March 03, 2023
Never trust a forecast with an N in it,” was one of the first lessons I learned from the old-time offshore fishermen in Northeast Florida. You see, what they understood was the Gulf Stream averages pushing north at approximately 3 knots. That means a southerly wind at 15 knots is in effect making 12 knots across the ocean’s surface. However: a northerly wind at 15 knots effectively causes the sea to react like an 18-knot wind. I can understand nor’easters. They generally come between September and March and are caused by either a cold front coming through from the north and sucking wind behind it or high-pressure north of us that has a circular motion around its perimeter. When that happens, the wind shifts from northwest to northeast to east to southeast as the high pressure settles over us, calming our seas.
I was in high school when I made my first overnighter offshore. It was over the Fourth of July weekend and our 60-mile ride out was on a sheet of glass. Anticipating a glorious night, we grilled steaks on the transom and toasted our success. The weather forecast called for light and variable winds all weekend. We fished for vermilion snapper until almost 10 p.m. and spread out across the deck for a great night’s sleep. What happened next was something I couldn’t understand. A puff of breeze came up from the southeast and cooled us a little. We didn’t understand we were enjoying our last thirty minutes of peace for the next 9 hours. Needless to say, the puff became a howl, and I had my first awful experience with what commercial snapper fishermen around here call the ENW (Evil Night Wind).
While weathermen may well be calling for calm seas all weekend, they often don’t warn boaters how the water near the Gulf Stream cools faster after sunset, while the land holds heat. That causes a temperature imbalance that sucks the cool air off the ocean, to cool the land mass. If you’ve ever wondered why the ocean was slick during the day yesterday, and despite the wind being completely dead when you leave the dock, you’re greeted by a tight, sloppy 4-foot groundswell, you can blame the ENW. You can bet it blew all night.
It’s not enough to know what velocity the wind will be... You need to pay attention to what direction it has been coming from.
It’s not enough to know what velocity the wind will be on the day you plan to fish. You need to pay attention to what direction it has been coming from over the last few days. If you’ve had a southeast wind blowing 15 to 20 knots all night, your day will smooth out as the clock ticks by. If you’ve had a northeast wind blowing 15 to 20 for a couple days earlier in the week, look for it to take a good two to three days to lay out. If it’s blowing from the west at a straight 20 knots at midnight, and it drops at 4 a.m., expect a slick calm ocean the next morning. Just remember, here in Northeast Florida, “Never trust a forecast with an N in it.”
Captain David Borries has fished the inshore waters of Northeast Florida for over 20 years. He is the first to say that if you think the right weather is more critical offshore than inshore, you’re not paying attention. The most important factors for David are wind and tide. A west wind on Florida’s upper Atlantic coast contributes to a very low tide, and that concentrates everything in the water. Fish will get into holes, pulled out of their normal haunts by excessively low water.
Conversely, during the fall it becomes nearly impossible to find a Northeast Florida guide with a day open around the full moon. The full moons of September and October bring abnormally high tides to the region. That causes an event that brings fishermen from all around. It’s when the fiddler crabs get flooded out of their homes and crawl up the stalks of weeds. The reds will actually bump the stalks of the weeds causing the fiddler, or even a stray grasshopper, to fall right in front of them. Combine the full moon with a strong nor’easter and the fishing can be epic. Wading the flats with a flyrod during the “Flood Tide Festival” is among the best Northeast Florida fishing.
All year the moon plays a huge role in the strength of the tides. The weaker tides between the dark of the moon and the last quarter moon don’t serve David well. “The stronger the tide the better,” he said. “The fish just feed better on a stronger tide.” For water temp David prefers 65 to 75 degrees. Once the water falls into the low 60s or high 50s, the water on the flats gets gin clear. David loves a low tide around noon, particularly on a sunny day. Once the sun warms the exposed mudflat, the reds will follow the water as it flows over the “heater.” The clear water is a double-edged sword. It makes it easy to spot tightly bunched schools of reds, but it makes it doubly easy for them to spot you.
East Central Florida
Captain Jim Ross has been fishing Mosquito Lagoon for 25 years. Jim’s world is unique on the east coast in the fact that tide is a non-factor in the lagoon. Wind, both speed and direction, often dictate the success of Jim’s day. If the wind is from the southeast, steady at less than 20 knots, the fish are usually happy. Wind from the north means a front just came through, and the lagoon fish are not happy. If the wind stays north for a few days the fish will settle down and eat, but the water will be muddied up, and the sight fishing will be difficult.
