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February: A time to test your fishing skills
By Capt. Rick Grassett
February is one of the tougher fishing months in Southwest Florida due to frequent fronts and cool water. This year is even more challenging due to the effects of El Nino. An El Nino weather pattern, which we also had several years ago, causes more frequent fronts with more wind and rain than normal.

Snook season has reopened on February 1st. I catch most of my snook at night fishing around lighted docks and bridge fenders in the Sarasota to Venice area. A strong tide is critical to the success of a snook fishing trip, but I do equally well on incoming or outgoing tides. The key is to "match the hatch", which are usually glass minnows. I primarily fish small white flies on an intermediate fly line, although tiny jigs and soft plastic baits on spinning tackle will also work well. Live shrimp are also good winter snook baits. They can be drifted around structure with a split shot or suspended in stronger currents with a barrel sinker above a swivel.

Snook may also be found in rivers, creeks and dark-bottom areas during February. The dark bottom will absorb heat and may be several degrees warmer than surrounding waters. Baitfish or shrimp fly patterns, jigs and soft plastic baits are all good options in these areas. I tend to use larger lures or flies in these areas, since snook may feed on finger mullet or killifish. You can locate these areas on the new satellite aerial photography charts. The backcountry of Gasparilla Sound, Little Sarasota Bay and lower Tampa Bay has many good winter snook areas.

Reds will be found on the outside edges of bars and grass flats and in potholes during low winter tides. As the tide rises and the water warms, they will push their way onto flats and the top of sand or oyster bars to feed on crabs, shrimp and baitfish. You may find them tailing on shallow grass at the bottom of the tide. Gasparilla Sound in Charlotte Harbor has more tailing reds than any other area that I fish due to the bottom found there. I have had success on tailing reds with weedless-rigged soft plastic jerk worms and Skitterbug flies. Cast to the fish when it's tail is in the air and move your lure or fly when the fish is horizontal.

Docks are another area to look for reds during low tides. They will seek docks with deep water, hard bottom and good tidal flow. These are the ones that will more likely hold bait, particularly if the dock is an old crusty one. Siesta and Casey Keys and the mainland side of Little Sarasota Bay have lots of good docks.

Trout will spend more time feeding over grass flats when the water is cool. You may find them in potholes or on deep grass flats early in the day when the tide is usually low. Just like reds, as the tide rises and shallow flats warm they will feed higher on the flats. Focus on schools of mullet to locate "gator" trout, since they will follow them much like a cormorant following a boat. Big trout will feed on finger mullet, which is why I would use a lure or fly that imitates a baitfish. A live or plastic shrimp, either free-lined or fished under a popping cork, is another good option for trout, although the big trout will tend to feed more on baitfish.

I release all trout over 20" on my boat, since they are usually females. Handle them with care, since the slime on their bodies is delicate. I use a "J" hook release tool. If you have to touch them to remove a hook, use a wet hand or a Bogagrip while you support their body with a wet hand. Lower Tampa Bay, north Sarasota Bay and Gasparilla Sound have great trout habitat, which I fish often for trout.
Although I primarily fish lures and flies, I will sometimes tip a jig with a small piece of fresh shrimp during the winter when fishing docks. I have caught sheepshead, flounder, mangrove snapper, black drum, redfish and snook using this technique. The same techniques will work for sheepshead around oyster bars

Pompano or bluefish may be found over deep grass flats or in passes during February. Pompano prefer some sandy bottom, where they will feed on crustaceans, so grass flats with a mixture of sand and grass are best for them. They may "skip" on shallow grass flats as your boat drifts or runs past them, giving their presence away. When this happens, stop and drift the area casting small pompano or plastic-tailed jigs. In passes, you will need to use a 3/8 or ½ ounce pompano jig to keep it near the bottom. You can tip the jigs with a small piece of fresh shrimp to enhance it, but it's not always necessary. Bluefish may be found in the same areas. I prefer a larger plastic-tailed jig for them, since the hook shank is longer. They will also attack top water plugs over grass flats. When fly fishing over deep grass for pompano or bluefish, I use an intermediate fly line with a short (6') leader and an Ultra Hair Clouser fly. Sarasota's Big Pass and New Pass, and grass flats close to them, are prime areas for pompano and bluefish.

Of course, it you just want to bend your rod, ladyfish and jack crevalle will be plentiful on deep grass flats, channels and in passes. They will school in these areas during cold weather and provide great catch and release action on light spinning or fly tackle. Following cold fronts when water temperatures drop drastically, they may drop into channels to find warmer water. Jacks can be as large as 10-pounds, which would require at least medium spinning tackle. When targeting these species with a fly, I use a 7, 8 or 9-weight rod with an intermediate fly line and an Ultra Hair Clouser fly. A fly angler once said to me, while catching large ladyfish on a 7-weight fly rod, "how can anyone disrespect these fish? They are as fast as the bonefish I've caught on the flats and they jump like a small tarpon!"

To be most successful try to plan your fishing trips based on conditions. The best fishing will be between fronts or as a front is approaching. Following a front, fishing in the afternoon when the water is warmer may be a better option. Of course, tide will still be a major factor in your fishing success. Whatever you choose to do, remember to always limit your kill; don't kill your limit!

Tight Lines,

Capt. Rick Grassett
Snook Fin-Addict Guide Service, Inc.
(941) 923-7799
E mail [email protected]
Web address www.snookfin-addict.com
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