The cold front the first week of March may slow the progression of spring fishing along the Panhandle’s coast, but it will only be a temporary setback. With the surf temperature already at 66, it will only take a warm, sunny week to push water temperature to the preferred 68-72 degree level that so many migrating gamefish prefer.
St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, is sort of the traditional kick-off for a lot of species that chase bait schools north into Panhandle waters from the Florida Keys in spring, with kings and Spanish mackerel usually showing first, tailed closely by cobia, jacks, bonito and other camp followers.
Kings and Spanish mackerel
Finding kings and Spanish is usually no challenge once the first bait schools arrive - they’re followed by clouds of gulls from above, gamefish from below. Anglers simply get out at dawn and look for the “white tornado," a whirlwind of diving birds, run to the spot and throw jigs or spoons into the melee.
After the sun gets up the bait usually goes down, but the kings and Spanish can still readily be found by trolling Drone-type single hook spoons behind number 1 to number 2 planers. (A strip of mullet belly or one of the 4-inch FishBites pork rinds increases the number of strikes, though they get cut off regularly.)
For larger kings - and some of the first arrivals tend to be the big mamas or 40 pounds and more – drifting live blue runners, ladyfish or mullet around the inlets and marker buoys is the way to go. Many area charter boats and some party boats concentrate on kings at this time of year.
Both kings and Spanish are also caught in big numbers from the large beach piers across the region. Live finger mullet or whatever bait can be sabiki’ed up around the pilings is preferred, but frozen cigar minnows drifted on multi-hook rigs get plenty, as well. Don’t forget to add a foot or so of number 4 to number 6 wire ahead of hook or lure—both species have very sharp teeth.
The first cobia are usually caught in March, but the action gets better late in the month and peaks in April most years. Cobia look a bit like blackish brown torpedoes, and are given to swimming along just under the surface in spring, sometimes in pods of 3 or 4. They show up anywhere from just outside the first bar to a mile or more offshore, and they’re usually headed westward at this time of year.
Sight fishing for cobia from a tower boat is the classic way to go, and anglers who can make long, accurate casts with heavy spinning tackle can expect to connect with fish that weigh 25 pounds and more—cobia over 100 pounds have been caught from area waters.
Large black plastic eels are the preferred artificial, though bucktail jigs and surface poppers also connect. Best live bait, by far, is a live eel—they’re available from some area baitshops during the cobia season. The bait or lure is cast well in front of fish moving along the surface, then activated as the fish gets close. If the fish hasn’t been spooked—or recently hammered on by another boat-- the take is usually immediate.
Fair numbers of cobia also pass within reach of the piers; again, a live eel, pinfish or finger mullet gives the best chance of success.
Both trout and reds wake up big time in March as soon as the first 80 degree days begin to warm the flats and sprigs of new sea grass start to bloom. Many of these fish spend the winter in deep holes in the tidal creeks as well as around the main bay bridges and deeper docks, but as the water warms and bait spreads out across the flats many head back to the shoulders of the bays.
A lot depends on the weather. Early cold in March means the water will remain chilly, but a calm, sunny day may bring plenty of fish into water barely a foot deep: both reds and trout are known to “sun” like tourists on the beach in early spring as they try to get their metabolism into high gear.
Of course, fish in water that shallow are very spooky—approaching by wading or via a low-profile kayak gives the best shot at these fish, and slow-moving, low impact baits like the Berkley Gulp crab or a large live shrimp are usually more successful than the topwaters and jerkbaits that will work well once the water warms.
Docks that jut into areas with good current flow also become good targets in late March, with trout, reds and maybe some leftover sheepshead hanging close—jigs for the former, fresh-cut shrimp or fiddler crabs for the sheepies.
Along the beach, pompano and whiting should be thick this month anytime the surf is reasonably clear—put out a spread of rods baited with FishBites FishNStrips in sand flea flavor, or with fresh cut shrimp and keep moving until you find active water.
In short, whether you fish from a boat, a pier, a kayak or off the beach, there’s a very good chance you’ll find something eager to bite in March.