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Who says you shouldn't go fishing until spring? Speckled trout, sheepshead, flounder and even snook are there for the taking.
Winter is the best time to fish for sheepshead. Roe-laden females are hanging on just about every rock pile, dock, bridge and pier in the bay area. This poor-man's grouper is famous for stealing bait, but a few tricks make it much easier to fill the cooler.
Being able to feel the bite is the key to catching sheepshead. The best way to do that is to use braided line. This line doesn't stretch, making it more sensitive than monofilament. Another trick is to use a graphite rod, which is more sensitive than a fiberglass rod. Hooks also make a difference. A No. 1 circle hook will increase your hookup ratio dramatically. Sheepshead aren't that picky when it comes to bait. Cut shrimp, barnacles, oysters, worms and mussels will get the job done.
Speckled trout action is good in the afternoon when the sun has time to warm the water a degree or two. Pick the deeper flats where there is a dropoff from either an oyster bed or sand bar. Most fish are staying in 3 to 4 feet.
Live shrimp is the choice for live-baiters, but the secret is not to use select or jumbos. Trout are feeding on smaller baits now because their metabolism is still in the slow mode. Light jigs dressed up with a plastic tail will not go untouched. It's hard to go wrong with the new holographic colors that sparkle brightly with all the colors of the rainbow.
Look for flounder in the deep swash channels that run next to grass flats. Low tide is the best time to target these flat fish. Low tides concentrate flounder in deep pockets that are easily seen when the water drops off the flats.
Live shrimp worked along the bottom will be productive. Just like trout, flounder will have a hard time passing up a slow-moving jig. In fact, some flounder aficionados will use a light jig head with their live shrimp. The combination can be deadly.
Snook are starting to pick it up late in the afternoon. By then, the water is a little warmer, and they are on the prowl. Look for snook in the back of residential canals and freshwater rivers that dump into the bay. Tail-hooked shrimp is the best bet, and smaller shrimp will get more bites this time of year. Slow-moving jigs, especially if they're dressed with stinky tails, are getting plenty of attention, too.
The bay and gulf piers are heating up with sheepshead and silver trout. The sheeps are being caught on the more common baits with cut shrimp the easiest to get. Silver trout are tearing up sabiki rigs. Use the heavier models, not the ones that are made for catching bait.
Party boats are catching Key West grunts, sea bass and an occasional grouper. The boats that stay out longer have more success with grouper and snapper.
-- Captain Rick Frazier runs Lucky Dawg Charters out of St. Petersburg and can be reached at (727) 510-4376 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org