If you can’t take the heat head FOR the kitchen! Growing up, the kitchen always seemed to be the hub of our house. There was usually something that smelled good, tasted good, looked good, or something I wanted to eat there. By the time I became a teenager, the kitchen was my place of homage. But the old saying, “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” seems to be opposite of what I know of fishing. Fish have a mobile kitchen of sorts that changes location based on temperature, and finding the location of that kitchen is important when the heat is on.
Summer has just begun and this year we’ve really gotten a jump on our seasons by air and water temperatures climbing well up into summer levels late in the spring. Water temperature on the flats recently has been nudging the 90-degree mark. Just like we turn on the air conditioner when it feels too warm to be comfortable, fish look for a place where the environment is suitable to stay, if for no more than a few hours. And for nearly all fish, the temperature approaches a point where fish begin looking for another place to get comfortable with cooler water. Fish tend to seek deeper water when temperatures climb this high, or they look for shady areas adjacent to channels or deep drop-offs. As for fish, both baitfish and predators alike, they seek the same levels of comfort, and for the predators, their ‘kitchen’ is anywhere the food is, just like when I was growing up. I guess you could think of it as kind of a food truck with fins.
Several things can affect the water temperature that makes up an area where fish either go or don’t go. Obviously the food source is the main reason predators like snook, flounder, trout, redfish, pompano, tarpon, mangrove snapper, and many others all look for places that hold bait. Water movement can enhance an area by cooling it on the incoming tide when Gulf water temperatures are cooler than the bays. Early morning rising tides will probably be at their coolest point at sunrise, but temperatures will generally rise from that point through about 3-to 4 P.M. when they peak for the day. New and full moon weeks see rising waters during these time frames. After this time, air and water temperatures begin to fall as the sun gets lower on the horizon. Afternoon thunderstorms are another factor that can be thrown in to change fishing conditions. Not only can it reduce water temperature but also change the salinity in shallow areas. But surface temperature will have the greatest change. Since oxygen levels can be at their greatest in cooler waters, sometimes a heavy downpour will lower the temperature and encourage fish to rise to the surface to feed.
Of all the species we fish for, the mangrove snapper and tarpon are the most tolerant of higher water temperature and lower oxygen levels. Tarpon can gulp air and can live in water that is depleted of much of the oxygen, but snapper prefer a higher level. Both seem to prefer depths ranging from 5-to 50-feet of water over hard bottom or structure that will hold baitfish or crustaceans. The natural formations of coral, limestone, and sponges at the upper end of Sarasota Bay, areas just off the beaches, and lower Tampa Bay are prime habitats for these fish.
Snook and redfish that choose mostly an inshore habitat may not move great distances to find comfort, but temperature is always the key. On days where rising water is in the afternoon, these fish may be found in two locations. Deep channels with good water movement provide more constant temperature as well as a moving food source with baitfish and crustaceans that ebb or flood with the tides. These areas should never be overlooked, but boat docks and barrier mangrove islands are always a good bet to find snook and redfish on rising tides due to the shade provided by overhanging mangrove limbs or dock planks and a constant food source that is the habitat for small baitfish and crustaceans that live in these shady spots. However, once the tide turns to move out, the first hour or so after the change can see some of the best action as bait flushes out of the bushes to the swash channels that form the perimeter of the mangrove, or from the protective structure of the dock. After that, predators find the natural escape routes the move off the flat into the channels again until the next tide phase.
Looking for the comfort zone for fish is important if you want to catch fish. A handy thermometer that reads water temperature is a must in both extremes of the year– winter and summer. Knowing where comfortable water is for each species you target, will put you right in the kitchen when it comes to finding fish that will feed.