Changes in the seasons are under way and fish are reacting in a positive way for anglers. During the fall daylight hours begin to get shorter and the hours of darkness increase. This triggers a signal for fish to begin preparing for the cold days and weeks ahead when winter finally sets in. Fish prepare for this change by feeding more heavily, and for anglers that’s a good thing. Fish can lower their guard when approaching a lure or hooked bait, making them more vulnerable to being caught.
Cold weather can put fish in danger when it drops to extremes. Knowledge of this fact will give you a clue as to what will happen with snook, possibly the most revered inshore species we target. These fish can die if they are in an area that where water temperatures drop to extreme lows. So these fish will move ahead of cold weather to locations where these extremes do not occur as a general rule. Snook that have spent much of the summer on the beaches and in passes are now moving into the backcountry inside barrier islands. With the water temperature still in the 80’s baitfish, the staple in their diets will still be inside the bays. Snook will target scaled sardines and killifish in these locations as well as shrimp. But as water cools, these fish will look for deep water up rivers and creeks, and possibly areas adjacent to dark, shallow mud flats. Tannin, or a tea stained color in the rivers will absorb heat during winter, making the area warmer, just as dark mud bottom areas. So if you’re looking for snook, choose areas that are between the beaches and passes and those that ultimately these fish will be located when it gets cold and fish for them during periods of good moving water, typically weeks during the new and full moons. Because these fish are ambush predators, they use strong currents and moving water to carry their food to them versus going out and hunting down food to eat.
1. Let Mullet be Your Guide for Redfish
During the fall months, redfish congregate to spawn. Smaller fish that grow and stay in the estuaries during the first few years will move with the schools of breeder sized fish that come in from the Gulf. Longboat Pass, New Pass, and Big Sarasota Pass as well as the mouth of Tampa Bay are the entry and exit areas for these fish. Fishing near these areas and around mullet schools will put you in the right spots that you’ll find redfish. Mullet will begin schooling up over the next couple of months as they prepare to leave the bays to spawn in the Gulf. But as they forage in the grass beds for food, crabs, shrimp, and tiny baitfish will pop up out of the grass where redfish will feed on them. So mullet are an indicator of where you’ll find the opportunistic redfish feeding on what the mullet stir up, making it easier for them to find fish. Since redfish don’t rely on water movement to carry food to them as much, they grub around on the bottom for crustaceans and small baitfish wherever they move to. Finding pinfish, shrimp, crabs, or tube worms will give you a clue that redfish are nearby.
2. Trout, Come Forth!
Trout fishing gets a little easier during the cooler months. The blistering hot summer months push these fish out to deep water sometimes where they are more spread out. As fall’s cooler months approach, these fish move into the flats and hold in more shallow water. Shrimp, killifish, pinfish, and finger mullet are prime targets for trout. As juveniles, they rely mostly on shrimp and small baitfish for their diet mainstays. As they get larger, usually over 20-inches, these fish can become cannibalistic, eating other trout and baitfish. They won’t refuse a shrimp but finger mullet, pinfish, grunts, and other baitfish offer more protein that become more desirable to them. But in the winter months, finger mullet, killifish, and shrimp are the top forage for them. Find deep potholes and on every negative low tide with a north wind you’re likely to find some trout.
3. Flounder Become More Aggressive
Cooler weather makes a push of flounder move into the shallow artificial reefs just off the beaches and inside the bays. These fish become very aggressive, feeding on shrimp, baitfish, or whatever else they can ambush. Their amazing chameleon-like ability to change color with the bottom makes them nearly undetectable. When they settle on the bottom they move their fins to kick up silt or sand on the bottom to help camouflage themselves along with their color change. All that remains to the naked eye are their eyes. They lay and wait to ambush whatever swims or crawls by.
4. Pelagic Species Migrate South (to us!)
Fall weather also triggers a migration of pelagic species that move from the Panhandle southward. Cobia, bonito, Spanish and king mackerel are prime species that move here. Areas along the beaches are top spots to look for these fish, but inside any pass that empties baitfish into the Gulf will attract these fish. Bright flashy spoons attract the Spanish and king mackerel. Spanish will move into the bay while kings typically hang outside unless you’re fishing Tampa Bay. Kingfish will follow the movement of baitfish like menhaden, threadfin herring, and blue runners up inside the bay to feed on them. But ladyfish and small Spanish mackerel are also prime targets for these toothy fish to feed on. Cobia will stage up on structure that holds baitfish. Most channel markers and range markers or piers and bridges that hold baitfish will also hold cobia.
While I love the summer and the sand and salt air, the heat can be stifling at times, and fishing can slow. But with cooler fall weather on the way, the action can explode, and it requires a bit of preparation. Checking line for wear, guides on rods to make sure they are good, and drags on reels to be sure they are smooth will pay dividends when the action blows up and the bite is on. And for me, the fall fling is a good thing, and a sign that it’s time to go fishing!