I fish differently with a client/guest than when I’m with myself, or fishing with my buddy Capt. Tommy Thompson. When the pressure to catch fish is less, I can spend more time trying to figure things out. Fishing these days has been a bit of a challenge, and it seems to be related to a late arrival of baitfish. When fishing gets tough, the guide’s credo is: keep moving….keep moving until you find fish. But it’s always a great idea to put some thought into why things worked, and maybe more important into why they didn’t work. Here’s a perfect example.
After a really challenging trip a few weeks ago, old friend Capt. Joseph Jacobs was again passing through, so we made arrangements to try again on a Sunday, the 26th of October. A mild cold front had passed through, and the mornings of the 25th and the 26th were the chilliest of the year, with low temps in the high 40’s. With a negative tide at 10 in the morning, I wasn’t that optimistic, but I went to one of the few places at Steinhatchee where I can get close to shore on a negative tide. This is an area several miles to the north of the river, with a cut that runs fairly close to shore, and it’s navigable even on a very low tide. When we got there, I was surprised to find mass quantities of mullet schooling around the exposed rocks, more than I had seen in some time. Much of the seagrass had died down in this area, leaving large expanses of mud bottom with scattered patches of oysters and rocks. Because the water was only 18 inches deep, we were fishing with topwater plugs. Within a few minutes of arriving, I caught a slot redfish, around 24 inches, and shortly after, a 4.5 pound trout. Both were clearly hungry in spite of a water temperature in the high 60’s. Note the exposed rocks in the trout picture; the trolling motor was barely usable.
As the tide continued to fall I moved out but only slightly, to maintain our depth. I lost a much larger redfish when one of my trebles actually broke. Over the next few hours we caught a total of 8 redfish, the trout and a nice bluefish. All were caught on topwater plugs. Two of the redfish were enormous, given the shallow water; both were 37 inches long. Joe took the video below of the first overslot fish coming to the boat. These were not schooling fish; they were scattered over a large shallow muddy flat.
This was by far the best morning I had had in some months. Clearly the tide had turned, if you will, and fishing was on the way back to normal. I was excited, in part because one of my good buddies, Jerry McBride, was coming to Gainesville to give a talk about kayak fishing and we had plans to fish just three days later. The low tide was a little later, and there was a pretty impressive warming trend, but my plan was to get to the same area on the same tide, just a bit later in the morning.
We ran to several areas on the higher tide that had been productive, but the number of mullet and whitebait was minimal. We found several trout on topwaters but nothing substantial at all. And we saw a lot fewer mullet on the shoreline. After trying several areas unsuccessfully, we ran to our chosen spot. On a similar tide, there were fewer mullet, but still some present. However, the redfish and trout were nowhere to be found. There were lots of glass minnows (rainbait), and schools of very respectable jacks and bluefish….but no redfish or trout. And we tried mightily for a long time. Friend Doug Barrett was in his Gulfshore 20, fishing in similar areas, and caught nothing. It was as if it were a totally different area.
So it was time for reflection. It’s easy to throw out excuses when you’re on the water…there are a million of them…but another thing to sit down and try and sort out what happened. The differences between the two days were few; a two hour later low tide, and a warming trend. Otherwise the conditions, including the level of the tide and the presence of baitfish, were identical. So given those two variables, how to explain the difference? I really don’t think it’s that hard. First, the time. While it’s true that legend (and Joe in the video) say that the topwater bite ends in the early morning, those committed to topwater fishing know better. I have caught fish throughout the day as long as the conditions (wind, chop, water depth) are reasonable. I don’t think that the time of day had anything to do with the outcome. What about the warming trend? The air temperatures had increased, from a low in the morning of 48 to a low of 55. Additionally, because we were a little later, the water was warmer regardless. In fact, from a water temp in the mid to high ’60s, the water temp had risen to the low to mid 70’s. This is a huge difference to a cold blooded organism like a fish, especially when it’s the first cold front of the year. The area we fished was lacking the usual Steinhatchee lush grasses and was instead a dark mud bottom (which you can see on the video). That dark mud holds heat much better than grass bottom. So do rocks, oyster bars and other structure when they get direct sunlight. My conclusion is that the cold front caused the fish to find an area that was just a few degrees warmer…but three days later, they were more comfortable in their usual haunts….in creeks, behind oyster bars and hiding in potholes in the grass.
That’s the thought process. Of course, it boils down to an opinion, and you know what they say about opinions (no, I’m not going there). Traditionally the trout bite improves with chilly weather, and we’ll get a chance to see this week, because tonight will be the first REALLY cold night of the year, with a low in the 30’s. And I have a charter in two days, when the high will be in the mid-70’s. Either it will be a fantastic day, with a massive trout bite, or everything will be shut down because of the severity of the front. But hey….that’s kind of the way every day is during this time of transition into winter.