Gulf Coast anglers go for reds, trout and snook on winter low tides.
“How low can you go?” More than a catchy limbo phrase, these words tell the tale of winter fishing in West Central Florida. Fish may bite throughout the tidal range, but this time of year, it’s all about low, clear water and a slam-up good time.
That’s “slam” as in redfish, trout and snook. The latter can be tough during bitter cold, but you can find cooperative linesiders when a decent warming trend heats up muddy bottoms and makes for nice dorsal sunning. Line this up with the right tidal conditions and it’s game-on for slam seekers. It’s one of the basic precepts of Florida fishing inshore in the winter.
Winter sees the year’s lowest tides and the ones that fall the farthest are driven out by the powerful pull of new and full moon phases. Dipping farther than the mean low water upon which depth charts are based, these “negative lows” or “moon tides” will suck all the water off a flat that supported boat traffic 12 hours earlier. Seagrass blades lay flat and sea gulls get an easy shot at shrimp left high and dry.
This may sound like the opposite of where you typically find fish (i.e. in the water), however, many spots throughout this region hold random troughs, trenches, ditches and depressions adjacent to the standard flats and sand bars forming the boundaries of shallow water habitat. When extreme winter tides fall, loads of fish drop into these deeper areas, which hold comfortable depths throughout the low period. These fish will often bite on slack water, but the last half of the outgoing tide and the first of the incoming are most dependable.
Some spots find fish tarrying along the edges of fertile feeding areas, while more defined backwater bays and coves present restrictive habitat. In the latter, moon tides may retreat across the outer bars and leave broad depressions full of fish completely sequestered. The word here is “jackpot.”
No doubt, extreme low tides yield tremendous opportunity, but in nature’s system of checks and balances, winter’s colder water turns gin clear and that means high visibility. If you can see a fish, he’s already seen you and you’re not fooling anyone. It’s just a game of tolerance, so keep your distance and keep quiet. To this end, you’ll do well to arm yourself with a long rod and braided line for maximum casting distance.
WHERE TO LOOK
The simplest example of negative low tide opportunity awaits in the bowls and dropoffs along the edges of a grassflat where hungry fish await the returning tide. Think of this as a staircase – the fish march up to feed on high water and step down to the basement on the low cycle. Look for this scenario in areas like the Picnic Island flats along the southwest edge of Tampa’s Interbay Peninsula and the Port Manatee flats south of the big spoil island.
You’ll find similar opportunity at the mouths of coastal arteries where hard falling water pulls fish from all their little hidey holes and funnels them toward the main channel. A few will wait out the incoming water in narrow troughs and holes, but most will head toward the mouth because that’s where the food goes. In areas like Upper Tampa Bay’s Rocky Creek and Double Branch, target main channel edges, tidal eddies formed by water flaring around oyster bars or island points, and those backwater deep spots – usually along the undercut mangrove edges.
Slams await in each of these scenarios, but if you’re in the mood for a straight-up, triple species stickfest – the kind with multiple slam potential – fish the broad backwater depressions in areas like Miguel Bay just south of the Sunshine Skyway’s southern causeway, Palma Sola Bay (north of Sarasota Bay) and the inner reaches of Charlotte Harbor’s Bull Bay and Turtle Bay. In each, the mix of thick sea grass and sandy potholes provides ample food sources, with those ambush edges that predators favor.
Snook, trout and reds do well on their own, but when large schools of mullet gather in these backs of bays and bayous, their rumbling movement stirs up a briny buffet of shrimp, crabs and pinfish. Knowing this, the slam species trail the herd and pick off the freebies that vegetarian mullet ignore. Since mullet gather tightly ahead of cold fronts, finding a school – either visually or audibly – means finding gamefish.
On a past trip with Venice wader Capt. Geoff Page, my host paused at the entrance to an area bay, put his hand to his ear and said: “Hear that? That’s the meat.”
Indeed, in the distance, we saw a football field of mullet broken into a handful of hefty schools–the dream vision of winter waders. Such scenarios immediately narrow your search. Sure, you may pick up a few bites 200 yards across the bay over a placid pothole, but when the snack truck rolls onto the construction site, guess where all the hungry hammer swingers go?
It’s a smart tactic to target schools of “happy” mullet – those that are leisurely milling around in a concentrated area. Predators can easily mix with their hosts in such moods, whereas fast-moving schools, spooked by porpoises or careless anglers, are tough to follow. Low-flying birds can help you find big groups of calm mullet, as overhead shadows will startle the fish into disclosing their position with a nervous shower. Ospreys and eagles are the only real threats, but watch every low-flying bird. No commotion – no mullet.
On the other hand, flats with large numbers of wading birds such as herons, egrets, wood storks and roseate spoonbills feeding along the shallow perimeters clearly hold abundant supplies of crustaceans and baitfish. Adjacent deep water is very likely to hold snook, trout and redfish. Pair this with nearby mullet and you’re in the right place.
GETTING THERE, GETTING AROUND
Topography – the very reason low-tide wonderlands exist – can greatly limit their accessibility. With coastal creeks, you can usually idle into fishing range and either beach the boat and wade, or use the trolling motor to hold yourself into the outgoing tide and fish the current flow. Just be careful on the initial approach; the sandy ridges inherent to creek mouths stand tall on winter lows so trim up the big motor and troll or push pole your way slowly. (Upper Tampa Bay’s creek area is notoriously tricky on low water, but a satellite map or a Google Earth iPhone app will show you the way.)
