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Seasonal Insights: Navigating Winter Fishing Challenges and Opportunities (Fishing Tips and Report)


waterman skiff
Calm waters at sunrise

As November comes to a close, time seems to slip away with remarkable speed. Some attribute this acceleration to the end of Daylight Savings Time, while others simply chalk it up to the whirlwind of activity that typically accompanies the holiday season. Though I wish I could claim that my recent weeks have been exclusively spent on the water, the unpredictable weather in the Sunshine State has made that endeavor somewhat challenging. Florida, for all its reputation as the "Sunshine State," has not been living up to its name in recent weeks. A barrage of rainy days and persistent gusts of wind, not to mention intermittent rain showers, has made consistent fishing a bit elusive. However, this does not mean that the time has been idle.

 

Between fishing excursions, fly-tying sessions, and boat maintenance tasks, I've managed to undertake a complete overhaul of the main section of our house. This has involved the installation of new flooring, fresh coats of paint, and tackling those dreaded chores that always seem to linger. Additionally, I've cherished moments spent with my grandson and family during the Thanksgiving holiday. As the year-end approaches, I am optimistic about dedicating more time to the water in the upcoming weeks, provided the weather takes a turn for the better.

 

Speaking of weather, it has been a dominant factor influencing our ability to access the water. 2023 has proven to be an atypical year in terms of weather patterns. Typically, this season brings a predictable cycle of rain followed by a few days of brisk winds, ultimately giving way to several days of idyllic weather. However, the past month has defied this pattern, subjecting us to prolonged stretches of rainfall, strong winds gusting at 25-35 miles per hour, and limited opportunities for enjoyable fishing. Thankfully, the long-range forecast hints at a return to more typical weather conditions as we move into December. One certainty is the cooling temperatures, which the fish are undoubtedly relishing.

 

The arrival of December and January heralds significant changes in the water, promising exceptional sight-fishing opportunities. Initially, water levels will begin their descent from King Tide levels to more customary ranges. This decline will entice fish out of the mangroves and marsh grasses, drawing them back to shorelines and oyster beds. Lower water levels not only enhance the likelihood of spotting fish but also improve the chances of presenting bait to them successfully. Simultaneously, the drop in temperatures will bring greater clarity to our waters. Winter months see our waters attain a level of crystalline clarity that rivals any aquatic environment worldwide. Since we have been fortunate to avoid significant algae problems in recent months, the water is already showing signs of clearing up, a trend expected to persist. While pockets of turbidity may persist due to sediment disturbance, overall water quality is set to improve. What does this mean for anglers?

 

The clear, shallow water will necessitate adjustments in angling tactics. While enhanced visibility and access to fish are advantageous, they also heighten the fish's wariness. Remember, if you can see them, they can see you. Redfish, seatrout, black drum, sheepshead, and snook will rely heavily on their keen eyesight and lateral lines to detect disturbances in the water and air. It's time to focus on stealth and minimizing your presence in their domain. Here are some key tips to aid in your pursuit:

 

1. Slow Down: This advice is perennial, but it holds even greater significance now. Approach your fishing area cautiously; avoid running your outboard too close. Instead, halt a few hundred yards away and either pole in or use your trolling motor on its lowest setting. Inside the fishing area, take your time and methodically work the terrain, moving slowly and deliberately. This approach extends to your retrieve, particularly on chilly mornings when fish tend to be lethargic.


 

2. Lengthen and Lighten Your Leaders: Whether using conventional gear or fly-fishing equipment, it's essential to opt for longer and lighter leaders. During this season, I often drop my leaders to 8 to 12 pounds on the tippet and add a couple of feet to their length. This reduces visibility and minimizes vibrations in the water. While some anglers favor fluorocarbon, I prefer to rely on standard leaders as long as they remain unblemished, as fluorocarbon can lose its effectiveness if nicked.

 

3. Downsizing Baits: Regardless of whether you're using live bait, artificial lures, or flies, downsizing is the key. Almost everything I employ adopts a "finesse" approach during this time. I use smaller jig heads, slimmer profiles, and diminutive eyes on my flies. This allows for a delicate entry into the water with minimal disturbance, reducing the risk of spooking the fish.



 4. Side-Arm Casting: Becoming proficient in side-arm casting is vital. This applies to both conventional and fly-fishing techniques. Keeping the rod, line, and bait closer to the water surface diminishes their visibility to fish. In contrast, swinging a 7-9-foot rod overhead increases the chances of detection. Mastery of side-arm casting requires practice to achieve accuracy and coordination.

 

5. Reduce Glitter and Glitz: While not an absolute rule, reducing flash and glitz in your bait can be beneficial. Clear water requires less artificial attraction, so opting for more natural colors and minimizing flash can often yield better results. If fish initially ignore subdued offerings, experiment with adding flash to elicit a reaction strike.