“We’ve seen a huge drop in the number of days we can sight fish the lagoon because of algae bloom,” said Jim. “Our new generation of guides know nothing of the fabulous sight fishing we grew up with before modern fertilizers. Now we deal with algae blooms every day from May through December. This year has been a very good year for sight fishing, but only because we’re more than a foot below normal in rainfall. Rain determines the water quality in Mosquito Lagoon. Until we find a better way to fertilize waterfront communities, the future of the lagoon is tenuous. Algae blooms don’t always cause fish kills. Sometimes bottom feeders like reds and black drum will feed right through them. Seatrout are not so lucky, with often fatal algae blooms ruining what was once the state's greatest ‘gator’ trout fishery.”
Captain Alan Sherman has fished Miami for many decades, and he says even though it rarely gets cold where he lives, cold fronts make a huge difference in local fisheries. “Cold fronts often seem to die out around the bottom half of Lake Okeechobee,” said Alan. “That means the winds will settle in out of the northeast, and east and blow hard for days on end. That’s great news for the bigger offshore boats, as it brings mahi in from the deep, and causes the sailfish to feed ravenously, while inshore it’s quite a different story. We used to have enough seagrass to keep the inshore water clean, and somewhat protected. Now Biscayne Bay is wide open, meaning it gets choppy often, and the water gets dirty every time it gets windy.
“East to southeast at 10 to 12 knots are the best year around. That enables us to fish every piece of water. We get two tides daily, and with a southeast wind, we will have the wind and northerly current running together, creating calm water just about everywhere,” explained Alan. “Once July gets here, we nervously start watching the tropics.”
Captain Brandon Storin out of Bud N’ Mary’s in Islamorada faces unique challenges when it comes to weather. Not only does he have to worry all summer about tropical waves, but the Keys are particularly exposed to winds. “West winds are the kiss of death for most fishing,” said Brandon. Conversely, an east wind blows the bait out of the creeks into areas where the snook can find them. “Flamingo is easy pickings when the wind blows from the east,” said Brandon. “While we’re talking wind, our offshore boats count on a northeast wind to make the sailfish bite. In fact, easterly winds from each quarter makes our offshore fishing great, as long as it stays light to moderate. I also believe the moon phase affects a lot of our fishing. The full moon hurts a lot of our fishing for certain species, but helps others. Our daytime swordfishing gets great on a full moon. I believe the extra light keeps the big swords deep where our daytime guys get their best fishing. I also believe our best wahoo fishing comes during the bonito spawn on the full moons of December through March. I’ve also found the best tripletail fishing during the full moon, but I can’t explain that one.”
Southwest podcaster Greg Stamper thinks wind-driven tides affect his fishing more than anything. “If the wind blows from the west at stronger than 15 knots, our high tides can easily be 8 to 10 inches higher than normal. Conversely, we see lots of structure usually hidden from us in Estero Bay when the wind switches to the east. Our tides are strange, and we sometimes see the water not move at all for four or five hours. That’s the kiss of death for us. I can get fish to bite when the tide is rising, or falling, but I’ll be flipping baits under docks trying to get sheepshead to bite if the water won’t move. They seem to be the only fish that doesn’t mind eating in still water.”
“The moon certainly affects our tide and fishing in general. I like to fish the four or five days leading up to the moon, but not so much once it’s full. Most of the places I fish are shallow and clear. If the moon is full and bright, they can feed all night. However, if it’s overcast at night (cutting the visibility), full moon mornings can be excellent.”
In the Big Bend, Podcaster William Toney says he hates most of all a good fall nor’easter. He says you’d better have an airboat or a mud-boat if you’re going to get around once the wind goes hard northeast. The flats are almost dry. The fish congregate in holes where they can, but ordinary flats boats still won’t be able to get to them.
“Rivers are your only option once the nor’easter starts,” said William. “Most rivers in the Big Bend run east and west. In the winter you’ll find better fishing on the northern banks of area rivers. The southern sun will not only shade the southern bank, it’ll warm the northern bank. Full moons mean stronger tides for us, and I’ll take moving water any day. My dream day is a 3- to 5-knot west wind with an incoming tide on a new moon. Nothing’s a guarantee in fishing, but if there was such a thing, that’s the day I’d pick.”
Tyler Massey fishes a unique environment out west. His offshore fishery is different than most of Florida. Panhandle anglers deal with the Loop Current instead of the east coast Gulf Stream. They catch more marlin and tuna than anywhere else in Florida, and the fish-rich Gulf oil rigs are within reach. “For us, it’s a strong southeast wind that shuts us down most often. The ocean is at its roughest, and there’s almost no place to hide inshore. Our afternoon seabreeze comes out of the southwest, and can get pretty breezy in the short term. Wintertime brings us a north wind. That means the ocean will be flat, but our fish are often pushed off the beach. Both our pompano and kingfish fishing suffers when the surf is slick calm due to a north wind. Springtime usually brings us light southeast winds and excellent fishing.” FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2022