So far, December has been amazingly warm in the Tampa Bay area. December days hitting the low 80’s? Pinch me! As an angler, if you get out before or after any cold fronts, you can find some pretty awesome inshore fishing here on the Suncoast. Approaching fronts will keep offshore boats tied to the dock most of the times but for inshore anglers, if you do your homework, fishing in protected areas can take place almost any time. The key is to find a few protected “honey holes” that are out of the wind. When you do find your honey holes, the action can be hot! Here is a guide for the various fish you’ll find around Tampa Bay this winter and what jigs you should use to catch them.
Trout fishing closures have been eliminated as of February 1 for the entire state, so this means that the trout season is open for take for recreational anglers. Strong management practices for this fish have allowed the additional months of open season without reducing the numbers of fish to the point where it would negatively affect the SPR (spawning potential ratio). Speckled trout are pretty tasty. I have one client who says this is his favorite eating fish, so I am often on the hunt for it. Speckled trout are available on most grass flats. Look for those with good moving water – that’s where you’ll find the best action. Sarasota Bay is a top spot for these fish. Longboat Pass and New Pass areas bring strong water flow into the areas in between, and the grass flats west of the canal going into Cannon’s Marina are some of the best for trout fishing. The Sister Keys and the flats to the south and east of that area and north to Jewfish Key just inside Longboat Pass are awesome places to start looking for trout. If you use live shrimp under a popping cork or a DOA Deadly Combo, you will quickly reach your trout limit.
MirrOlure TTR series plugs for deep cuts are veteran producers of big trout. When water temperatures are cold, these fish generally glue themselves to the bottom. Surface lures lose effectiveness in cold weather with only a few exceptions, and those times are near the tail end of a string of warm, sunny days, usually in the afternoon during the peak of warmth. Chuck a jig out with a long cast using a light braided line like 10-pound Power Pro, and a 15-to 20-pound test stealthy leader like Ande Fluorocarbon or Backcountry co-polymer and you have a good shot at catching dinner. I like the CAL ¼-ounce chartreuse jig head coupled with a CAL #305 night glow or the #309 night glow/ holographic gold rush Shad tail. In the same colors, the DOA Shrimp is a deadly winter lure.
Redfish are one of our heartiest winter fish. They will cooperate under extreme conditions. But don’t confuse these fish with something easy to catch, because under clear water conditions, they can get spooked easily, so stealthy approaches to reds are a must.
A wide assortment of lures will take redfish. MirrOlure’s Lil’ John soft plastic jerk bait rigged on a sixteenth or an eighth ounce jig head lands softly on the water, keeping from spooking wary fish. Redfish that will feed can usually be found in small protected coves that are sheltered from the wind, but have access to direct sunlight. A dark muddy bottom will heat up quickly as the sun rises and heads for the afternoon. Move these lures slowly with sharp, short twitches of the rod. Braided line with a 20-to 25-pound leader will suffice. When water is very clear, make leaders at least 30-inches long. Leaders that are at least this long will add a bit of stealth and put spookish redfish at ease. A CAL Shad is a favorite of mine for redfish in the shallows – an assortment of colors will work, from dark to light. These fish will get so shallow at times only a wade fisher or very shallow drafting boat will get to them. Skinny water reds can be found sunning themselves with their backs exposed to the air. This is when you’ll find them easy to spook, so taking care to avoid noises and boat wakes is imperative if you want to catch reds. Avoid running outboard motors. Run trolling motors on their lowest speeds. A good motor can be used with care to avoid spooking shallow water reds, but some opt for a push pole for moving about in the shallows too. Either way, keep the noise off the water and you’ll have better success with redfish.
Flounder made a tremendous presence in recent years. Exceptional numbers of some fairly large flounder were caught, mostly on jigs and lures that could be worked on the bottom. Catching flounder is not difficult, providing you are fishing where the fish are. Passes and artificial reefs are some of the most productive areas to find flounder. The edges of the ICW that run out of Cannon’s Marina and head to Longboat Pass can hold good numbers of “flatties.” Artificial lures, like jigs, work best. Maintain contact with the bottom with your jig as much as possible. Twitch the jig with your rod tip down, forcing the jig to move minimally across the bottom, kicking up small puffs of mud as the lure moves. This action attracts attention from flounder that may be following your jig.
Silver trout can be found in deep holes in Tampa Bay, along the beaches, and up rivers like the Manatee River. Good numbers are caught each year in Terra Ceia, Tampa and in Sarasota Bays, on the Middle Grounds flats. Tandem rigged jigs like the new DOA Deadly Tandem are excellent for silvers. There are no bag or size limits on silvers. These fish do not freeze well. The flesh of silver trout deteriorates rapidly once it is frozen. So, eat your Silver the day you catch it. Make sure you keep only enough that gives you what you need for a fresh meal or two. This gives you the best flavor and maintains the resource.
Sheepshead will be coming into their spawn around the full moon beginning in February. Some of the largest sheepies of the year are usually caught during the next two months. They are a tough catch on artificial lures, but tipping jigs with a small thumbnail size morsel of fresh shrimp can add to your mixed winter bag of fish. You’ll find the bulk of these fish around boat docks and structure, like the many artificial reefs that were made from the rubble of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Lower Tampa Bay around the Clam Bar on the Pinellas side is notorious for holding some monster black drum that begin moving into the bay over the next couple of months. Many of these breeders range up into the 50-plus pound bracket. Due to their size, stout rods and line are advised in order to land these beasts. Like the sheepshead, these fish will take a shrimp tipped jig. A bag limit of five fish per person between 14 and 24-inches may be kept and one of these five may be over 24-inches. Black drum over the maximum size begin holding more parasitic worms. While they may be harmless to ingest when cooked properly, some feel that they aren’t very appetizing. Boat docks in Sarasota Bay are great spots to find black drum as well.
Finally, pompano, one of Florida’s best-eating fish can be found on the flats this time of year. Sarasota Middle Ground flats, Big Sarasota Pass, Longboat Pass, and the flats near Key Royale are some great spots to find pompano. Small short skirted jigs work well for pompano, but a jig made in Pinellas called Doc’s Goofy Jigs is becoming the standard for pompano.
This winter may not be much to talk about with the meteorologists, because it’s been so mild, but for sure, if you’re an angler, the fishing for this winter, is one you may never forget.