Well, the trout are in the river at Steinhatchee big-time. For a number of years the trout migration was pretty variable, but in the last few years it’s been pretty predictable. When that happens, the river gets full of people catching fish, which is always a good thing.
I went out to do a little scouting on Saturday, in what looked to me to be perfect conditions…a warming trend several days after a dramatic cold snap, and also the day before a front. Those things combine to make good fishing highly likely…but you’ve always got to prove it on the field.
I was concerned about the forecast high of almost 70 degrees when I left the Sea Hag Marina at 9 AM. It was overcast with a misty cold and a slight wind, and an air temperature in the high 40’s. There were boats upriver, and people were catching small keeper trout in various locations, but I wanted to try some of my more usual spots closer to the river mouth. Fishing the river in winter is not hard, but some knowledge about the behavior of trout in cold water helps. In the morning, or on days with bitter cold, the trout are in the river for one reason: it’s deep, and the deeper they can get, the warmer the water is. This is pretty much common sense; if the air is 25 degrees, the water closest to the air is the coldest. There may be a 4 to 10 degree variation in water temperatures between the surface and the bottom in some of the deep holes that populate most Big Bend rivers, especially in areas where the river is spring-fed. In general, the colder it is and the longer it stays that way, the further up-river the fish will travel. And it’s not just trout. Large schools of mullet, redfish and other bottom fish move into the river to join the resident croakers, black drum and sand perch. So the idea is to fish near the channel on cold mornings, using lures that will take you near the bottom. Jigs or sinking Mirrolures are the standard, or live shrimp with split shot. Because the tide goes in and out, there’s current. When it’s really cold, it’s a good idea to anchor just outside the channel (it’s not a good idea, it’s a necessity; please don’t anchor IN the channel…it pisses people off) and cast upcurrent into or near the channel, letting the lures sink and retrieving them slowly to keep them near the bottom. You almost certainly will lose some tackle, because the deep holes in rivers are populated with rocky bottoms. This is the traditional wisdom of how to fish rivers in our area.
However, we’ve discovered some alternatives. If baitfish move into the shallows, the trout will move with them. And with a warming trend, or in the afternoons, if there’s bright sun, you can count on some of the fish moving out of the channel to feed. On Saturday I noticed some Steinhatchee local experts fishing right along an oyster bar next to the shore catching fish after fish. I was a little surprised, only because it was early in the day. As things warmed up, I moved to one of my favorite places, a 3 to 4 foot flat about 100 feet outside the channel, and began fishing with Paul Brown Corky lures. The tide was slack, and the sun came out. As the tide started in, I started catching fish. These were fat solid trout in the 18 to 21 inch size. The warmer it got, the more consistent the bite. There were boats within 100 feet of me and they were fishing corks and jigs, and catching nothing. I could see them getting irritated. At one point I literally caught 18 trout on 18 consecutive casts. When these schools get in a position that is comfortable, they stay there, unlike in the channel, where the schools move through regularly. As one friend noted, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. I finally decided that if they were this easy to catch, I’d give it a try with the 8 weight fly rod I keep stored under my seat. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that when someone stole my tackle box a few months ago, they also took my flies and I had none in the boat. So feeling all McGyver-ish, I rigged something up. I took a small offset worm hook and tore a little piece of a swirl-tail plastic body and rigged it up. As you can see, it was hardly a thing of beauty.
But the nice thing is that it worked. I’m not the greatest caster, but I managed to get about 40 feet or so, which was all I needed. I ended up catching 10 trout on that fly, which is the best day I’ve ever had with a fly rod.
It ended up to be a very warm sunny afternoon so I ran out of the channel to some of my other winter spots, but there was nobody home. As the warming trend continues, trout will move out of the river into other shallow areas and school. Their absence suggested that the water was still too cold, and with a huge front coming through the next day, with future temps in the teens, it will put them in the river for some time.
There are good and bad things about fishing in the river. On the bad side, it’s usually pretty damn cold. And people sometimes lose any inhibitions about courtesy; if you are catching fish, don’t be surprised if someone comes and anchors right next to you. A hard stare helps sometimes, but not always. But on the good side, if you’re patient and move around, and wait for the right conditions, you can catch a lot of fish in a short time, and that makes it a great time to take your kids fishing. Just make sure they are well-layered and take some hot chocolate in the thermos. And maybe a battery-powered video game to be safe.