We’ve been through a cold snap that is typical of strong El Niño cycles. You’ve gotta make adjustments to your targeted fish and engage winter tactics. These adjustments can put you in the cold-water fishing game; it's better than sitting around watching Oprah. Winter neap tides, although not as strong as spring tides, do tend to localize ganged-up fish in potholes, creeks, and around bridges and other structure adjacent to deeper tidal current-driven water. Winter is a lazy time for our subtropical warm water-oriented gamefish. Once the water gets into the low 60s the major gamefish become rather torpid.
Snook don’t tolerate water much under 63 degrees for prolonged periods; for all intents and purposes they should be taken off the list of targeted species. Snook won’t abide much manhandling in cold water, even safe releases are questionable. Snook are better off left alone to weather the winter cold fronts in peace. This approach will help insure that future snook stocks remain healthy and fishable!
Redfish will bounce back, given a few days or a week to regulate body functions to the cold snaps. Reds to will require even slower patterns than usual. Presentation should be close to the bottom around current breaks in areas where the “pizza delivery”—foraging zones—provide easy pickings for the spottails. A wide variety of cut bait morsels will fill the bait bill of fare.
Shrimp are, across the board, the easiest and perhaps the most desirable winter-over bait. Shrimp begin their annual migration toward the Gulf in crisp fall weather and continue throughout much of the winter months, a movable feast of the highest order. Frozen shrimp or livies are a go-to offering in cold weather. All the gamefish species in Florida are shrimp-hungry critters, just like our snow birds, yummy!
Back to sheepies; sheepshead are the most temperature tolerant species in our water, excepting in the steamy mid-summer cook-offs when waters can reach into the 90s. They will still eat in the deeper creeks and out on the nearshore reefs; soak a shrimp, mole crab or tubeworm and our striped munchers will be happy to oblige, making for some home cookin'.
Small circle hooks, about size 1 or 2, on a light fluorocarbon or mono leader—20 is good—will hold a wholesmall shrimp, shrimp chunk, mole crab or section of tubeworm when laced on, hiding the hook. A single hook rig with a sliding egg sinker will anchor the bait in the strike zone and allow a short dropback before making a modest “ beer curl” hook set. The “beer curl” hook set is bowing the rod tip down, “walleye-style, then raising it up in a smooth steady set, like raising a beer to your lips. “No Jimmy Huston lip-stripping hook set here; let the circle hook do the work. With the set of “chompers” the sheepies have, let ‘em drag off the morsel and turn on a one or two count. This allows the hook to get in the corner of their maw for a sure set. Though much maligned by hot shot sports, sheepies give a good account for themselves and are battlers that require a smooth drag and a rod with backbone to yoke ‘em outta the pilings and rip-rap-strewn structures.
Close cousins once or twice removed, the black drum share an appetite for much the same fare as the sheepies. Black drum will tend to be bigger than the average sheepshead and will eat a larger chunk of bait. We get an inshore migration of black drum in Southwest Florida that includes herds of fish into the 20-30-40 pound range. These “mega sluggos” will bend your rod doubled over. Half a blue crab isn’t too big for these vise-jawed creature crunchers. It’s all good stuff, for adding some adrenalin to those chilly weather homeboy trips.
Capt. Ron Kowalyk: 239-267-9312