Wintertime Jigging Strategies in Biscayne Bay
Jan S. Maizler
PRELUDE- ALTHOUGH THE SETTING FOR THIS ARTICLE WAS BISCAYNE BAY, THE CONCEPTS DISCUSSED ARE OFTEN APPLICABLE IN MANY MARINE SETTINGS.
There are some basic ideas about temperature drops and inshore fishing that bear discussing. Firstly, local air masses are far more reactive to cold front temperatures than water. In effect, it will take at least a couple days for the water temperature to reflect the frigid character of a cold air mass overhead that could have gotten that way in mere hours. Conversely, cold inshore waters will warm more slowly than the (warming) air mass above it. Simply put, air temperatures change more quickly than water.
All life forms react to changes in temperature whether they are air or water breathing. And the presence of persisting cold not only slows down activity, but also generates adjustment behaviors ranging from comfort to survival. These vast laws may manifest themselves in species-specific ways. Warm-blooded creatures like people may simply put on more clothes, turn on the heat cycle of their air conditioner or spend more time inside. Cold-blooded creatures like fish lack protective coverings or warm personal structural shelter. Generally all they can do, particularly if the water temperature drop threatens their survival is to move to thermocline-layered deeper water, or position themselves near heat retaining structure like afternoon muddy shallows or alongside heat retaining concrete residential canals. Fish will also seek out the hot water generated by power plant discharges.
Certain habitats may provide warmer (water) survival opportunities or they may not. The Mosquito Lagoon has the kinds of vast but enclosed shallows that prevent a rapid gamefish migration out to the ocean. However, there are deeper cuts and creeks along the flats that not only offer depth, but also offer warm shell bars with some heat retention as well as food by way of crabs. Captains like Nathaniel Lemmon have become expert in locating these cold water “havens”, which may wind up holding huge aggregated numbers of seatrout and redfish. Vast enclosed shallows are high risk habitats in very cold weather, but the resident gamefish that “live there” will rapidly aggregate to the deeper cuts and pools alongside bars and such.
Another huge sweep of shallows is exemplified by the Everglades in Florida’s southwest quadrant. Cold water refuges include muddy deeper creeks and cuts that may feature oyster bars as well as muddy shallows that are warmed in the afternoon sun. These dark bottoms may attract snook and redfish that are sunning themselves. Again, these areas can be counted on to provide predictable action in the winters characterized by robust cold fronts.
South Biscayne Bay, on the other hand, offers fish rapid ocean access through seemingly infinite numbers of channels and shallows along its’ eastern flank. South Bay- as it’s called- has no oyster bars or large wads of heat retaining seawall that abut the flats along the east side of the bay. Come a severe cold front, and it’s quite easy for large amounts of gamefish to swim out to deeper waters made even warmer by the presence of the Gulf Stream. In so many words, finding fish-filled channels and dropoffs in Biscayne Bay during the winter is probably more difficult than the two aforementioned areas.
Biscayne Bay Background-
The stretch of (South) Biscayne Bay that gets the most winter attention are the large series of flats and channels that stretch from the tip of Cape Florida through the Ragged Keys. Conventional knowledge about predicting cold water fish havens in certain very deep channels leads us nowhere, as Cape Florida Channel as well as Biscayne Channel have never really “delivered” historically. Rather, most of the guides here have utilized exploration and trail-and-error fishing to give them the best results.
Over the years, the guides that do offer wintertime jig fishing in Biscayne Bay have discovered that certain channels do offer larger wintertime fish aggregations. Yet no one knows why, as all these channels are relatively indistinguishable from each other. Guides ask, “Why this channel over the next one? “ Yet no one has come up with an answer: some channels are simply better than others during the cold front temperature drops of winter. This means that self-guided neophytes will simply have to rely on trial-and-error fishing each channel one by one.
More on Tactics-
We know that all life forms slow down in the cold- but cold-blooded species like fish slow down even more. It has been my theory that large specimens of a particular species like seatrout or redfish have more heat-retaining body mass than their smaller brethren and can stay in the shallows longer- this is also the case with bonefish. This helps explain why often, the large aggregated bunches of fish “huddling” in cuts between the flats are generally the smaller individuals of a certain fish species.
We always make our presentations in keeping with the mood and behavior of our fish. Cold fish are slowed-down life forms often hugging the bottom for rising warmth as well as seeking a warmer thermocline layer than can be attained up at the surface, which is closer to such cold air. Therefore, very slow bottom bouncing of single-hooked lures such as plastic swim-baits or bucktails tipped with the seasonal food-shrimp- is the key to success. The slow motion of the bouncing jig is in keeping with the ambient pace of the surrounding marine life as well as feeding the fish literally in their face.
Tipping the bucktail with shrimp should also be done with the same precision that one rigs a soft plastic onto a small jig head. I’ve found that a fresh-dead, neatly cut tail section rigged and threaded with the telson on the aft end has the best action. Some guides rig an entire shrimp with the head hanging down as their favorite rig, though I’ve had less experience with this variation. Whichever way you prefer to rig your shrimp, be sure to have it placed on the hook shank and bend in the manner that allows the lure to “track” straight without spinning on the hop and the retrieve. I’ve seen bonefish ignore a spinning bucktail. Although observers might be tempted to assume any feeding game fish will interpret the spin on the retrieve as injury, it appears they do not.
I also use the smallest lure that gets me to the bottom during cold weather jigging trips. In this case, I am not “matching the hatch.” I am simply making a presentation profile and size that makes swallowing my offering an easier and less effortful experience for a cold-stunned game fish whose major impulse might be one of survival.
A thoughtful studious approach to jigging inshore marine contours- whether with tipped bucktail jigs or their soft plastic cousins-increases your chances of a successful trip.