Warm up to winter

An absence of a true cold spell this season may shuffle the area fishing scene, but that doesn't mean great catch is absent as well.

Published January 6, 2007

Normally in early January, Capt. Luke Magnuson would be bundled up and fishing slowly in the back of a coastal creek. But recent weeks have found the Bayport captain poking around the outside waters, often in shorts.

That's because the 2006-07 winter has been a mild one. There were a couple of chilly spots, but nothing that lasted long enough to usher the winter migration of redfish and black drum into the backwater holes.

I've been trying to schedule a trip to capture the portraits of red and black drum with Magnuson. But he and his brother Mark have been politely delaying this mission until the scene settles into what they consider a predictable pattern.

"We need it to get cold - that'll push those redfish and black drum back inside," Luke Magnuson said. "Right now, they're pretty scattered."

The weather hasn't cooperated on one level. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is still Florida, so when one pattern has yet to start, anglers rarely have to look far for a suitable alternative.

Snook offer a prime example. Linesiders usually spend their winters huddled together in the warm, stable depths of rivers, creeks and residential canals. Stacked like bricks, the subtropical fish fight to stay alive when water temperatures plunge.

Extended warm periods often find snook venturing from coastal waterways to sun their backs over shallow grass flats. Sneaking out to look for daytime meals and returning to safer depths at night proves feasible as long as the weather holds steady.

In years past, snook have been caught outside during sudden cold snaps and drastic temperature drops have left many belly up in coastal waters. Lessons hard learned likely have taught the survivors to keep safe waters within a short dash, so anglers should locate likely winter havens and look for snook to spill along the outer edges during warm periods.

In the bays and marshes, look for redfish and drum along the grass edges and around oyster bars. These fish prefer to stay in open areas with abundant feeding opportunities, so as long as they avoid the tight confines of traditional winter retreats, you'll have to work to find them.

Your best bet is to identify natural travel lanes where predators can work their way up to shallow edges on high tide, then fall into channels and holes on the outgoing cycle. Work with the tide and set up shop near points and bars, which allow predators to pick off meals passing with the flow.

A favorite tactic for the Magnuson brothers involves anchoring on the edge of a rocky marsh channel, casting live shrimp uptide and letting the bait tumble across the opposite edge. This is a sure bet for tempting opportunistic redfish.

Power plant outflows, long the popular retreat for winter-weary fish, may not be as crucial as in colder years. But fish still move there, perhaps as much by habit as by choice. You can expect a good mix of pompano, trout, ladyfish, jacks and bluefish in the surrounding waters.

Stay safe

Warm winters tend to lure anglers into a false sense of security. Few would leave port for spring-fall trips without their sunscreen and a cooler full of beverages.

Protect your skin with sunscreen of at least SPF 30. Lather on the lotion before hitting the water. Regardless of the month, hot fishing action will keep you so preoccupied you'll forget the sunscreen until it's too late.

Hydration presents another commonly overlooked need during winter fishing trips. On the hottest January or February day, you won't sweat like do during the dog days of summer, but you still need to drink water during a day of activity.

Lastly, remember that celestial forces don't answer to meteorological variations. Lunar influence controls the tide and its seasonal patterns remain constant regardless of what the thermometer reads.

Fishermen who don't normally spend much time on the water during winter may find themselves shocked - and stranded - by winter's extreme low tides. The lows are lowest around full moons, so plan accordingly and give yourself plenty of time to exit draining areas.

Coastal creeks are particularly dicey, as winter lows will drain these arteries to impassable levels. Even when sufficient water remains inside the creek, treacherous bars often await near the mouths.

Cover your bases by checking the day's tide schedule (monthly tide charts are available at most bait shops), carrying a local navigation chart and paying attention to the water's movement.

Such precautions are no different than anytime you hit the water. Balance good angling technique with awareness of your surroundings and you'll enjoy hot fishing action during this warm winter.

You can bet we'll keep these angling axioms in mind as soon as the Magnuson brothers tell me they have the reds and black drum corralled in those winter holes.