December 02, 2021
It seemed purely accidental.
A Monday afternoon in February, and I was approaching Gasparilla Pass, which connects Charlotte Harbor to the Gulf. My destination was nearshore Tremblay Reef where I hoped to tangle with sheepshead and put a few in the freezer.
It was the first day of calm following a cold spell. The sun felt healing, and the glowing turquoise water over the flats between my boat and the beach looked fishy. Beckoning. Like when you walk by a piano whose bright white and black keys you just can't resist.
So I cut the engine and lifted from the rod holder a 7-foot Ugly Stik spinning rod rigged with a sinking MirroLure 52MR.
I made a long cast toward the shallows. Six or seven cranks, and I could feel the plug rake the top of a sandbar before breaking free and digging deeper.
And then it got walloped.
The fish stayed down before I raised the rod to turn it. That's when I could see the shining, silvery profile of a speckled seatrout.
The salt air, the sun, the calm, the solitude in an otherwise usually crowded waterway was mesmerizing, until my arm was jolted by a hard final lunge. Almost as if the fish were asking what in the world I was doing there.
I found myself asking the same question about the very angry 2.5-pound speck now thrashing in the net.
It was winter, after all, when seatrout prefer the warmth and consistency of deeper water and are not inclined to chase artificial hard baits.
But Capt. John Larson, who grew up fishing in Florida and guides out of Fort Pierce, solved the riddle.
“Trout seem to pick their locations for one of two reasons,” Larson told me.
“One reason is that a unique location and depth, along with dawn's early light, help them feed more effectively, which is the case most of the year when the water is warm and there's a variety of bait to stalk.
“The other reason is simply for survival. Trout are in the drum family, and like the redfish, they can handle the cold better than other species. But they're still cold-blooded animals evolved for warmer water than the sub-60F temps we get for a few days at a time. Big trout also start to spawn this time of year so that extra stress pushes them to take a risk and expose themselves midday to birds when finding the warmest water possible.”
As with my “accidental” catch, Larson explained that the same “knee-deep” water where trout may be feeding on mullet at sunrise in the middle of August, could still be a great place to catch a trophy trout on the coldest day in winter.
“Just fish it later in the day as they're there to absorb the sun's warmth,” said Larson. “Not necessarily to eat. But they might.”
When I moved to Charlotte Harbor in southwest FL several years ago, Florida Sportsman's Fishing Chart for the Ft. Myers region recommended the mouths of the Peace River and of Turtle Bay for winter trout. There, I coaxed many with a DOA shrimp under a Cajun Thunder Popping Cork in 5 and 6 feet.
I also followed collected wisdom that winter trout gather in the deepest holes, which meant the mouth of the Myakka River at the El Jobean bridge in the Harbor's northwest quadrant. Starting in late November, trout seek warmth in its 10- to 14-foot depths, where they ambush forage flushed through the pilings.
While many anglers anchor or tie to the bridge on a rising tide, I deploy a 24-volt Minn Kota i-Pilot to position my 16-foot skiff 30 yards downcurrent of the pilings. I rig a 3/8-ounce jig, dressed with a chartreuse (for murky water) Gulp! mullet tied to 18 inches of 20-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon, knotted to the 12-pound Sufix main line. With a Shimano 2500 spinning reel mounted on the Ugly Stik, I cast to the base of the bridge and wait for the lead head to sink.
When I finally begin a yo-yo style retrieve, a trout is often already on the hook, poised to wage a surprisingly stout battle, having been conditioned in the “tougher neighborhood” of El Jobean, where both current and competition are heavier.
Still, on winter days following a cold front, when the winds are calm and the sun therapeutic, I heed Captain Larson's counsel and motor to the same close-to-home grassflat I love fishing in spring.
I kill the engine. Cast a ¼-ounce jig and plastic far from the boat. Unwrap a Tootsie Pop. Maybe check my phone. Give plenty of time for a cold, wary, but still hungry trout to consider snatching my tasty looking critter, whose tail is undulating irresistibly as it sits in the sand.
For those pursuing trout this winter, experts from around the state share secrets below:
NORTHEAST: JIG THE RIVER BENDS
Captain Tony Bozzella is an inshore and backcountry guide in Jacksonville. His clients have caught 194 trout over 5 pounds in the last 20 years, from his 18-foot Hewes Redfisher.
Launching at the Browns Creek Fish Camp, Tony selects from a myriad of locations along the vast and twisting St. Johns River.
“In the winter, trout school up in the deep bends of creeks and deeper portions of the mouth of the river. Whereas, in summer, you find them more in the river proper, and further south.
“Cold months, I like to slow roll a TBS Jig with plastics in natural colors. If the water is dirty, I use white or chartreuse. Live mud minnows and shrimp work well, also. Summer months, I use more top water, including lipped divers such as Rapalas, MirrOlures, BiteABaits, and Catch 53's.”
Although Bozzella recalls client Joni Shiply catching a 5-pound speck last winter, he admits that spring and fall are the better seasons for trophies.
