February is a month for putting fish on the table. From bass on Lake Okeechobee to trout, redfish and sheepshead in the bays to grouper and snapper offshore, it’s all about catching fish for Southwest Florida anglers this month.
How about a fish that is excellent to eat, fights hard when hooked, can achieve double-digit weights, can be caught by shorebound anglers, bites well even when the weather is poor and for which the most productive season is during winter when the most people are in town? That fish is the sheepshead, a largely overlooked, strikingly striped, bucktoothed member of the porgy family which, in spite of all the endearing characteristics listed above, is probably most famous for its bait-stealing prowess.
February is the absolute peak of sheepshead season. These fish are currently schooled up in big numbers around virtually every bit of hard structure along the coast. Dock and pier pilings, beach rocks, offshore ledges, artificial reefs, wrecks, fallen trees along the beach or just about anything on which barnacles might grow attract sheepshead, sometimes in amazing numbers.
Sheepshead are primarily crustacean eaters, best caught on natural baits including shrimp, fiddler crabs, sandfleas and tube worms. While you can start an argument on some piers by debating which of these baits is best, most anglers agree that the best technique is to place your bait as close as possible to the pilings, rocks or whatever structure you’re working. Hotspots this month will include the Venice jetties, the piers at Placida, El Jobean and Sanibel, and all the bridges spanning the Intracoastal Waterway.
February usually brings the clearest, coolest water of the year to Southwest Florida. These conditions provide some of the most technically challenging sight fishing of the year for redfish anglers. During sunny afternoons; redfish cruise among the islands in Gasparilla Sound and Pine Island Sound, often in water less than two feet deep. They can be really spooky. A super-stealthy approach coupled with the ability to see cruising fish from a long ways out topped off with the ability to make long, accurate casts is the mix needed to take these fish. If this seems like too much trouble for a redfish, simply head back into the mangrove creeks and fish with shrimp under overhanging bushes in the deepest bends.
Big black drum are schooling around manmade structure now. Many of these fish exceed 30 pounds and a few push 50, and they’re not terribly difficult to catch. In fact, it’s not even necessary to use a boat because some of the best black drum fishing is under piers and bridges where pedestrian anglers can stand directly over the fish. Half a blue crab or half a clam impaled on a large, stout hook and dropped to the bottom within a foot or two of the structure is all you need to tempt these large, whisker-chinned fish. The El Jobean fishing pier and the Highway 41 bridges over the Peace River are among the most well-known places to pound a drum without a boat. Anglers with boats will also find drum under all the bridges on the Caloosahatchee River, at the artificial reefs in Charlotte Harbor and around the remains of the old phosphate dock at Boca Grande Pass.
Snook season opens February 1, but February is probably the least productive of the six months during which snook season is open. That said, this month there will be some snook taken in the rivers and canals. The El Jobean pier on the Myakka River produces snook for plug-flinging nocturnal anglers every month of the year, and some really huge snook can be taken in the residential canals at Venice, Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte and Cape Coral by anglers fishing large baits on heavy tackle.
Another tactic that produces snook in February is to fish upriver. The discharge from the Fort Myers power plant flows down the Orange River and this thermal refuge can be warm enough to hold active, feeding snook all winter. The Peace River does not have a power plant, but deeper holes in some of the outside bends are worth a shot. Some excellent holes are several miles inland from I-75.
Spotted seatrout are a dependable target in our coastal waters throughout winter. Cold-weather fishing in dredged canals, boat basins, deep natural creeks and in deep portions of the rivers often produces some of the hottest trout fishing of the year. Live shrimp are a great choice for bait, yet a variety of artificials also work. Jigs are always worth a try and there are a few old-timers that regularly take limits of hefty winter trout by trolling swimming plugs such as Rapalas and Bombers.
Almost all offshore fishermen will focus on bottom fish this month. You can fill the box with a mixed bag of gag grouper, mangrove snapper, spawning-size sheepshead, triggerfish, grunts and other reef fish at small ledges in as little as 20 or 30 feet of water. The key is to anchor precisely on these tiny structures. Ten or 15 feet off the spot can make the difference between fresh fish and hot dogs for dinner. Live baits—pinfish, squirrelfish and small grunts—usually produce the most gags, but dropping shrimp on light tackle is the ticket to success with the other reef residents.
If bottom fishing just isn’t your bag, there should be some bonito around and it’s possible that there could be a decent showing of Spanish mackerel, particularly in the southern portion of the region.
BEST BET: SOUTHWEST
Much of Lake Okeechobee’s fame as a premier bass fishing destination is due to the strong winter fishery for bedding bass. It’s a fishery that countless thousands of visiting anglers have sampled at a time of year when bass action “up north” is nearly nonexistent. Better yet, this fishery offers the very best chances in the USA for anglers to land a 10-pound-plus bass.
The best way to experience bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee is to hire a guide who knows precisely where on the vast lake to find bedding bass. If you’re a do-it-yourself type, areas well known for winter bass on the north end of the lake include Fisheating Bay, the Monkey Box, Horse Island and Tin House Cove. In the Clewiston area, focus your efforts on the East Wall or the West Wall, while Bay Bottom and Buzzard’s Roost are worth a look in the Belle Glade area.
Classic bed fishing involves dropping plastic lizards or 10-inch worms on the beds and moving them as slowly as possible in an attempt to irritate adult bass into picking up the lure to move it off the bed. Sometimes topwater plugs or buzzbaits are good for prospecting unseen beds, particularly in the early morning hours.
By the way, bass aren’t the only fish in Lake Okeechobee. February is an excellent month for speckled perch (black crappie) fishing. Drifting with tiny jigs or live minnows in four to eight feet of water along the shoals off Clewiston, at Tin House Cove or Indian Prairie is almost a sure bet.