Anglers will also find plenty of kingfish on local reefs. Schools move at the behest of wind and current, so it pays to check several spots. Many captains run and gun because it’s the best way to locate feeding fish.
Midwinter kings typically average between 10 and 15 pounds. While most schoolies are caught while deep-trolling baits with wirelines or planers, or by drifting with multiple-hooked ballyhoo or Spanish sardines, there’s al-ways a chance of bagging a 30-pound “smoker” while live-baiting for sailfish. When you do, thank the recent bag limits for helping restore stocks to pre-net ban levels.
While many anglers don’t generally bottom fish during late winter, it’s when mutton snapper and grouper start moving inshore to spawn. You can boat some good-size bottom fish while drifting. However, most anglers anchor over productive bottom and chum, or in the case of certain deepwater species, use the motor to hold position while making a drop.
This brings me to the subject of deep-dropping, which is the process by which anglers utilize heavy gear to wrench deepwater species from depths greater than 250 feet. You’ve probably heard of snowy grouper and tilefish. Both species live in a world of perpetual darkness, where they gather near wrecks and other obstructions. Two hundred yards is a long way down, which is why sash weights and electric reels are so important.
Baits for deep-dropping include whole squid and chunks of fish, with barracuda strips and swordfish bellies topping the list. One popular tilefish rig consists of several heavy monofilament droppers equipped with circle hooks that are tied to a length of heavy chain. Afterwards, a heavy sinker is attached to either end. No one in their right mind considers this sportfishing. The sole object of this exercise is putting fillets in the box.
Snowy grouper have a reasonably good flavor. And while tilefish are celebrated as “nice, white meat” or as “tasting a little like lobster,” the vermilion snapper is actually at the top of my all-time list. Incidentally, anyone who manually cranks a 5-pound window sash to the surface in 500 feet of water (with or without a fish attached) deserves a reward. Or a course of steroid injections.
Most deepwater fish come to the surface with their swim bladders protruding from their mouths. For what it’s worth, that’s exactly how I felt after reeling one up. Some anglers believe they can release unwanted fish by “venting” them with a basketball needle. However, I wouldn’t bet a nickel on the survival of any deepwater species. Deep-dropping may sound simple, but if you consider the precision required to hit a Volkswagen-size target two football fields down, you’ll see why deep-droppers try to make every strike count.
Whenever seas subside, bluewater fishermen are likely to encounter a smattering of dolphin and wahoo. In addition, there’s always a chance of hooking a blue or white marlin. February has recently gained favor as a swordfish month, so you’ll find anglers drifting the 200-fathom curve. Vets prefer nights when there’s a moderate east wind. While some broadbill anglers rely on live baits such as blue runners, others continue to use a large rigged squid.
By mid-February, seatrout begin flooding the grassflats in numbers. Look for them anywhere from North Biscayne Bay to Flamingo in Everglades National Park. Trout prefer potholes, channels and run-outs, where peak ac-tion usually takes place just after daybreak. The bite often continues well into the day, when most anglers make the switch from noisy surface lures to suspending crankbaits, weighted grubs or plain live shrimp.
The most effective way of all to catch seatrout is with a live shrimp and a popping cork. Use a splitshot to keep the shrimp down, but position the float so the shrimp can’t make it to bottom. Every so often, give the float a jerk. The popping noise drives trout crazy.
Cold, blustery winds have an adverse effect on flats fishing. Still, bonefish quickly return during warm spells. Florida Bay snook have high-tailed it for the backcountry, where they’ll feed heavily whenever water temperatures rise.
Schools of Spanish mackerel and bluefish should be in Biscayne and Florida bays in force. Look for birds or other signs of surface activity or try chumming with block chum and glass minnows. You’ll find fish just outside Stiltsville and Government Cut, and other nearshore areas where current concentrates baitfish.
While some types of saltwater fishing experience a midwinter lull, freshwater anglers are going great guns. As a prime example, bass fishing in the Everglades canals is improving steadily as water levels recede. Canal fish are small this time of year but they’re willing to hit on top. As a result, spin and plug fishermen catch all they want on small surface lures like the Chug Bug and Pop-R. Flyfishers get their share on weedless popping bugs in sizes 6 and 8. Regardless of your preferred method, for best results in off-color water, try switching to a lure with a brightly colored “firetiger” or chartreuse finish.
BEST BET: SOUTH
Spin-fishing for largemouth bass in the Everglades canals is so much fun. With spring just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to hit the swamps. Bugs are practically nonexistent and bass are there in numbers. They’re hungry, too, so you’ll find excellent topwater fishing. While you won’t catch many 6-pounders (at least, in the canals), you’ll get plenty of action. Another great thing about this time of year is that the bass feed all day long—regardless of cloud cover or the lack of it.
The action starts along the Broward/Palm Beach county line and works its way southward. Look for good fishing in the Holey Land and Sawgrass Recreation Park before Alligator Alley and the Holiday Park turn-on. By early March, bass will be biting all the way to the Tamiami Trail. You’ll find good access along the Alley, as well at Sawgrass and Holiday parks. Look for numerous ramps along the Tamiami Trail.