February will find lots of Panhandle fishermen attending boat shows, tackle sales and seminars, all of which are necessities; at least that’s what we tell our spouses. But, don’t get lost in a month-long buying spree—keep sight of the fact that there is a lot of fishing to be done this month.
Bottom fishing has been “off-the-charts” not since that nasty storm Ivan turned local lives upside down. While red snapper season is still a couple of months away, you’ll find plenty of action from grouper, red and gag, amberjack, triggerfish and other snappers, namely blacks, mingos and lane.
The grouper bite should be insane all the way from the edge and deep rocks in 200-plus feet of water, into shallower wrecks in the 60-foot range. People may not believe this, but you’ll even see small pods of grouper running along Panhandle beaches as they migrate inshore looking for food and to spawn. We’ve seen them in early and mid-March while cobia fishing and I’ve caught them with jigs while run-and-gun pompano fishing along the beach.
For best results with grouper, live bait is best, but it can be hard to find in the cold winter months. However, since the storm, bottom fishers have enjoyed similar success with traditional dead baits like cigar minnows, Spanish sardines and northern mackerel. If you head offshore for some bottom bumping, keep your eyes peeled for schools of bonito busting the surface. Yeah, they’re awesome fun on light tackle, but get out the medium-action spinning gear to make short work of these great strip-bait fish. And if you have a deepwater rock that you just know a big grouper is lurking around, drop the whole thing down with a 13/0 circle hook and hang on. If you’re gonna’ big-fish fish, you need heavy conventional gear loaded with 150-pound braided line. Match it with the same weight fluorocarbon leader and peg that drag down. Trust me, you might have to soak this bait a few times, but when you get a taker, you’ll be completely humbled as your knees buckle and you struggle to keep the rod off the gunnel.
For quality bottom fishing in February, fishermen from Pensacola should try live bottom like Paradise Hole or Green’s Hole, near shore. Destin anglers will find fish just a few miles out at Broken Bottom and Frangista Reef, before heading farther out to deeper water. Panama City bottom fishermen will bow up on wrecks like the Hathaway Spans or the Midway Tire sites.
Amberjack also bite well this month. You’ll want to concentrate on wrecks with more relief for these brutes. Here too, live bait is best, but a 4- to 6-ounce laser-tail jig and heavy spinning rod will produce plenty of action and leave your forearms burning.
If you make it to deeper water around the rock cliffs or the edge, spend a little time—before you head for home—dragging a Yo-Zuri Bonito, Mann’s Stretch 25 or similar lure behind the boat at six to eight knots. Not only are you likely to pick up a blackfin or yellowfin tuna, but a nice wahoo may try to spool you.
You won’t find as many boats offshore next to you this month, so make sure your safety equipment is working properly and tell someone on shore where you’ll be fishing (don’t worry, they won’t ask for your specific GPS numbers) and when you’re expected home. Cold weather is unforgiving and you don’t want to get caught out there unprepared.
Inshore fishing will get most of the attention this month as the days are shorter and the action is hot. Remember that specks—a.k.a. spotted seatrout—are closed for the month of February, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play catch and release ’til your hands hurt. The specks stack up in the deepwater canals and estuaries from St. Andrew and Choctawhatchee bays west to Pensacola and Perdido bays. Residential canals along the Intracoastal Waterway and rivermouths up and down the Panhandle hold these vulnerable fish this month. Trout are more lethargic as they hold in this warmer, deep water but they will eagerly devour a soft-plastic shrimp or soft-body grub in 1⁄ 4- to 1⁄ 2-ounce sizes. Live or fresh dead shrimp are deadly here, too, but not necessary to have a busy and productive day.
Most flounder are offshore sulk-ing on the nearshore reefs, but you’ll find a few fish coming back into the bays and passes toward the end of the month.
Pier and surf fishermen should find pompano starting to show up on warmer days toward the end of the month. Pompano fall for small orange-and-white pomp jigs prevalent at local tackle stores. They’re cheap, too, only setting you back about $.99. Some folks tip their jigs with shrimp to entice these fish, but the tried-and-true method is a standard 2-drop rig. This rig consists of a 20-pound leader, with two dropper loops and a pair of small circle hooks or Kahle hooks. Place a pair of sandfleas or small fresh-dead shrimp on the hooks and a 1- to 3-ounce sinker on the end of the leader and you’re ready for action. Surf spikes come in handy here, and most veteran anglers work a 2- or 3-rod spread to find the fish.
BEST BET: PANHANDLE
Panhandle fishermen have gotten spoiled with the bull redfish revival since the net ban, and no one can argue otherwise. “We used to have seasons with these fish, but they are here year-round now,” Capt. Wes Rozier, a busy Pensacola inshore guide asserts.
The bulls have gotten to where they are so prolific, that all you have to do is spot working birds near the pass or just outside along the beaches and just watch as hundreds and hundreds of thundering redfish turn the water from aqua-green to reddish brown.
“We’ve started fishing with large topwater plugs and mashing the barbs down.” Rosier explained. Thirty- to 40-pound redfish are not uncommon and make for excellent gamefish photo-and-release opportunities. By crimping down the barbs on the hooks, you increase the chances that your fish will spit the hooks, but you also increase the chances of a safe release and up the survival rate of this awesome quarry.
Fishermen will find it easy to get multiple hookups with these aggressive, schooling fish. Reports of 10 or 20 fish released a day are not uncommon; the key is to find the birds. They are and will always be better fishermen than you and I. Medium-action spinning or conventional gear will get the fish to the boat quicker than ultralight tackle and won’t stress the fish too badly.