Winter brings cooler and clearer water, but it also means that redfish action heats up.
Friends of mine from around the country continually ask, “When is the best time to come to Florida and sight-fish for redfish?”
They are usually surprised by my answer, which is always the same: “During winter, with late January, February and early March being best.” Many hesitate to come and fish during this period while others do so with much reservation. I enjoy watching their skepticism turn first to guarded optimism and then to jubilation when, after a day or two on the water, they come to understand the reasons I believe winter offers the best opportunity of the year to catch redfish.
No one needs to be convinced that winter’s short days and long nights coupled with cool, and occasionally cold, air temperature cause our water temperature to drop by several degrees. Many fish such as snook and spotted seatrout seek refuge in deeper holes during this time where they school tightly and become lethargic. They still must eat, however, and become very vulnerable to over-harvesting. Hence, there are closed seasons for these species during winter.
Redfish also tend to school more tightly during winter months but, rather than becoming as lethargic as many other species, they continue to move about over the course of a day in their quest for food. Find the baitfish and shellfish and you’ll find the reds. Lots of them tightly pack into schools that often number in excess of a hundred fish.
If you are out early in the day during winter, you will notice that there is not much activity on the part of baitfish. However, as the day progresses their activity will likely increase dramatically. In places where water is shallow and does not get moved by tidal flow or wind, it can easily warm by three or four degrees by mid-afternoon. This temperature change can be even greater in bays or large pockets far removed from open water where the entrance faces south. With prevailing winds from the north in winter, there will be calm, protected water at the north end of these bays. Since this is the back of the bay, it will likely be the shallowest water, as well. In winter, the sun takes a more southerly track across the horizon and during afternoons, it shines directly into the back of these bays where it warms the shallow water even more. Baitfish and shellfish become active as the day progresses and if you look carefully, tails with spots can be seen above the surface waving at you.
If there is a marsh behind a lagoon or basin and it has shallow bays that have sediment bottoms, be sure to check these out. They are usually protected from the wind and have minimal tidal flow. While not particularly appealing the rest of the year, the midday sun heats the shallow water over the darker sediment and baitfish, soon followed by the reds, will get in these backcountry bays on winter afternoons.
On several occasions in winter, I have seen a shallow grassflat come alive about midday when its clear waters had sufficiently warmed. After appearing to be barren only an hour before, mullet started jumping. Soon there would be swirl, as a hapless baitfish became lunch. You knew that you were in the right area after a couple more such feeding swirls.
Another winter situation to look for is a “mud spot” along a shoreline or in the middle of a bay. Unlike an entire flat that gets muddied by the activity of a large school of mullet, a mud spot will be about the size of a house. The compact school of reds, by rooting around on the bottom, lifts sediment into the water and causes it to look muddy. If you see such a spot in the middle of nowhere when all the surrounding water is clear, be sure to go over and check it out. However, do your investigation with a lure and not by plowing your boat into the mud spot to see what may have caused it. These spots also have a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the muddied water becomes warmer because of its darker color.
I recall a visit by a friend several years ago when we found such a mud spot in the back of a small bay. Although no reds were visible, nearly every cast into the murky water resulted in a bite. Each day during his visit, it was the same thing: a virtual honeyhole of redfish. On visits during subsequent years, he always insisted that we return to that same bay to see if the fish were holding there. Long before we were to the back of the bay I could see that there was no mud spot, but he would always insist that we go on in and check it out, nonetheless.
On the subject of looking, it is easier to spot fish during winter. With rainfall greatest during summer and on into the tropical season, waters become slightly stained. This is not the case during winter when rainfall amounts are at their yearly lows. There are no afternoon storms having winds that make surface water rock and roll while bringing up sediment from the bottom. Because of the extended calm, particles of dirt and debris suspended in the water during the rainy season have had time to settle to the bottom and water becomes gin-clear. Winter is definitely a preferred time to search for the big, oversize reds that prefer water three to four feet deep. They are much more visible.
The shortage of rain not only results in super-clear water, it also brings about lower water levels. While redfish are better seen in winter’s clear, shallow water, they also can see you more easily and become quite spooky during this time of year. You must adjust your tactics accordingly.
