Reel Time: Cold water strategy

When winter weather comes to southwest Florida, as it finally did recently, anglers need to alter their strategy to meet the changing conditions. Cold fronts traditionally drop water temperatures, cloud local waters and produce shifting cold winds. What we experienced in the last two weeks was an extreme version of the variable conditions Florida natives are used to. Before this major front, we had an unusually long spell of “stable” weather which itself can produce lackluster fishing. Fortunately, strong fronts yield to periods of calm and often balmy weather just as we’re experiencing now.

While weather conditions have always varied significantly, this first strong front was last this season. The sudden drop in temperatures put fish off for a few days but reports from Capt. Justin Moore and Capt. Rick Grassett indicated a return to consistent action as fish came back to feed over warming grass flats. Knowing the way different species respond to the chilling waters gives anglers an advantage. While winter fishing can be challenging, excellent action is available and persistence really pays dividends when the thermometer begins to plunge.

Reel Time: Cold water strategy
Stephen Smith, from Rumson, New Jersey, caught this bluefish in Sarasota Bay prior to an approaching cold front. – Submitted | Capt. Rick Grassett

The most sought-after species, snook, redfish and trout, respond differently to the cold but will all concentrate in areas where the surrounding waters are more temperate. Snook are most sensitive to the changing water temperature and migrate to rivers, canals and basins with deep water. There are several strategies to employ when fishing for all species, especially snook. Look for areas with dark bottom that absorb the heat of the sun warming surrounding waters, creating a magnet for the sensitive linesiders. Shallow bays and bayous that heat up quickly on sunny days and flush warm water on late afternoon outgoing tides can be particularly productive. Even the seawalls that line residential areas can warm the water and attract fish on cold days. It doesn’t take much of a temperature difference to concentrate them.

When fishing a particular flat, canal or basin, pay attention to areas that receive the most sun during the day. Explore water that is protected from cold north winds. The wind stirs the water, keeping it from absorbing the sun’s rays and warmth. Sun exposure, depth, protection from the wind and the color of the bottom all figure into the equation. Find these conditions and you’ll be in an area that is more desirable to fish.

When the weather prevents the sun from warming the water, look for deep areas that harbor fish. Channels, holes under big boats in canals and boat basins are all potential refuges for fish during cold weather. These areas warm more slowly, but they also cool more slowly.

All local species are affected by the cold water to some degree but many, like trout and redfish, have a higher tolerance. One strategy to employ, even under temperate conditions, is to slow your retrieve and keep close to the bottom. Top water can still be effective in the winter for species like bluefish, but anglers should slow their retrieve with plugs and poppers.

Some species actually thrive in cold water. A good example is sheepshead and black drum. Often shunned by anglers, both are hard fighting, challenging to hook and excellent to eat. Look for them around structure, particularly bridge and dock pilings where they feed on small crabs, shrimp and barnacles. Winter weather and cooler temperatures can also stimulate species like pompano, bluefish and mangrove snapper.

Use your senses, experiment, be persistent and you can experience some very good fishing during our cooler winter months.