Winter Fishing and Tips for Success
Happy New Year anglers! We have entered the second month of 2024 and I hope this update finds you all doing well. I know there are a lot of you that are covered in snow and ice, fighting the doldrums of winter’s freezing grip. As I sit here writing this, Florida is enjoying a little warm-up, with a high temperature of almost 80. It seems we have hit out typical Florida winter pattern, where we have to suffer a couple of days of cold weather and then we warm up for a few days. For us, the difficulty lies in surviving those couple of cold days. Last week we dropped into the low 40s and it appears we will do the same thing for two days next week. I am hopeful this pattern continues, as it will allow our temperature sensitive fish species to survive without a major problem. This has been the case so far, with the snook and small tarpon able to withstand the two or three cool days and then enjoying the warm-ups for another three or four days.
The cooler weather has done a wonderful job of clearing up the local waters, killing off any algae that was attempting to grow. Our waters are beautiful, with visibility on the flats being almost limitless. This has made sight fishing conditions spectacular for redfish, black drum, and other fish that patrol the shallow waters looking for their next meal. In addition to clearing up, the water levels have also dropped a little, especially during low tide conditions. The lower water conditions are making sight fishing even more exciting, as redfish and black drum can be found tailing on the flats or backing along the shorelines. This visual aspect of fishing adds an element of excitement that is hard to beat and many anglers can develop buck fever when they first encounter it. The buck fever can become even worse when it is a school of fish instead of a single fish and this is quite common during the winter months.
The lower, clearer water conditions mean that anglers must adapt their casting and fishing styles for a better chance of success. First, when you start to choose your bait, it is time to downsize. Conventional anglers will find that dropping jig heads to 1/8 ounce or even 1/10 ounce will allow the bait to enter the water without spooking as many fish. I also like to use a jig head with a slimmer profile. Fortunately, Z-Man Fishing Products makes numerous “Finesse” jig heads in a variety of styles, colors and weights, making it easy to find a jig head that will work in any condition you face. I match these jig heads with their same “Finesse” soft plastic bodies or one of their slim profile baitfish patterns. By doing this, I can still place the jig close to the fish without spooking them like a heavier jig will. I take this same idea and transfer it to the fly-fishing realm. The vast majority of flies that I use are two to three inches in maximum length and I use small to extra small eyes on them. Again, the idea is for the fly to enter the water as delicate as possible and still make it to the bottom of the water column, where redfish and black drum like to feed.
The next thing you can do to enhance your chance of success is to lighten and lengthen your leaders. This becomes paramount when you encounter schools of fish instead of singles or doubles. I try to remind all clients that for these predators of the flats, death usually comes from above, in the form of humans and birds. So, I wants as much leader length as I can get. When you locate a large school of fish, you usually see the main grouping, not the outside of the school. If you lengthen your leader, on both fly-fishing gear and conventional gear, you have less chance of lining those outside fish with the colored line; which is much easier for them to see and throws a darker shadow. Just for an example, my average fly leader this time of year is 12 feet in length and the tippet is no more than 12 pounds.
One last very important tip is to lower your rod angle while making the cast. Again, whether you are casting conventional gear or fly-fishing gear, lowering that casting angle as parallel to the water as you can, reduces the chances of the fish seeing the waving stick in the air. It is important to understand that if you can see the fish, the fish can see you. Since we already talked about death from above, you just have to translate that to the shadow a moving rod makes. Not to mention, most of today’s rods have some type of shiny wrap on them, which reflects sunlight as it moves. Keep those rods low to the water, keep false casts to a minimum, and you will increase the number of times your offering makes it to the fish without spooking them.
Try these tips out and I can guarantee that you will be more successful on your winter fishing trips than a lot of other people. I’ve spent decades fishing for spooky, high-pressured fish and have learned these techniques to increase our chances of success. Of course, some other things are important too: take your time while poling or trolling the flats, shut down the main motor well in advance of approaching the flat, don’t rock the boat, minimize movement while on the poling platform; these are year-round tips.
Let’s talk some specific fish. I’ve had a few emails asking about tarpon and snook fishing right now. Tarpon in my area
are pretty much done, until spring time. Yes, we have some resident juvenile tarpon, but I just won’t chase them when it is cold. The fish are stressed out and in survival mode, so I try not to add to their stress. There is plenty of time to chase them when the waters warm up. However, snook are doing quite well. Like the tarpon, I avoid fishing them if the weather is really cold, as they are stressed. But, when we have those blue skies and bright sunny days, they come to the surface to sun and feed. Their appetite can be voracious during these times and the fishing can be red hot. We keep the fights as short as possible and release the fish with utmost care so they will be around for the next angler.
Redfish have been providing plenty of angling action. This is the time of year we find big schools of them and I have not been disappointed on any of the recent trips. We have located schools from 10-12 fish to well over 100 fish. Sometimes the schools are full of rat redfish (those fish in the 10–16-inch range) and sometimes they are fish in the 40-inch range. Just remember that these schools can be difficult, because if you spook one, you can spook the entire schools and they will be done. Patience and accuracy are needed. It’s difficult for first-time anglers to avoid getting buck fever and blowing the first few casts. That’s ok, because there have been plenty of fish to get shots at.
Seatrout have been showing themselves in good numbers too. The only disappointing part is that I have not seen a lot of big seatrout. Most of the seatrout have been schoolie size and they have been in large schools along drop-offs. These fish are hard to target sight fishing, but they react great to long, searching casts with topwater plugs and flies. I try to avoid using treble hooks, as the small fish just get wrapped in them and they can easily be killed. Instead of treble hooks, I use the single, in-line hooks for my plugs. The hook-up ratio is just as good and there is less chance of the fish becoming wrapped up in hooks. If you can’t get strikes on topwater, switch to a twitch bait that sits about a foot below the surface.
Black Drum are plentiful in the area too. Schools of black drum have been roaming flats from New Smyrna to Cocoa Beach and like the redfish, the schools have varied in numbers and size. I have a love-hate relationship with these fish. My clients have zero problems catching these fish when I have them out. But personally, I have no luck with them. I’m the guy that cast into a school of 300 black drum and come out with the only redfish in the school. I guess I could have worse things to complain about.
Freshwater fishing has been a little slower than I hoped for. The St John’s River, while dropping in water level, is still high. This is allowing all of the fish we target to be way up in the grass, where they are very tough to catch. I am hoping the water levels continue to drop and spring will bring a great bite of largemouth bass, crappie and then a wonderful bowfishing season for tilapia. I’ll keep everyone updated as the season progresses.
Until next time, get out there and enjoy the water! As always, if you are ready to enjoy a relaxing time, without the worries of having to prepare the boat and then clean it, give me a call and we will book your trip!
Tight lines and screaming drags,
Captain John Tarr