© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2003
The first week of February has given a slight reprieve from one of the harshest winters in recent memory. Water temperatures have started to rise toward normal averages.
Red drum, sheepshead and spotted seatrout will remain the staples of inshore fishing. Remember, the season for trout is closed in the North Region for the entire month.
In Citrus and Hernando counties, the canals and river systems should remain the focus of inshore efforts. Light tackle and live shrimp will produce best. Try fishing the edges of oyster bars in the middle of the afternoon. Fish gather in these areas for the warmth and will often feed if the opportunity presents itself. When fishing around oyster bars, using a float will help prevent your line from getting cut by the sharp edges of the oysters. Floats also help increase the distance of your casts.
Though snook season is open, they are usually quite difficult to catch this time of year. The best bet for these fish will be targeting dock lights at night, especially after a few sunny days and mild nights. Snook are attracted to the warmth of the light as well as the large numbers of glass minnows, shrimp and other small baits that gather in the area.
Since they are feeding on small forage, baits should be sized to match. An average-size live shrimp on a size-2 hook presented on 10-pound spinning outfit is perfect. A 2-foot, 25-pound fluorocarbon shock leader will help protect against abrasions caused by the fish's mouth and dock pilings.
The harsh winter may help the recreational offshore fisherman. The commercial grouper harvest will be closed from Feb. 15-March 15. Since the winter has been so severe, and simply unfishable on many days, there should be a surplus of hungry grouper for the offshore enthusiast.
Until the gulf temperature reaches the low 60s, grouper efforts should be concentrated in depths greater than 50 feet. These waters maintain a more stable temperature and hold larger numbers of gag grouper.
The key to offshore fishing in the month of February will be patience. In many instances, the grouper will be sluggish and bites will be subtle. Dead and cut baits will consistently out-produce live offerings for the majority of the month.
Spanish sardines can be purchased at any bait shop and work quite well. They should be hooked through the nose. Tearing off the bottom of the bait's tail allows even more of their scent to permeate through the water. Grouper often wedge themselves way up under the reef this time of year. Often this extra scent will spark their curiosity enough for them to leave their holes to come and investigate. A chum block suspended near the bottom is another effective method to catch their attention.
Red snapper have moved into the middle gulf in large numbers, but the season is closed for recreational fishermen until April 20. Most of these fish will be in deep waters. When they are caught in such depths, their air bladders will expand from the rapid ascent of being caught. If the bladder is not purged before release, the fish will have a difficult time returning to the bottom and it could possibly die. If you catch a bottom species you don't intend on keeping, take time to cut a small hole in the bladder before release. The hole will allow the air to escape, enabling the fish to descend. It will eventually heal.