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Finding Nemo: Where are the Fish Hiding this Spring?

captain ray markam with passenger and grouper
Nicole Fink with a Tampa Bay grouper caught on a CAL Shad and released while fishing with Capt. Ray Markham

This winter has certainly been an unusually warm one in the Tampa Bay area, but nobody’s complaining here. Record warm temperatures have made for ideal fishing conditions. So, how does this affect our fishing as spring approaches…and more importantly, where will the fish be hiding? This year, you’ll have to look for the more subtle signs that fish are making their “spring transition.” As the days get longer, the fish get hungrier, which means it’s time to fish!
To reap the benefits of spring fishing, you’ll need to notice the signs indicating that the fish are getting into a different pattern. Some are obvious, but some can be very subtle, and with not much of a weather transition going on due to our mild conditions, you’ll really need to pay attention to sense these very subtle changes so you can ultimately catch more fish.

Fish Hide & Seek

Normal winters will move fish into deep, dark, backcountry areas that are sheltered from wind, yet exposed to full sun, and up rivers where headwaters are spring-fed, and where an upwelling of ground water measuring 72-degrees will sustain fish even during the passages of the coldest fronts. Fish move into deep creeks where dark tannin-stained water retains heat from the sun. Bends in these creeks are the deepest areas and fish will hang near the bottom. Most of these areas don’t have much water movement, so turnover by winds rarely cool water very quickly.
But this winter has been radically different.
While many fish were holding in cold weather locations, quite a few never made that fall-to-winter transition, so they may be weeks ahead of the game when it comes to where they are now and where they will go.
The normal transition locations are at the mouths of rivers, creeks, and mosquito ditches. You can usually find them in open but sheltered small bays with open flats, oyster bars, submerged and surface points, and areas within short distances of passes.
As waters warm, the need for greater quantities of food, and more frequent feeding periods are normal. So, when going in search of more food, fish go on the hunt, looking for what’s available. So, when they’re on the hunt, so are we and finding out what they’re eating is our next clue.

The Menu: What are the fish eating?

Coming out of winter, Redfish will be found in backcountry areas on shallow mud flats that are exposed to full sun. As the shallow mud flat water temps rise, so do the metabolic rates of the resting reds. Shrimp that emerge from the warmed mud are quickly consumed. Tube worms also become exposed and reds will grub on the bottom for these as well. Most winter days have very low water, but on warmer days approaching this spring with southerly winds, tides will run higher, pushing reds, snook, and trout up around oyster bars to feed, where crabs as well as shrimp and worms will now be on the menu.
The first of baitfish to show on the flats can be found at passes, at creek and river mouths, and on points. These are needlefish. While not high on the food chain, they are what’s available. At this point, big trout, reds, snook, and more won’t turn down a needlefish! Usually from March through May, this rarely used baitfish can account for some monster fish, simply due to their availability. They are not user-friendly on a hook, but many substitutes in the form of soft plastics work as well. Among some of the best are the CAL Jerk baits in both the 5.5-inch and 4-inch model, the Mister Twister Exude RT Slug, the 12-Fathom Slam-R, and the MirrOlure 5” Provokers, Lil’ Johns, and Soft Minnows. There are many more, but these are some local favorites. These baits rigged weedless on a worm hook or on a light jig head can be deadly when properly presented. The slow darting action is irresistible to fish with growing appetites.
The appearance of scaled sardines, threadfin herring, and menhaden (a.k.a. shad), glass minnows, and ballyhoo on the flats follow the needlefish as water temperatures in the Gulf and bays rise. Warmer water in the bays will flush out into the Gulf on outgoing tides. The stronger tides around new and full moons push these warm waters out in the afternoons, luring these baitfish into the bays to feed. Most baitfish feed on algae and plankton that begin forming in the bays on warmer days, and so the cycle of life begins.

Longer days = warmer days

Most of us don’t notice the slow change in the amount of daylight each day, but if you’re used to getting up in pre-dawn hours to go to work, you’ll note that each day the sun begins rising earlier and sets later. This lengthening of the daylight hours as we approach spring allows the solar warming of the Earth. This year, Daylight Savings Time changes March 11, Sunday, where we change our clocks forward an hour. What does the longer day mean to fish? Added warmth means faster metabolism. Burning more food means that they must feed more often and for longer periods of time, and basically eat more food! It’s time to go fishing!!
Spring is in the air. Here in Manatee County orange groves silently push out buds in preparation for the growing season that produces the huge orange industry here. The first wafting scent of an orange blossom is a sure sign to me that the temperature and amount of available daylight are just right for snook to be moving out onto the flats. Populations are way down from previous years due to freezes in the past couple of years. But these fish will emerge hungry and ready to chew. They are less wary than most other times of the year and more easily caught. Careful release of these fish that are under a special closure here on the Gulf Coast will ensure maximum spawn come this summer.
As you drift along the flats, the “nubs” of grass will begin showing change. Turtle grass, manatee grass and most other sea grasses will begin to grow as water temperatures climb. This small change supports the habitat for baitfish, crustaceans, and others to grow and find shelter from predators, adding to the reason fish live where they do.
It’s all pretty basic – food, shelter and the perfect habitat all make for a fishery that is brimming with life. This spring may be a little different, but no matter how subtle the changes are, one thing is sure that fish know the transition of spring is under way. If you plan on fishing this spring, go into it with your eyes wide open, and you will see the benefits unfold.