December angling along the coast is likely to be impacted in some areas by the continuing red tide, with both St. Joseph Bay and St. Andrews Bay forecast to have “moderate” levels of the noxious alga bloom.
Fortunately, it’s easy to jump in the car or boat and head west to Choctawhatchee Bay and Pensacola Bay, both of which are showing clear in the NOAA weekly forecast, though the beach areas adjacent to both are labeled “very low” to “low”. Traveling east to Apalachicola Bay is also an option—again, the bay itself is showing clear of red tide, but there’s a thin crust of “very low” readings along the beaches.
Biologists tell us that most fish can live in the low to very low levels of bloom, but as all experienced anglers know, they won’t bite if there’s any red tide at all around—just as you don’t feel like eating when you’ve got the flu, the fish appear to lose their appetite. If you want to go fishing this month, go where the red tide isn’t.
Back bay action
Both trout and reds tend to crowd into the back country when it gets chilly, settling into deeper holes in the creeks, canals, channels, marinas, around the bridges and in prop dredges around larger docks. As this is written, water temperature is around 68 degrees along the beaches, but with the forecast for some nights with air temperatures in the high 30’s and low 40’s within the next week, the water will be chilling off fast, moving lots of fish to their winter homes.
The water in Panhandle bays stays warmer than that along the beaches in winter because the fresh water coming in from the rivers is stained with tannin from cypress and other vegetation, and that black water acts as a heat sink anytime the sun hits it. The warmer water attracts bait, which in turn attracts fish.
Some shallow areas also have dark mud bottoms, multiplying the heating effect. Any sort of little bayou or slough letting off the main bays can attract fish, particularly on calm, sunny afternoons, when reds and trout sometimes move into water just a couple feet deep for a bit of sunning. These fish are very spooky and a slow, silent approach by wading or on push pole or trolling motor is a must, but if you can get within casting range and toss a streamer fly, shrimp imitation or a small jig, they’ll often bite.
Finding the fish
Though large numbers of trout and reds move into the bays in winter, they’re usually concentrated in relatively few areas—you have to find those concentrations to score.
Big screen sonar with side scan makes it easy to locate the action with a bit of patient idling around likely areas—hard bottom areas with rock or shell outcrops often hold fish, as do the pilings of many of the larger bridges spanning the bays.
It also works to do it the old-fashioned way—put out two or three swimmer tail jigs of varying weights and troll them just fast enough to keep them off bottom through anywhere you suspect the fish might gather. Weights of ¼, 5/16 and 3/8 ounces are about right for areas 6 to 10 feet deep, the most likely zone through much of the winter. Z-Man makes some good ones, and their ElazTech tails are softer than normal plastic, yet far tougher. The Mirrolure Marsh Minnow is also a favorite of many.
Where you get one fish there are usually a lot more at this time of year, so stop trolling and anchor as soon as the first trout comes aboard; it’s not uncommon to catch dozens from a pothole about the size of the average bedroom.
Some of the larger rocky holes may hold not only trout but also reds, sheepshead and flounder, and some of these spots are well up the tributary creeks and rivers—it pays to explore at this time of year.
If you’re seeking redfish, look for structure—they particularly like to hang on pilings of the main bridges, often where the shallower flats drop off rapidly towards deeper water. Trolling a deep-diving plug like a Mann’s Stretch 15 is a good way to locate the schools. Again, where you find one there will usually be several—putting down live pinfish, cut mullet or Berkley Gulp crabs is a good way to connect, though they will also hit ½ ounce and larger jigs with 4 to 6 inch tails—the Tsunami Swim Shad is often a good one.
The right baits
While you can put a lot of fish in the boat with nothing more than a basic quarter-ounce jig with a 3 to 4 inch grub tail in shrimp-brown color hopped slowly across bottom at this time of year, offering them some variety may bring better results after you’ve caught several out of a school.
Sometimes all it takes is a change in tail colors, going from the shrimp colors to shad or sardine colors of pearl, white or pale gray.
It can also be very helpful to put a tiny bit of “sweetener” on the jig hook—a sliver of fresh-cut shrimp about the size of a pencil eraser adds scent, and that sometimes doubles the number of bites. The scent also makes the artificial much more attractive to sheepshead and flounder.
Avoid big chunks of shrimp—they ruin the action of the lure. However, some anglers who target sheepshead do well by dispensing of the soft plastic jig tail completely, and replacing it with the tail section of a fresh shrimp threaded all the way onto the hook. You go through a lot of shrimp, but you also catch a lot of sheepshead.
It’s also possible to attract sheepshead to pilings of bridges and large docks by knocking the barnacles off the pilings, creating a chum line of busted shell and meat. Fishing a piece of cut shrimp straight down in this chum, with enough weight to keep the bait close to the piling, often results in heavy catches.
Shrimp imitations like the DOA Shrimp, LIVETARGET Shrimp and the Egret Lures Vudu Shrimp can also be very effective—fish them dead slow, just like a live shrimp, for best results.
If you’d like to take home some flounder—and who wouldn’t—opt for live killifish, aka “bull minnows”, which are often available at area bait shops at this time of year. These are 3 to 4 inch minnows that seem irresistible to the tasty flatfish, as well as to redfish. (Live shrimp are a distant second when it comes to flounder, but they do work.)
The bull minnows are usually fished nose-hooked on a drop shot rig, with the weight on the tag end of the line, the hook suspended on a short dropper from 1 to 3 feet above. Size 1 to 1/0 octopus style hooks in light wire work well for this duty—avoid the extra-strong hooks used for larger fish because they’ll kill the bait.
Spinning tackle with 15-pound-test braid and a yard of 15- to 20-pound test mono or fluoro leader is the right tackle for this task—the rig allows casting baits to potholes and docks inshore as well as fishing vertically in the passes and around the nearshore reefs. A double uni-knot joins line to leader, allowing casting when a swivel will stick in the guides.
The best flounder bite at this time of year is usually in the passes and around reefs close to the beach as the fish move into the gulf to spawn, but the hint of red tide in these areas this year may slow or eliminate that bite. Still, it’s worth checking—when the run is on, anglers routinely put a 10 fish limit in the boat in a few hours.
Repeat cold fronts, as often occur in late December and on through February, can push coastal fish for miles inland, into water that’s completely fresh.
From the east, the Apalachicola, St. Marks and East Rivers dumping into Apalachicola Bay can be very good not only for trout and reds but also for large bass and stripers.
Choctawhatchee River, Mitchell River, Cypress River, Indian River and Oak Creek Cutoff, all on the east end of Choctawhatchee Bay are often productive due to plunging holes, some over 20 feet.
The Intracoastal Waterway canal dredged between Choctawhatchee Bay and West Bay is not fresh water, but because it’s consistently 12 feet deep, it can draw lots of winter fish as well—pay particular attention to areas where creeks run into the canal.
Pensacola Bay is fed primarily by the Blackwater and Yellow Rivers, and both of these can lure fish far inland during cold snaps, as well—again, you can catch both salt and fresh water species on the same trip at times.
In short, December fishing may require a bit of hunt-and-peck operation until you find clean water that has bait and fish, but once you find them, it can turn into a holiday fishing bonanza that will last for weeks.