 

These tips should enhance your success during your winter fishing expeditions. However, it's important to remember that there are exceptions to every rule—except for the "slowing down" part. I cannot stress enough the importance of approaching your fishing area with caution from a distance. Doing so not only improves your chances of catching fish but also contributes to the protection of our seagrass beds. Over the past two years, we've witnessed a remarkable recovery in our seagrasses, and it's incumbent upon all of us to do our part in ensuring their continued health. One of the most significant threats to seagrasses is propellers running through them and uprooting them. Once the roots are damaged, recovery takes years. Those who remember the state of our waters in the 80s and 90s will recall the scars left by countless propellers on the grass flats. Let's collectively strive to prevent history from repeating itself.

 

Now, let's shift our focus to the fish. I'll begin with Redfish in this report. Redfish will undoubtedly become the primary target over the next few months, as the conditions for sight fishing reach their zenith during winter. The water temperature will dictate where I concentrate my efforts. On cold mornings, we'll explore areas near drop-offs adjacent to flats. These locales provide fish with respite from temperature fluctuations and some protection from avian predators. When dolphins make appearances, the drop-offs enable Redfish to swiftly retreat to shallow waters for safety. As the day warms, and the water temperature reaches a certain threshold, the magic begins. Crabs and shrimp emerge from the mud, and the fish ascend to feed on these delectable offerings. This period marks the zenith of sight fishing fun. It's worth noting that Redfish in the Mosquito Lagoon Estuary are strictly catch-and-release.



 


Seatrout on fly
Chunky seatrout on the fly rod

Seatrout fishing presents another enticing option for anglers. Many smaller Seatrout will occupy deeper holes and drop-offs. In contrast, most larger specimens will remain on the flats, seemingly impervious to the cold. Recent years have witnessed a decline in the population of Gator Seatrout, largely due to overfishing during the COVID-19 pandemic when an influx of boats hit the water daily. Additionally, the scarcity of seagrasses hindered successful spawning. While our seagrasses have shown improvement, Gator Seatrout numbers are slowly recovering. To expedite their return, I implore you to release all Seatrout over 19 inches, despite regulations allowing for the retention of one. The larger fish are critical for spawning, and preserving their eggs takes precedence over a wall-mounted trophy. Currently, the season remains catch-and-release only, with the opening scheduled for January.

 

The resilient Black Drum have thrived in recent years, particularly in muddy conditions. These underappreciated fish don't command the same attention as their Redfish and Seatrout counterparts, perhaps due to their muted coloring and slimy exterior. However, Black Drum deserve more recognition. They are formidable fighters, pose a challenge to catch, and the smaller ones are delectable on the table. If Bonefish are the racecars of the flats and Redfish are the sportscars, Black Drum are the rugged four-wheel drives. They may lack the swiftness of other species, but their sheer power is unparalleled. These fish boast a robust physique, a broad, sturdy tail, and an unyielding tenacity to keep pulling. While they can be stubborn and selective feeders, especially the solitary individuals, their voracity on certain occasions is awe-inspiring. Our waters also host many Black Drum exceeding 20 pounds, with numerous specimens in the 30-40 pound range.



 Snook present a unique challenge during the upcoming months. Snook are warm-water fish and can only tolerate colder temperatures briefly. In extreme cold, they risk exposure-related mortality. It is crucial to handle these trophy fish with care and ensure their safe release. Most mornings will find Snook dwelling in deeper waters to conserve warmth. As the day progresses and the sun shines, they venture into shallower areas to bask in the warmth. However, when the water remains cool, they tend to be lethargic, requiring precise casts and slow retrieves to tempt them into striking. You will need to coax them into eating, and if there's a significant warm-up for a day or two, they will become voracious feeders. Some of the largest Snook of the year can be captured during this period if you have the patience to target them.


Snook fishing
Florida snook fun

While these species are the primary targets, there are plenty of other opportunities as well. Sheepshead, Mangrove Snapper, and Flounder can all be pursued during this season, each offering its own unique angling experience and the promise of thrilling catches.

 

If you're searching for the perfect gift, consider my gift certificates, which are available for purchase. These certificates encompass fly casting instruction and fishing trips, and each one is personalized for the recipient. Between now and December 20, 2023, any gift certificate for a fishing trip will also include a complimentary shirt or hat. Additionally, I offer custom fly boxes, and prices vary based on the selection and quantity of flies.

 

For booking a trip, ordering a gift certificate, or discussing custom flies, please feel free to email me at captainjohn@tailhunteroutdooradventures.com or give me a call at (386) 314-5998.


Until next time, may the winds be calm, the waters clear, and the fish hungry. Tight lines and screaming drags!

Captain John Tarr

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