For shallow flats abutting deep water, idle into the area with your big engine and then work the edges with the electric motor or a combination of push poling and wind drifting. When you find a group of fish, silently lower an anchor or stake out with the push pole or a Power-Pole. Approaching from behind the fish is always dicey, as the boat’s pressure wake and any sudden noise may spook your quarry.
Stealth is the key, but hopping out and walking the drained flat enables you to present baits toward the fish. At times, you’ll walk across a damp sea salad where whelks and scallops tan their shells, but look for the obvious drains – the small tide channels that will lead you to those perimeter sweet spots where fish gather. Ease into casting range and if you need to approach the edge of a bowl, drop to your knees and inch forward in minimal profile.
When sandbars block your progress into backwater bays, anchor or stake out the boat and proceed on foot. If access depth allows, tether the boat to your waist and tow it along to prevent unexpected lengthy returns when you push farther than you expect.
When super shallow spots make you leave the boat for a long trek, you’ll lessen the fatigue of trudging through shin-deep water in heavy waders by walking across sandy spots as much as possible. Grass means soft, muddy bottom and walking there burns more energy.
Fishing kayaks offer another option. Skimming across 6-foot holes or a 6-inch muddy quagmire with ease, a lightweight sit-on-top model allows you to rest your legs between fishing spots. Rod holders, tackle storage and a grappling anchor come in handy, while a rudder operated via foot pedals helps with steering. Rudders also allow hands-free control when you need to cast from the yak.
“The stealth factor is also really important for creeping up on tailing redfish,” said Tampa bay guide Jason Stock. “This makes for phenomenal sight casting opportunities.”
Stock says the average paddler has a one-way range of about two to three miles, but you only need shoreline access to launch so you’re not limited by boat ramp location. That said, strapping a kayak to the deck of a flats boat gives you three mobility options – boat fishing, kayaking and wading. Different scenarios may favor one method, but it’s good to have choices.
WHAT TO THROW
When snook, trout and redfish pile into low-tide holes, they quickly gobble all the food they can find, so anything that even appears edible meets with crushing aggression. Live shrimp or pinfish won’t last long when floated or free-lined in a pothole or creek channel, but you can avoid the muss and fuss of natural bait by fishing artificials. One of the best is a plastic shrimp. Cast into a pothole or right into a mullet school, the crustacean imposter will grab someone’s attention with barely a twitch.
Jigs in the 1/16- to 1/8-ounce range offer great versatility for experimenting with different body shapes and colors. Grub or shad tails work well, as do soft plastic jerkbaits. Darker colors are typically best for mimicking crustaceans, but a pearl, chartreuse or gold body may do the trick on a bright day. For a weedless presentation – often essential in thick grass – rig soft plastics Texas style on 3/0 to 5/0 worm hooks. Hooks with weighted shanks or pinch weights will increase your casting distance when the fish are nervous.
When searching broad areas, a weedless gold or silver spoon is tough to beat – especially on windy days. In a creek’s tidal eddies, slow-sinking plugs resemble disoriented baitfish and topwaters are always a good idea at daybreak or during cloudy conditions. Mullet expand the surface opportunity because slam species become so accustomed to the noise of the school that they’ll tolerate a splashy surface lure. Smaller mullet sometimes end up on the menu, so expect ferocious strikes. – FS
WALK THE WALK
Neoprene waders of 3- or 5-millimeter thickness will handle Florida’s winter wading duties. A lighter pair will suffice most days, but a sharp cold snap can change things overnight. Remember, you can always roll down the tops of heavy waders, but you can’t make thin waders any warmer. For West Central Florida’s soft, muddy backwaters, go with stocking-foot waders slipped into wading boots, rather than boot-foot waders. When mud grips the latter, feet tend to slip and that compromises balance. (Get wading boots a couple sizes larger than your shoes to accommodate the waders.)
Low tide wading is mostly a knee-high deal, but take caution when crossing deep spots or fishing a channel edge. Filling your waders with water risks hypothermia, while the added weight can anchor you in a very bad spot. Cover your bases by keeping a knife handy to cut yourself free of the neoprene. If you’re wading in waist-deep water—or higher—be aware of tidal phases and the time when flood tide will come rising up
Other wading tips:
Safety First: The buddy system promotes wading security, while extending your scouting range. Cell phones, VHF radios, or Walkie Talkies keep wading partners in touch and links you to folks on shore in the event of an emergency. On that note, leaving the where/when details with reliable landside contacts (similar to a boater’s float plan) adds another level of security. Remember, stingrays.
Light & Tight: Commit to a handful of lures and limit your tackle to one small tray or resealable plastic bag held in a chest pack or stuffed inside your waders. One rod is usually enough, but a second keeps two different baits ready. Wading belts usually have loops along the back edge for holding a spare rod. You can fashion your own from a lumbar support belt, or just stick the spare in the back of your waders.
Creature Comforts: Avoid having to return to the boat by sticking a water bottle and a light snack (trail mix, granola bars, beef jerky) inside your waders. Don’t forget the sunscreen and/or the face mask, even on a cloudy day. And wear layered clothing so you can shed external pieces as the day warms.
First Published Florida Sportsman Feb. 2010