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By FRANK SARGEANT

It's wet. It's cold. It's muddy. There's no place to sit, no cooler of drinks close by.
But for those who want the most interesting inshore winter action on Florida's west coast, wading the ankle-deep flats is the only way to go.

The fact there are fish in the extreme shallows seems a contradiction. The majority of snook, trout and reds head for deep water when things get really chilly. They move offshore, or into deep canals or rivers, and there they stay until spring.

But there are also plenty of fish - other than the cold-sensitive snook - that never desert the flats. And because the water is at its clearest in winter, with the low tides often at the lowest levels of the year, there's no better time for sight fishing.

``It's really my favorite time of year for fly fishing,'' said captain Pete Greenan of Sarasota, who often runs guide trips to Bull and Turtle bays, on the north shore of Charlotte Harbor, on the cold, windy days after a winter front. ``You know where the fish have got to be because the water is so low, and they're really easy to see most of the time, so that's a huge advantage.''

Greenan and others who specialize in winter flats wading say the wind often plays an important part in angling success.

After a front, the wind typically switches from northwest to northeast and blows at speeds of 20 mph or more. On the west coast, this pushes the tides far below their normal lows, draining most of the flats and leaving only a few sloughs and holes where any fish remaining inshore have to gather. If the front comes on a new or full moon, when tides are typically more extreme to start with, the effect is greatly increased.

The low water also makes it easy to spot fish that ``tail,'' or tip up to feed on crabs and mussels on bottom, exposing the tips of their tails and dorsal fins above the surface. Redfish are the species famed for this behavior, and they're the primary winter flats target. But sheepshead also prowl the same areas and feed the same way. Both species switch to bottom grubbing in winter, when shrimp and baitfish are scarce in the shallows.

Finding tailers is a matter of slowly wading the flats (most are far too shallow to pole even in a shallow-draft boat) and watching for the tip of a tail, a swirl or the flash of a fish's side. Sometimes, you might wade a quarter-mile or more without seeing anything, then move into an area where you spot a dozen reds tailing at once. The fish seem to travel in loosely connected schools.

In most sloughs, Greenan said, there is a strip of white sand where tidal scouring has removed the grass. The fish often stay on the edge of those strips, apparently using them as ``killing fields'' where they can attack any bait that strays into the open.

Reds take a variety of lures, including soft jerkbaits, topwaters, spoons and small jigs, as well as live shrimp. Sheepshead rarely take anything but fresh shrimp, and seem to be much more nervous on the flats than the reds. The best approach for both species is to cast well ahead of their line of travel and let them swim up to the offering, then begin to twitch and move it. Casting too close or working a lure too hard usually results in flushing the target.

Trout also can be found on the flats in winter but are more likely to seek out whatever deep holes they can find. They never seem to tail. A jig bounced along the edges of the holes usually does the job.

Fly anglers use an assortment of lures, including crab imitations and small streamers, and most are readily grabbed by the fish. The splash-free presentation seems less likely to spook them than casting with heavier lures on conventional gear.

Trout and reds also occasionally ``sun'' as the day after a severe cold front brightens. Because of the shallow water, the fish can warm up considerably by moving up onto black mud or dark grass and simply drowsing there as they soak up the rays, and it's not uncommon to come upon whole schools doing this between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun is strongest.

Waders are an essential part of winter flats fishing, even in Florida. With the water temperature from the low 60s to the mid-50s, a pair of neoprene chest waders feels awfully good, particularly early in the day.

There are limits to the temperatures the fish can tolerate in the shallows. A few years back, when air temperatures off Citrus County dropped into the low 20s overnight, many redfish were killed on the flats between the Chassahowitzka and Crystal rivers. But as long as air temperatures remain above freezing, patient, careful anglers can find plenty of action on the shallow flats.
 
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