There’s good fishing to be found in Panhandle waters this winter.
Between the turkey of Thanksgiving, the ham of Christmas and the mimosa breakfasts of New Year’s, there’s lots of good fishing to be had in Panhandle waters.
The cooler water means some fish will be a lot more active and eager to bite — including redfish, sheepshead and sea trout. Others will be less so, or will be gone altogether — kings, cobia and Spanish head south following the baitfish schools at this time of year.
December fish in our waters tend to be found in tighter schools, particularly after the passage of the cold fronts that blow through about once a week. The water temperature in the surf this week is about 69 degrees, but that’s going to gradually slide down to the low 60s as the month goes on if we have the usual progression of fronts.
The water in the backcountry will be cooler in some spots, warmer in others. Shallow flats exposed to the occasional 30- to 40-degree nights with big north winds chill off very rapidly, pushing trout and reds off them to nearby deeper water, holes and creeks.
On the other hand, protected backwater creeks and holes with dark, tannin-stained water soak up the heat, as do protected bays with black mud bottoms. And deep dredge-holes may contain layers of water, with warmer water in the depths than at the surface—the dredged waters of marinas and harbors, in particular, often attract winter fish. The Intra-Coastal Waterway also holds schools of fish here and there in the colder months.
The trick to finding winter fish is often to keep moving until you find warmer water. It may take hours to locate that first school, but then you load the boat in 30 minutes when you find the fish.
Sheepshead are a prime winter target because big schools of them tend to move into the bays and tidal rivers as the water cools. They eat primarily shellfish including oysters and barnacles, and also like crabs, tubeworms and shrimp.
They’re most often found around oyster bars, rock outcrops and concrete pilings, anything to which shellfish can attach themselves. Water depths from 3 feet in a tidal creek to 30 feet in a dredge hole or canal can hold lots of them.
Sheepshead can be tricky to hook. They have small and very hard mouths designed to crush shells, so getting a hook stuck in them is a challenge. They also have sharp teeth that can quickly nip off a shrimp.
Best bet is to use a small piece of fresh-cut shrimp, about thumbnail size, that just covers a size 1 to 1/0 hook. Larger hooks make it tougher to hook them. Fish the hook on 30-pound-test Mason’s hard mono or fluorocarbon, both of which are tougher than standard mono and will stand up to their teeth. Add just enough weight to get the bait down to bottom.
Sheepshead can readily be chummed by scraping barnacles from pilings and rocks anywhere there’s current running. Chip off the shells, wait five minutes or so, or until you see the fish behind the boat, then put the bait in front of them—they usually bite immediately.
Sheepshead found in oystery potholes also readily take what guides call a "natural jig," a bare jig with a fresh cut shrimp tail threaded on in place of the usual plastic tail. The scent and taste plus just a bit of motion draw the bites.
TROUT AND REDFISH
Trout tend to get off the flats anytime water temperature makes an abrupt drop, so prospecting for them after a front is best done in water deeper than 5 feet. Reds are less affected by the chill—I’ve sometimes caught tailing fish in water just a few degrees above 60. Reds are also more likely to stay in shallow areas with dark mud bottom, soaking up the radiated heat.
The universal lure for trout and reds in winter is a jig from 3/16 to ¼ ounce with a 4-inch plastic shad or curly tail. Most anglers prefer lighter colors, though the brown shade known as "root beer" also has a lot of fans. Also effective are artificial shrimp like the DOA and Vudu.
The jigs are fished in the usual lift-and-drop motion, while the shrimp are best drifted with the current, with a tiny bb shot to get them down to where the fish are.
When reds are on the flats in winter, they’ll also readily take a scented bait like the Berkley GULP crab — cast it upcurrent from them and let them find it, just like a natural bait. Live shrimp on an unweighted hook also work well — put a long shank hook in under the tail fin and run it forward and they’ll stay put long enough for a cast.
Winter fishing in Panhandle waters doesn’t offer the potpourri action of early spring and late fall, but for those who bundle up and do a bit of persistent scouting, it can be highly productive on sheepshead, trout and reds.