© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2003
February may be the month that great fishing finally returns to the bay area. Don't look for much improvement right away -- the water is still very cold -- but more often than not, spring conditions begin to take over during the latter part of this month and into early March. A look back at my records of the past 10 years shows the prime flats fishing usually kicks off somewhere between Feb. 20 and March 7, depending on the weather. The days are getting longer, the air and water will start to warm up and suddenly the fishing will be good again. One of the most significant factors is the arrival of schools of bait such as scaled sardines and threadfin herring. This starts the whole food chain working again, even areas where fishing has been poor for months.
Another sure sign that spring is back is the return of snook to the shallow flats and mangrove shorelines. Experienced snook hunters will spend a lot of time this month looking for the first scaled sardines that show up. They know that as the snook come out of their winter hideaways, they will pounce on the first sardine that swims their way. There is a huge advantage to being the first fisherman to drift a big whity through a pod of snook that has not seen a baited hook in months. Truth being told, many of the best days of the year for catching numbers of big snook come in late February, before they start getting regular fishing pressure.
Another sure sign that winter is behind us is the arrival of southern stingrays on the flats and the cobia that accompany them. The rays and cobia prefer water temperatures over 66 degrees, and as soon as it gets that warm they will be there. Again, this may not happen until March if cold weather extends through the end of this month, but it can happen as early as mid-February. The spring cobia run through our area was hardly known 10 years ago but now ranks as one of the best sight-fishing opportunities on the west coast of Florida. Using tackle as light as 8- and 10-pound test, anglers can spot-cast to cobia in the 20- to 35-pound class regularly and occasionally get shots at fish over 50 pounds.
Some of the early spots to check out in the bay are the Clam Bar, the Pier and the flats east of Snell Isle. The sand bars and shallow grassflats from Clearwater Pass north to Tarpon Springs can be prime cobia territory. Live bait is the best bet, but they will also fall for eel-like soft plastic baits fished on a 3/8-oz jig-head.
Fishing for redfish will improve greatly as the tides begin to rise higher than they have for months. This floods more of the mudflats, oyster bars and mangroves, allowing the reds access to their favorite feeding grounds. The period around the full moon on the 15th and the new moon at the end of the month will have great tides for stalking reds. If you are lucky enough to come across a net full of live sardines, they will be your best bet.
Pelagic fish such as Spanish mackerel are another possibility in late February, depending on how quickly the baitfish move in. Once you see pelicans and terns diving along the beaches, rest assured the mackerel and bonito are not far away.
Offshore fishermen should soon start to be able to come up with good catches of grouper without having to make extra-long trips. The unusually cold water has shut down just about all of the grouper action inside the 60-foot range, but a warming trend will inspire the fish in shallower to start feeding.
-- Ed Walker charters out of Palm Harbor. Call (727) 944-3474 or e-mail TarponEd@aol.com .