March is a transition month in the Panhandle, with the water beginning to warm rapidly and the first schools of bait beginning to return along the shore, but a late cold front can set things back toward February fishing fast. March is known for coming in like a lion with good reason, so strong winds can also be part of the picture early in the month.
Fish like reds and trout that tend to stack up in dredge holes, rivers and canals during winter cold will still be near the head of St. Andrews, Choctawhatchee and Pensacola Bays. Check out the mouth of marsh creeks and the first points and oyster bars off the marshes early in the month. Time of day can be a big factor if it’s chilly—afternoon fishing will be better on the flats on a sunny day as the fish move up to catch some rays, and that pattern continues until the water gets at least above 70, at which time the usual dawn bite kicks in where wind and tide are right.
A medium light spinning rig, 2500-sized reel and 15-pound-test braid is the universal weapon for inshore action these days. Some well-known lures include the DOA Shrimp, Mirrolure Mirrodine and Z-Man soft plastic jerk baits. For the reds, the Berkley GULP Crab is also a favorite. Of course, a live shrimp under a popping cork is almost a sure thing.
March is also known as one of the prime times for catch-and-release action on “bull” reds, the giant redfish of 20 pounds and up that mass along the beaches, in the passes and on nearshore bars, sometimes in schools of hundreds. They also hang around the large bay bridges as well as those over the passes, as well as the large piers. Cut mullet, live croakers or pinfish are the sure-thing baits, but they also take large swimbaits and jigs.
For those who enjoy surf fishing, Northwest Florida has some of the best in the state, with miles of undeveloped shorelines, white sand and beautifully clear waters. Pompano action is always good in March so long as the surf stays reasonably clear, and these are among the easiest of the surf species to catch—just hang a piece of sand-flea-flavored “Fish Bites” on a size 1/0 short shank hook and fish it on a dropper above a 2 ounce pyramid sinker to connect. Many anglers like to add a tiny white, pink or chartreuse float just ahead of the hook to keep it up off bottom where the fish can better see it.
Fish the troughs and runouts with this bait, putting out a couple rods on sand spikes. As the scent of the Fish Bites spreads, the fish will find it, and you may connect with whiting and black drum on the same bait. Fresh cut shrimp also works, as do live sand fleas if you take the trouble to rake them up.
Both king and Spanish mackerel start to show up in March, usually around St. Patrick’s Day as the first bait schools arrive, and that fishing gets better as the month goes on. The runs are a great opportunity for shorebound anglers to visit the many jumbo piers throughout the northwest shore, because the fishing can be fantastic when the bait is in. The Spanish can readily be caught on small spoons and jigs (add a tiny snip of fresh shrimp to boost the bite) but kings are much easier to catch on the real thing. Live baitfish of any kind, 4 to 6 inches long, is the best bet but they also are regularly caught on frozen cigar minnows bought from the pier baitshops and drifted with the current. Remember to add a wire leader for the kings, or a 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader for the Spanish—otherwise, they nip the line.
Cobia numbers have been down in recent years, but there will still be enough migrating off the “Green Reef” to make sight fishing interesting. Tower boats have the best chance of spotting these fish, usually moving from east to west in spring—weights average between 20 and 30 pounds, with the occasional 60 pounder. Live eels or soft plastic eel imitations are the best offering. Some are also caught from the piers.
Turkey season nears
Florida’s spring turkey season is soon in the Panhandle. The northwestern counties are blessed with tens of thousands of acres of good turkey habitat and vast public access areas in the state and national forest lands.