To begin, an elevated perch like a poling platform is ideal for spotting redfish from afar. However, you should get as low as possible when you begin to stalk them and prepare to make a cast. This is even more critical in winter’s clear, low water. Many times, water levels become so low or the reds move so far back in the shallow bays that a smaller craft is necessary. I frequently use my flats boat to find the reds and switch to a canoe or kayak to approach and fish for tailing redfish. This is also a good time of the year to get out of your flats boat and wade, as the bottom will be more visible. The water is cooler and a pair of waders may be necessary for personal comfort.
With redfish being in such clear, shallow water, you will not be able to get as close to them as you might at other times of the year and the ability to make long casts will become important. You can do several things to augment your casting distance. First, make sure that your reel is fully spooled with line. When only about 1 ⁄ 8 -inch of the spool remains visible, I consider it to be full. Regarding the line that you choose, you want to use line that is the lightest and has the smallest diameter compared to others that you use the rest of the year. I prefer to go with 6- or 8-pound test of quality monofilament and a fluorocarbon leader testing at 10 pounds. This minimizes underwater visibility and increases the distance that I can cast.
I also use medium-action spinning rods with a fast tip to help achieve greater distance. I pre fer 7-foot spinning rods and find them to be about as long as I can comfortably manage, though others swear by 7 1 ⁄ 2 -footers. A fast rodtip flexes easily and helps propel the smaller baits that are often required for winter, while a butt section measuring eight to nine inches can be braced under your forearm while fighting larger redfish with broad shoulders that you may encounter.
While redfish continue to move about during winter, they do not cover nearly as much territory on a daily basis as they do in summer when they are more active. I find that they move to their preferred feeding location about midday, where they stay and feed until low-light conditions begin to chill the water once again. They then return to nearby deeper water and wait till the next day’s warming. The school of reds will follow this pattern, returning to the same area to feed for many days, even weeks in a row.
This limited movement during winter months requires little energy on their part and as a result, they will feed on smaller lures. My preference for most of the year is a 4- to 5-inch soft-plastic jerkbait rigged with an offset worm hook so that it is weedless and can be fished in vegetation floating on the surface. By mid-winter, however, the water is free of this floating vegetation and there is no need for a weedless rig. I find that 3-inch wobbling spoons with a single hook can be cast like missiles with the spinning tackle I have described, achieving the added distance necessary for clear water. Better still, redfish like the lifelike size and profile of the spoon, and its enticing wiggle puts off a flash that attracts attention. Retrieve spoons slowly in winter to keep them in the strike zone for as long as possible, as reds are not going to want to chase them far and burn a lot of energy.
Winter is also the only time of the year that I use hard-plastic crankbaits for redfish. With the water free of floating vegetation, treble hooks usually come back clean. While I like to throw topwater plugs whenever possible, redfish are a bit reluctant to feed on the surface in winter. I do have good success with lipless plugs like the Rat-L-Trap, however.
Livebait anglers will continue to have success during winter. The fish seldom refuse a shrimp. Rig one on a circle hook with a bit of weight placed about a foot above the hook to get some casting distance. Likewise for a chunk of mullet cut from a fresh-dead fingerling. The reds are up in the warmer, shallow water for the purpose of feeding and they will certainly find your bait if you put it in front of them.
More so than at any other time of the year, now is when you might catch multiple fish from the same school. You can clearly define their location. Begin by casting to the edge of the school closest to you and continue to work the edges. If the school of reds was like the face of a clock, you would start by casting clockwise to the edges from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock, as well as counterclockwise from 6 o’clock to 3 o’clock. If the bite slows and you are tempted to cast across portions of the school to fish on the backside, don’t do it. If you spook a portion of the school, they might all pick up and leave. Instead, move your boat quietly away from the school and around them so that you are on their other side. Once in position, begin the same process of working the school by casting to the edge that is now closest to you. You should be able to catch multiple fish once again using this technique.
Lastly, an often-overlooked benefit of winter fishing is that you do not have to get up early to be successful. Many anglers don’t bother to get out on the water at all during winter. If you go, you will not need to be one of the first persons to the ramp to get a parking place or have fear that someone is going to beat you to your spot by getting there at sunrise. Sleep in, have a good breakfast, and get your tackle ready. Get to the launch by late morning and do some scouting in the clear water. About noon, move toward shallow water that is protected from wind and tidal movements. Don’t be surprised, however, if you learn that the cool, clear water is “red” hot. FS