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January fishing forecast: Pinellas/Hillsborough

By Ed Walker
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003

January can be a tough month for local fishermen. Repetitive cold fronts keep the water chilly and limit the number of days boaters can make it out. Also, we are in the midst of an El Nino with higher-than-normal predictions of rainfall. Still, there will be nice days between weather systems that will produce good action.

Grabbing Grouper graphic
When the weather allows, offshore fishing will be the best bet because of warmer and cleaner water. Water temperatures do not fluctuate as rapidly in deep water and the turbidity kicked up by passing fronts seldom extends past the 60-foot range.

Grouper fishing is the staple for a majority of offshore anglers this time of year. Most of the gags have moved out of the shallower areas they inhabited during the fall and migrated to deeper water. During warmer periods in January, persistent anglers still may catch a handful of keepers in 20 to 40 feet of water, but the larger numbers will be found farther offshore.

One exception is the Tampa Bay shipping channel. The miles of man-made ledges and deeper water hold grouper almost all year long.

When venturing into the gulf for grouper, a general rule of thumb is to fish the larger, more popular ledges and reefs immediately after an extended period of bad weather, then target the less-obvious patches of hard bottom and small breaks after the weather has been nice for a while. Grouper will settle into the bigger structures when there is no fishing pressure, such as during periods of foul weather, but are quickly spooked once regular fishing pressure resumes. The key to successful grouper fishing is to be the first bait dropped on the spot. If the area has been worked over recently, it is unlikely you will find many legal-size fish there.

This also is a great month for blackfin tuna fishing. Last January, the blackfin bite off St. Petersburg was phenomenal. Most were caught behind shrimp boats anchored in 80 feet or more of water. Early morning is the best. The tuna feed behind the nets all night and come to the surface at daybreak when the shrimpers stop and dump their by-catch.

Sheepshead gather in large schools in January and move to deeper water to spawn. Many of the artificial reefs produce giant sheepshead for those that plan ahead and bring small crabs or shrimp when they head offshore.

Silver trout will stack up in huge numbers just off the beaches from Johns Pass to Indian Rocks Beach later this month. These schools are so dense, they can be seen on your depth recorder.

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