrimp and crabs and aren’t too crazy about artificials, so stick with the live stuff and fish close to mangroves and structure.
Visitors from up north often mistake our sheepshead with their freshwater version of the same name. The northern sheepshead has a bad reputation for edibility and is often released. Don’t worry. Our saltwater sheepies are delicious. The meat is white and flaky and can be cooked a number of ways. I’d equate it to mangrove snapper. They are often found near dock and bridge pilings and also near oyster bars and deep holes under mangroves with overhanging branches. They eat shrimp, small oysters and barnacles. Go with shrimp. Keep the hooks and bait offerings small and don’t wait to set the hook when you feel a bite. They are fantastic bait stealers and will pick you clean if you hesitate.
Captain Rob Modys is a lifetime Florida outdoorsman, retired spin & fly fishing guide and host of REEL Talk Radio on ESPN 99.3 FM every Saturday morning. He is past president and board chairman of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and serves on the board of the Florida Guides Association. Capt. Rob also shares his fishing knowledge in a series of fishing classes at Bass Pro Shops.