It’s winter. A new cold front every week, the fish have lockjaw, and bait is tough to come by. Why bother fishing? We all need to wet a line, even in 15 knot winds and a daytime high of 60 degrees. So what does one do this time of year? My preference is fishing with artificials. Everyone that’s fished with me is aware that I prefer to fish with live bait when bait is on the flats. It’s usually free, and watching snook bust whitebait is enough to get the blood pumping. During the winter, I rarely bring a cast net on the boat. Why make the long, neccessary run all the way to the bridge for bait when I can use arties, saving gas and time!
Growing up fishing for bass in Maryland, live bait was seldom used. A Carolina Rig with a plastic worm was my go to combo. After moving to Tampa, I stopped using arties and switched to shrimp and baitfish. A lack of confidence and knowledge using saltwater lures, as well as no one to show me the basics was my problem; if I had only been aware how productive fishing could have been. Looking back, I had been unknowingly limiting the fish that were possible to be caught, and getting stuck in one mindset. Now don’t get me wrong, in the winter live shrimp are used depending on what species is targeted, primarily around docks, but having an arsenal of lures in your tackle box is a must!
As an average fisherman it’s tough to fish as much as preferred. The chips are already stacked against me with the “honey do” list and work. Winter winds and weather make my window to fish even smaller and keep me off the water more than usual. Becoming way out of step with what’s going on in Tampa Bay is a problem. With the weather fluctuations as well as water temps dropping, it is much harder to pattern where the fish may be and what they want to eat. The tides are so low my options are limited in my bay boat. Sure, we all read the reports in the paper and see the TV shows all painting a rosy picture, telling us how many fish they are catching and general areas, but with the weather changes those reports seem to be no help at times, especially for the average weekend warrior. Some reports seem to be outdated or inaccurate. Not to worry though, there is still a way to maximize your production. Changing tactics and covering ground.
Artificials, especially in the winter, will give you an advantage. I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get! Using lures gives one the opportunity to cover much more ground than sitting in one spot for a prolonged period of time waiting for a bite. The ability to be able to target many different species is also a plus. Experimenting with different colors, shapes and designs helps in locating the fish too. Why sit in one place for an hour or more when it’s possible to scout and catch fish at the same time? While you’re sitting there for that hour with a bait, you could have already covered acres of water and used numerous lures, hopefully catching fish along the way.
The amount of lures available today is amazing. You want a crab? It’s on the shelf. How about a shrimp? You got it. An eel? You bet. Baitfish? Yeah, there are about 100 over there. A huge variety is out there to choose from, most are very easy to use, and can be very productive.
The arties of choice for me are soft plastics, but I will use topwater plugs, twitchbaits and subsurface lures, as well as the occasional D.O.A shrimp under a cork. A smaller jig combo is what I have the most confidence in. When fishing a jig with a soft plastic I will use a 1/16th to 1/8th ounce jig head, preferably weedless. I really like the Mission Fishin’ Jig heads paired with a Gulp! swimming mullet or shrimp. I will slowly drag them on the bottom through the grass followed by a slight twitch. After numerous colors of jigs and jig heads and no luck, the switch to a Mirrodine by Mirrolure, or another baitfish imitation is made, again using a very slow retrieve. I like using these lures but am very careful! One bad move and a fish will throw a treble hook into your hand, and it won’t be pretty! If all else fails it’s time to turn to my popping cork with a D.O.A. shrimp or equivalent. After tossing out the setup I let the ripples go away and give the cork a good pop and repeat. Easy enough? Using all the different combinations allows me to work the entire water column, from the sand to the surface, and that will assist you in finding numerous species of fish and what they may feel like eating on that day.
So where do I go with the baits on these cold days? First of all, I head out on the water whenever possible. I don’t pay too much attention to tides or solunars, (I do try) as I have a small window of opportunity to fish. A front may be coming through or my list of chores is getting longer. I need to cover as much ground as possible and quickly! The first stop is the deeper water on the flats, as the tides this time of year are very low and that keeps me limited. Normally fishing takes place in water depths anywhere from two to eight feet. Never setting the anchor, I try to set up a solid drift that will have me crossing through the deeper water to the shallows, preferably being able to work the lure with the tide with the sun to my back. The water is usually crystal clear, so while on the drift, I stay aware of the numerous structures and bottom changes that are out in the bay, and of course look for telltale signs of fish. This helps in trying to put together a pattern if fish are caught on one bottom or structure and not another. If fishing with friends, we will all use a different setup to determine what will entice a strike. These drifts allow me to work deeper water for trout, bluefish and ladyfish, and then cover the shallows for bigger trout, feisty redfish and even the occasional sheepshead, sea bass or flounder. On the extreme low tides my waders are always stashed on the boat so I can set anchor on a shallow sand bar and fish the potholes and troughs in the skinny water. So I find fish; what is my next step? I use the trolling motor and hold my position, working the area more thoroughly. If the bite is on, the anchor is set and fishing commences until the bite stops. After that, try the same thing over. If only a few stragglers are boated it’s time to move on. Makes sense right?
This drifting technique is a very easy way to fish, and anglers of all skill levels can do it. An entire day is not necessary to pull this off, and usually there is still time to mow the lawn or catch the days sporting events. A quick two to four hour trip is all that is needed to determine if you should have stayed in bed. With decent tidal movement and a major feed it is easy to have non stop action. I won’t lie; things don’t always go as planned. Many bad days have been had on the water fishing this way, but at least I have covered lots of water and stayed proactive during the entire trip. When things do go as planned it is very rewarding, knowing that you used skill and a piece of plastic to put dinner on the table. Give it a try. Until next time, see you on the water!