New Year’s weekend was a great example of how weather affects the bite. The mild winter so far has played havoc with inshore fishing. We haven’t had any frigid extended fronts that will drive the trout into the rivers and creeks for any extended time, so as things warm up they move back onto the warming flats. The fishing was reasonable last week until a mild cold front came through early in the week. Some of the very best inshore guides at the Sea Hag Marina came up empty and were putting their clients on black sea bass for substitutes (tasty, but still substitutes). The forecast mid-week looked excellent, with winds of 5 to 10 and warming temperatures and sun. Sounded good to me, so I drove over on Thursday, only to find the forecast had changed to 10 to 15 and clouds for Friday. However, we don’t always get to choose our days so I figured I’d give it a try on my own and try and locate some fish. Capt. Tommy Thompson had fished on Wednesday with little success, and the guides I talked to were shut out on the same day. A pretty challenging situation. There was a significant late morning low tide which didn’t help, but I was hopeful that the afternoon would warm up. I left the marina around 10 in cloudy conditions; in fact, as I pulled away from the dock it started to rain….which wasn’t on the forecast or the radar. However, it was just a shower. As I came around the bend at Roy’s Restaurant, the full force of the 15 knot south wind hit me. Things were not looking good. The water temp was 58 degrees…right in the area that confuses fish and fishermen. I fished a number of my favorite spots while I waited for the tide to turn so I could get in close to shore. Things did not go well. Not only didn’t I catch anything, I didn’t see anything. No bait, no lethargic fish, no nothing. Finally I tried running to some of my close-in spots to find the wind had actually picked up and there was 2 foot chop on the flats along with the darkening sky. Enough. I decided to go back, have some lunch and see what happened. Lo and behold, around 3 the sun came out and I started back out. The wind was still howling, but it was warming a bit. I managed to get to the area I was headed for in the morning, but it was very choppy and by now the wind was closer to 20 knots. I fished the area and caught nothing. Again, no mullet, no whitebait….nuttin, honey. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only one. Again, none of the guides caught fish. However, the forecast still looked excellent for Saturday….sun, 5-10 knots, and a high in the 70’s. I managed to convince Tommy Thompson to drive over the morning so we could give it a try. At 9 AM, things were looking good at the marina.
We left the Sea Hag around 10 to glassy conditions and warming temperatures. We found some of our best spots to be placid, the water to be crystal clear, and nothing there. Initially, no mullet jumping, no pinfish, no whitebait. We decided to wait as the tide came in, and slowly more and more mullet and some schools of rainbait showed up. But in spite of the improving conditions, all we could manage was one short trout to the boat, a few follows and two fish lost. The water temperature was up to 62 degrees. We were dejected but the rising tide made it possible to get to the exact spot I had fished the day before, so I put the tabs down, jacked up the motor and ran across some shallow flats to get to the area. Lo and behold, there was an airboat camped out right in our area, with a large family on board fishing live shrimp on corks. We moved a bit to the north and started fishing some sandy and rocky areas mixed in with grass, and immediately began catching fish. We drifted in with the tide, Tommy fishing a crankbait and I was fishing a small suspending plug. We caught around 15 trout, and only one was short. This stocky four-pounder was the largest.
As we drifted in a little closer to shore, still catching nice trout, we got into redfish territory near some rockpiles and I had a huge fight with this 6 pounder; I was fishing with my lightest reel, and one of the trebles became caught in some rock grass. Amazingly he stayed hooked and we were finally able to free him from the structure.
We redid the drift several times, and Tommy nailed this perfect tournament fish: 26.5 inches and 7.5 pounds. Those are the ones you just can’t find when you need them, but I’ll take them anytime. This was the best trip we’ve had in several months, with lots of large trout and reds.
It’s always worth reflecting on what you learned on every trip. When we got back to the docks it turned out that the other inshore fishermen hadn’t caught very many fish; as best we could tell, based on Shane the fish-cleaner’s report, we caught the best trout and redfish for the day, at least at the Sea Hag. In his Action Spotter column in Florida Sportsman this month, Tommy had noted the importance of sun in the winter months. Conditions change over several hours, because being cold-blooded, fish will seek out any area that is slightly warmer than the surrounding water, and bright sun warms the flats, rocks, oyster bars, and mud flats more than the surrounding areas. This is especially true on severe low tides when these areas are exposed. Then when the tide comes in, these locations are several degrees warmer than other areas, and that attracts both baitfish and predators. In this case, the exact same location was packed with fish when it had been barren 24 hours earlier. The primary difference? Heavy cloud cover and high winds giving way to a slight ripple and bright sun. The other take-home lesson is that we fished for four hours on Saturday until we found the right combination. Patience, grasshopper. Sometimes it takes a really awful day like Friday to clarify just how important attention to the conditions and knowledge of the weather changes and tides can pay off on Saturday.