Offseason catch in the offering this winter
By ED WALKER
Published January 6, 2007
Unseasonably warm weather during the past month provided a variety of fishing opportunities not normally seen until spring. Perhaps the most unusual of these is the availability of scaled sardines. These prized baitfish usually disappear toward the end of November or early December, whenever the water temperatures drop toward 60 degrees. Though inshore waters did fall into the upper 50s for a while near Christmas, large numbers of scaled sardines, also referred to as greenbacks, whitebait or pilchards, have remained in the area.
Having a well full of these shiny baitfish opens the door to fishing methods seldom used during the winter months. When weather patterns have been warm for a few days in a row, snook fishing has been decent. By seeking out dark-bottomed areas where the linesiders sit and sun themselves and freelining small- to medium-sized sardines, we have had the best snook action in over a month.
Though many of the available baitfish are very large, the big ones have a tendency to spook the snook. Smaller, less obtrusive minnows are definitely the better choice now. Since the water in these spots is usually clear and shallow, live chumming can be counterproductive. Hungry birds such as terns and gulls have been a nuisance and when they feed, they hover above or drop into the water causing the spooky snook to run away.
When targeting winter snook, patience is required. Even in spots where dozens of fish are visible, the bite is passive. Do not expect aggressive surface strikes or competitive feeding among the fish. By continually offering a small bait to the same areas, you can coax a handful of bites from each pod of snook.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are the big jack cravelles. The warm weather has drawn these super aggressive fighters out of the upper rivers, where they spend the winters, to the open flats where food is more abundant. Huge schools of frenzied jacks have been feeding along the mainland shores close to the river mouths.
Watching a herd of 12- to 15-pound jacks run down and attack a fast moving topwater plug is one of the most exciting light tackle thrills one is likely to find. They may not be much on the table but pound for pound there are few fish that fight as hard.
Grouper fishing has been decent though somewhat hard to keep a handle on. Earlier in the fall many gags poured into the shallow water, rocks and ledges. Rocks in 10 to 25 feet held lots of fish. When the water temperature fell to 60, many of those fish moved back out to the 50- to 70-foot range where conditions are more stable. Now that things are warming up, keeper gags are again being caught as shallow as 14 feet.
How do you know where to start? The best plan is to hit a few of the near shore spots first. If the bite is on, you will know it. Even if many of the fish are undersized, if they are biting rapidly it may be an indication this is a day to work the shallows. Likewise, when the bite is off, there is no mistaking it. Even the shorts are reluctant to bite when they are too cold. If you try two or three prime inshore rocks and do not find much action, pack it up and head west.
On many days, the gag bite is nonexistent in 20 feet but wide open in 50 feet. Let the feeding pattern of the fish tell you how deep you need to go. Trying to put together a decent trip in a depth that just isn't working is a losing battle.