Contact Captain Bozzella at firstname.lastname@example.org or (904) 651-0182.
SOUTHEAST: GO DEEP ON GRASSFLATS
Captain John Larson's First Nature Guide Service is located in Fort Pierce where he schedules inshore charters from Port St. Lucie to Vero Beach, often embarking from the Stan Blum Memorial boat ramp on Causeway Drive.
“Strong South Florida cold fronts are followed by the coldest but sunniest days of the year,” said Larson. “Find shallow water over sand or mud bottom which heats up faster. In my area, there's not a lot of oyster or rock bottom, so just about any calm, sandy shoreline out of the wind will do. Even pilings and concrete seawalls can have fish on them in the middle of the day. Just remember to be super quiet, especially if working a shoreline with a trolling motor.
“Winters, a lot of schoolie trout under 20 inches make a gradual transition into the deeper parts of the grassflats: 6 feet as opposed to the 3- to 4-foot depths they prefer most of the year.
“Residential canals are another go-to deep water place for concentrations of trout out of the wind,” said Larson. “Just cast to the seawall and slowly drag a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jig on the bottom out to the deeper water. This lets you cover lots of water and is much preferred method over ‘live bait and wait.' Bridges in this area also see a lot of schoolie trout and are pretty reliable at night around those shadow lines.”
Larson weighs other conditions when deciding if and when to fish on a winter day.
“Tides are important. Moving water is essential to fish wanting to feed. But salinity isn't much of a factor in the winter as it's generally clear, and trout like that.
“Obviously, water temperature and weather are the most important factors in determining how likely fish are to bite. As long as the water remains about 65 degrees, fishing can be consistent. But when a front blows through and drops the water another 5 degrees, it's better to wait till the second or third day to fish.
“Then return to the aforementioned locations, and you may do well not only on trout, but also with reds. They got blasted with cold, didn't eat and hardly moved, and eventually just got extremely hungry. It's just neat to me how in sync most all the fish are with each other.”
Contact Capt. Larson at email@example.com or (863) 634-6655.
NORTHWEST: BAIT THE BAYOUS
With 30 years of experience, Capt. James Pfeiffer guides clients out of Pensacola in his 24-foot Blazer Bay.
Launching at Galvez Landing, Mahogany Mill Landing, or Shoreline Park, Pfeiffer finds trout in the Intracoastal Waterway, the grass beds in nearby lagoons, and the numerous canals and bayous to which they gravitate from the bay in winter time.
“Look for points with dropoffs and fish the down current side,” said Pfeiffer.
While he recommends live shrimp and artificials like the Catch 2000 MirrOlure, Pfeiffer's favorite for really big trout is finger mullet.
“Take a cast net into the back of bayous and canals for these prime baits,” he said. “Mullet work best with a 1 or 1/0 kahle hook inserted in the mouth and out the tip of the nose, then freelined down current.“
When targeting big trout, unfortunately, the nastier the weather, the better. Fishing in the rain before a front, or on mornings when it's 40 degrees, has produced some trophy trout for me and my clients.”
On days Pfeiffer does not have a charter, he goes on “busman's holiday” and wade fishes with friends.
“Walking the edges of bayous throwing topwater lures, worked very slow, can lead to explosive fun.”
Contact Captain James Pfeiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 380-9600.
SOUTHWEST: PROSPECT THE POTHOLES
Captain Gregg McKee operates Wildfly Charters in Pine Island Sound. He meets his clients at the Matlacha Park boat ramp for unique fishing adventures in his 18-foot Beavertail BT3, among the shallowest-running skiffs.
“The waters can often be loaded with trout just a few minutes from the dock in the winter,” said McKee. “I also like to fish the deeper potholes in the north part of Pine Island Sound which hold some of the area's larger fish.”
McKee's location and tactics don't drastically change in winter.
“Trout are not as affected by cooler temps, but winter brings us some very low tides that make the usual flats too shallow for them. Our trout prefer water between two and four feet, no matter what the season or tide. Find that depth and you'll usually find the trout.
“It can get really breezy in the winter, especially around cold fronts. That makes fly casting a chore, and the chop can make surface baits hard to find. This is when I stick with shrimp or Gulp! lures on 1/8-ounce jigheads.
“Live shrimp under a cork is always the best and Gulp! a close second. Topwaters are also lots of fun in the right conditions. If I'm fly fishing, nothing beats a No. 2 chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnow.
“Jigging shrimp in 4 feet over grass this time of year is also a great way to catch pompano, an excellent bonus.”
I asked McKee how fishing for trout in the winter compares to the other seasons.
“I had two anglers who were keeping track of their fish one morning in February, and they landed 104 trout in two hours, all on artificials. They weren't interested in keeping any which was a good thing, since 102 were under 15 inches; but their rods never stopped bending.”
Contact Captain McKee at gmckee1@ hotmail.com or (239) 565-2960.