A how-to guide on where to find fish, and how to work the frontal winds and tides during the winter season.
While winter fishing in the Panhandle is not the cast-anywhere-reel-em-in action sometimes found in late fall and early spring, anglers who put in the time to find concentrations of fish can actually experience even better action than that of the more temperate months, with the bite continuing past Christmas.
The occasional cold fronts push many species of fish off the shallow flats where they feed the rest of the year and into channels, holes, passes and open bays, and for those who find these schools — which sometimes number hundreds of fish — the angling can be impressive.
Frontal Winds and Tides
Cold fronts here typically begin with strong winds and rain moving in from the northwest. As the rain ends, the wind usually blows even stronger and backs around to due north, then to northeast before tapering off, usually the second or third day after the rain.
Angling action is usually good right before the front hits, but tends to slump in many areas during the bright blue skies, chilly air and strong winds after.
The exception is in holes and creeks on the north side of the bays, where reds, trout and sheepshead may stack up in the remaining deep water as the strong winds blow the water to extreme low tide levels. The conditions may not follow the published tide tables — a low tide can last many hours longer than forecast if the wind holds steady, and sometimes the water may not come back in at all until the wind slacks after extreme fronts. And water levels may be a foot or more lower than the tide table forecast — grounding is always a possibility for those boaters who are incautious.
In fact, some of the best spots in backcountry creeks can be reached only by kayak or airboat on extreme lows, and some anglers simply park their boat in deeper water and go over the side to wade into range of the potholes and channels. It's a deadly tactic putting them in reach of fish that most fishermen will never try. (A pair of chest waders or hard-soled wading booties are a must — most backcountry has mud and sharp oyster shell bottom rather than the soft, clean sand that's found nearer to the barrier islands.)
The extreme low tides pull crabs and baitfish out of the marshes and shallows into deeper creeks and holes, bringing reds and trout far into the backcountry at times. Sometimes a hole just 20 feet across may hold dozens of keeper trout, reds or sheepshead.
The alternatives after fronts pass are the wrecks, bridges and causeways found in the larger bays and inlets of the Panhandle coast. With depths of 15 feet and more, these areas provide a blanket against the chill, and there are often schools of bait around some of them all winter long. For large reds (many over the slot) and bigger trout and sheepshead, these areas can also produce throughout the winter, and they're accessible via larger boats without the concerns with grounding.
Rigging up for Winter Fishing
A medium-action spinning rod 7' to 7'6" long rigged with a 2500- or 3000-size reel and 10-pound test braid is ideal for backcountry action. A leader of 2 feet of 20-pound test fluorocarbon or monofilament helps stiffen the tie to the hook or lure and prevent tangles, likely with a direct tie to braid. Attach running line and leader with a surgeon's knot or a double Uni-knot rather than a swivel to allow easier casting.
Heavier gear is a better bet at the bridges and passes — a medium-heavy action spinning rod, 4000-size reel and 20-pound-test braid, plus a couple feet of 30-pound-test leader gets the job done, even against a 20-pound redfish.
Live bait is always a good choice in winter when fish are less active than in warmer weather. While shrimp nearly always works when the fish are stacked in the creek holes, even better are live killifish, aka bull minnows or mud minnows, which can be bought at most local baitshops during winter, or caught in minnow traps placed around marsh grass or oyster bars.
Either bait can be fished on a size 1/0 thin wire live bait hook. Shrimp stay on the hook better for casting if hooked through the last joint of the tail. Whole shrimp are the best offering for reds and trout. For sheepshead, on the other hand, a 1-inch section of tail threaded on the hook will catch more of these bait-stealers. (Even though you're using cut bait, making the bait out of live shrimp rather than frozen will draw lots more bites.) They also readily eat fiddler crabs and oysters.
For larger reds and trout in deeper water, finger mullet, pinfish, croakers and pigfish are all effective. Most anglers use a half-ounce to 3-ounce sliding sinker above a swivel to get the bait down to where the fish are hanging. For bull reds, a size 4/0 or larger hook is the best bet for large baitfish. For trout, choose baitfish about 3 to 4 inches long fished on a 2/0. (If you opt for circle hooks, remember to simply reel to "set" the hook, rather than giving a jerk on the rod as with standard J-hooks.)
At times, trout will school up in shallower water, 3 to 6 feet deep, where bait is massed. These locations are sometimes indicated by diving gulls or by a slick on the surface. The baits are then fished about 30 inches below a large popping cork, which is chugged now and then to draw in the trout.
Lures that Work in Winter
A quarter-ounce jig like the DOA with CAL shad tail about 4 inches long can also be very effective for winter fishing in the back country, particularly if a sliver of fresh cut shrimp is added to the hook. The lure is slow-hopped along bottom to connect with reds and trout — sheepshead don't often attack it. Pearl/white is a popular color combination, as is a sort of tan that is similar to the shade of a shrimp. Plastic shrimp drifted with the current just off bottom under deeper boat docks and at creek mouths can also be effective.
Some anglers also do well by slow-trolling a jig just off bottom at about walking speed through residential canals and along the ICW cuts until they find trout or reds, then stopping to work them over with live shrimp.
Finding large reds in the open water of the big bays can also be accomplished by trolling, with most anglers using large lipped diving lures that get down to 15 feet and more to plow the depths. Trolling the bridge lines and passes are among the more successful routes. Destin Pass to Crab Island, just inside the bridge, is a noted area for this tactic, as is Brooks Bridge at Fort Walton Beach.
Since most of the fish caught this way will be oversized, it's wise to bend the back hooks closed against the shank, so that they don't lodge in the fish's throat, making release difficult. Trolling a large, heavy-weight swimbait like the 3-ounce Tsunami Swimshad, a single hook lure, can also be effective. The Swimshad can also be effective for vertical fishing around the bridge pilings, lowering it to a few feet off bottom and swimming it slowly on the trolling motor until the fish find it.
Scraping for Sheepshead
Sheepshead love shellfish, and one tactic that often turns them on is to scrape bridge pilings on bay bridges with a spudding hoe or shovel, knocking off the barnacles that grow there and creating a chum line of broken shell and meat. It may take 10 minutes or more of intermittent scraping to draw the fish, but once it starts working, you can often see the gleam of the black and white-striped fish below.
The bait — shrimp, fiddler crabs, oysters and other shellfish — is lowered into the chum stream with enough weight — up to 3 ounces — to hold it straight down in whatever current there might be, as close to the piling as possible. Size 1 or 1/0 hooks do the job — sheepshead have relatively small mouths. It's essential to set the hook quickly when you feel weight on the line. They have hard mouths, and they're quick to spit the hook.
Winter sheepshead typically weigh a couple of pounds, but fish of 5 pounds are not rare around the larger bridges and in the passes.
Whether you target sheepies, reds or trout, the fish remain in the winter pattern into mid-March most years, providing lots of opportunities for mixed-bag catches and some great fish fries.