Fishing 'frigid' Florida waters
PHOTO/CAPTAIN RICK GRASSETT
Carl Bettinger, from Albuqurque, N.M., caught and
released this nice trout on a Clouser fly fished
on a sink tip fly line while fishing a drop off
along a sandbar with Capt. Rick Grassett.
Local anglers are hopeful that the historic cold weather that decimated fish stocks state-wide last year will not repeat this year, even though this season began with even colder temperatures than last year. Water temperatures have been near killing lows several times this season, but we luckily have not seen anything like the massive fish kills that affected fish as far away as Flamingo and Islamorada. Chief among the victims last season were snook, tarpon, bonefish, cravelle jacks; but species including catfish, grouper, snapper and even mullet perished in large numbers. Every year in January and February, anglers need to change tactics to effectively target local gamefish. Conditions over the past two winters make catching fish more challenging than ever, but the same winter tactics we have always employed still produce results.
Captain Rick Grassett has fished local winters for over two decades and has been leading die-hard anglers to catches of trout, snook and redfish. He has employed methods learned over years of cold winter weather and has found that they remain effective in the unusually cold waters of the last two years. He usually fishes deep water such as docks, channels, potholes and drop offs along the edges of flats or sand and oyster bars for trout and reds. Docks are a particularly good area to find fish in the winter. In addition to trout and reds, you might also find sheepshead and flounder around docks. Since sheepshead feed more with their nose, a free lined live shrimp or a CAL jig tipped with a tiny piece of fresh shrimp will work best for them. He likes docks that are crusty (with lots of barnacles and oysters), have deep water and a good tidal flow. Many docks are constructed on seawalls that capture heat on sunny days and radiate it to the surrounding waters.
Low tides, particularly the negative low tides that occur near the full and new moons, will further concentrate fish into deep areas making them easier to find. Grassett prefers fishing jigs with plastic tails that have a lot of action when fished slowly along the bottom. A live or DOA shrimp crawled slowly along the bottom in the winter can also be deadly.
The same goes for fly fishing. Grassett uses weighted flies, such as Clousers or his Grassett Deep Flats Bunny flies, on sinking or sink tip fly lines to get flies down into the feeding zone. Fly materials such as bunny strips or marabou have a lot of action when fished slowly, which works well in cold water where fish tend to be sluggish.
Passes are another area to find fish during cold weather. Anglers can find blues and large ladyfish at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Longboat Pass, New Pass and Sarasota's Big Pass. A good strategy is to drift and vertically jig with 3/8 to 1/2- ounce jigs. When fly fishing, Grassett uses fast sinking fly lines with a short (6'-7 ½') leader and a weighted fly. When blues are plentiful, you'll need to use wire or heavy fluorocarbon leader to help prevent bite offs.
Snook are vulnerable to cold water caused by freezes or extended cold snaps, so Grassett avoids targeting snook during these time frames, since they are stressed and may not survive catch and release fishing. However, in a normal weather pattern you'll find them around lighted docks in the ICW (Intercoastal Waterway), in creeks and canals and on shallow flats on sunny afternoons. Grassett uses small white flies, like his Grassett Snook Minnow, or CAL jigs with a variety of tails in the ICW at night. In creeks, canals or on the flats jigs with plastic tails or small baitfish fly patterns should work. Grassett advises using good judgment as to when you target snook and use tackle heavy enough to catch and release them quickly. When the water temperature dips into the 50s, he won't target them. However, during warm ups between fronts there can be good action with snook.
Even though conditions can be challenging in winter, fishing can be very good, especially if you have the luxury of choosing when to fish. Fish ahead of approaching fronts and in the windows of stable weather between fronts for the best action. Fishing areas protected from wind following fronts when reds and trout may move onto shallow grass flats or onto the edges of bars on warm, sunny afternoons is more comfortable for fish and anglers too. Anglers that employ these tactics and have a little patience and persistence should be able to find some dependable action in area waters. Break out a chart, look for deep water, chart the tides and employ a strategy that gives you the best chance of finding your quarry. Cold weather doesn't have to keep you off the water!