Shrimp, however, are not as cheap as they once were. If there is any doubt about inflation, just check the price of shrimp. Many marinas now charge $3 per dozen and you can expect that price to go up this year. I just hope that the fish appreciate how much we fishermen are spending on them. They are eating in style! It probably costs me more to feed the local trout population than it does my family.
With live shrimp prices so high, many anglers have switched to cutbait. Even some backwater guides are using cut sardines rather than the ever-reliable shrimp.
Whatever your choice of baits, the top places to fish in February are the holes and troughs, especially where there is hard bottom or oysters. A host of predators typically fill these holes, and they all will take a shrimp or slow-moving jig tipped with shrimp. Sheepshead, snapper and black drum are the most common catches, but more prestigious fish such as redfish, grouper and snook also winter in these deeper areas. Of course, jacks and ladyfish are everywhere in the Ten Thousand Islands. At times, there are so many jacks and ladies that no other fish have a chance to sniff your bait. To hook anything else, you simply have to move.
If you fish south of Goodland, there are so many holes and deep areas that it is difficult to choose where to fish. Trial and error is always the best teacher, but certain characteristics will help you identify productive waters. Narrow cuts between bays are often good. Always fish an eddy, where the current doubles back upon itself. Dropoffs next to an oyster bar almost always hold sheepshead, and downed trees are good habitat for grouper and snook.
Often, the best fishing holes are not so obvious. Take, for example, a simple undercut bank or oyster bar protruding out into a channel. These can be extremely fishy. You’ll just need to fish them to know them.
Certain locations are popular simply because of natural structure. Fakahatchee Bay is covered with oyster bars, and there are numerous holes and limestone outcroppings where the cuts run into the bay. Chokoloskee Bay is one mass of oysters with some grass and rocky areas on the west side of the bay. This area is tricky, but those who know how to fish here do very well.
The entrance to Lostmans River is a maze of oysters and holes, and once inside, there are deep, rocky holes. The banks in this area are also fishy, and if the weather is good, the outside points all along the coast usually hold fish at the top of the incoming tide.
Farther north around Naples, anglers often move just offshore to fish rocky outcrops and ledges that hold sheepshead, snapper, grouper and the occasional cobia. If you venture just a little farther out to the artificial reefs, you’ll tug on more sheepshead and grouper, plus triggerfish, lane snapper and Spanish mackerel.
All in all, this is a fairly good, action-packed fishery, all based around soaking shrimp on the bottom—if you can afford them.
Many local offshore boats specialize in grouper fishing, and February is a tough month for them. Large red grouper move well offshore into 80 feet of water or more, and the big gags are all out spawning or were caught in the fall. Most boats revert to snapper fishing, which is actually quite good. Lane snapper gather over hard bottom outside of the 10-mile mark, and although these fish are not huge, they are certainly good eating.
Mangrove snapper school wherever there is heavy structure. Wrecks are ideal if they are not overfished. Ledges and rockpiles are also very good. Mangroves are bigger than the lanes and much more challenging to catch. They are line shy and difficult to fool in clear water. Once you haul in one or two fish, the rest of the school seems to realize the danger and gets very fussy about taking a bait. Light line, small hooks and a variety of baits will increase your chances of returning home with a cooler full of big mangrove snapper.
One appealing aspect to snapper fishing is watching them take a bait. There are fewer predators such as barracuda and goliath grouper in February, so mangroves frequently come to the surface under a chum line. It’s great fun freelining shrimp to these fish with tiny hooks and no leader. Sometimes, you can choose which one you want for dinner.
Yellowtail snapper are not highly publicized in these parts, but there are plenty of large fish caught over wrecks beyond 20 miles out. Again, these snapper will come off of the bottom to a chum line and offer grand light-tackle sport.
The past few years, massive schools of small amberjacks have also moved onto the wrecks in winter. These fish are too small to keep, but like all amberjacks, they fight like hell and are fun on light tackle. More large amberjack are caught each year, but they are still scarce here. Recent restrictions were passed to help the amberjack stocks recover, but there are very few big fish left. Once, there were too many to count.
For purists who cannot stand the idea of drowning shrimp, or are too poor to afford them, there is good lure action over the grassflats when the water is clear. Trout are the most popular target, but Spanish mackerel and bluefish are more plentiful and fight much harder. Silver trout and whiting can be found along the beaches, and there are pompano near the passes, in the cuts between grassbeds and in some backwaters where channels wash into the bays.
All of these fish will take a jig. Spanish macks and bluefish like a very fast retrieve. Trout prefer a slow-moving target and pompano often hit the jig when it is still on bottom. A tip of shrimp certainly helps the pompano fishing.
I did not mention live baits, simply because they are very difficult to find in February. And if you do find them, they are often not that effective. Snook and tarpon just are not that hungry in the cool water, and the other species seem to prefer shrimp. So dip into your bank account, invest in a few dozen shrimp and enjoy your day on the water. So what if bait costs more than fuel.
BEST BET: 10,000 ISLANDS
Sheepshead do not possess the snob appeal of snook, tarpon or permit, but for the meat-and-potatoes fisherman, sheepies comprise the heart of our winter fishery.
Each winter, sheepshead move into local waters to spawn. The biggest fish are caught just offshore on artificial reefs or natural rocks. Many are in the 5- to 8-pound range and make excellent table fare.
Sheepshead also head for the backcountry. These fish tend to be smaller, but they’re still large for sheepshead. They gather wherever there is structure. Oyster bars and coral attract fish, but so do man-made structures such as docks, jetties and seawalls. The jetties in front of Doctors, Gordons and Caxambas passes should all hold plenty of sheepshead this winter.
Sheepshead tend to school, so once you find one, you’ll probably find more. Shrimp or pieces of shrimp are the most popular baits, but real sheepshead junkies prefer fiddler crabs. Search for fiddler crabs along the shorelines on low tide and enjoy the added attraction of shelling out nothing but time for bait. Supposedly, fiddlers attract bigger sheepshead, but the fish do have an easy time stealing the bait.
If you are a real sheepshead fanatic—past the junkie stage—then you will use tube worms for bait. I think that I am one of the few people who has actually caught a tube worm and used it for bait. I did so when writing an article on these elusive little beasts, and although they are wonderful bait, you will spend about four hours digging tube worms for every hour that you fish. Of course, chasing tube worms is really fishing in its own right, so you might enjoy it.
You can collect tube worms on sandbars at low tide where you see their breathing holes, and dig them up. I was told that a tube worm lowered in the water will attract a sheepshead from a mile away, and if there is an island between, the sheepshead will actually come out of the water and walk across it.
From what I can tell, this might be true.