February fishing in the Florida Panhandle
Most anglers will be wishing it was March this month in the Panhandle, as it looks like continued chilly weather from repeated fronts are going to be part of February as they were January.
While the weather may not be particularly comfortable for Florida, there are still plenty of fish in inshore waters, for those willing to put on a few jackets and get out on the water.
Spotted Sea Trout
Trout are one of the primary targets in winter here, but fishing for them tends to be feast or famine. They're not often found on the grass flat haunts of warmer weather, where casual casting can almost always drum up dinner March through November. In cold winters, trout tend to huddle into deep river channels, backwater potholes and dredged residential canals from Apalachicola all the way west to the Alabama line.
Since the fish are concentrated, they can be hard to find. As a salty old skipper used to tell me, "There's an awful lot of places where they ain't."
But for those who are persistent, running from one likely deep-water refuge to another to make quick sampling casts, finding the mother lode is a daily possibility. And while catching 40 or 50 trout in a day no longer means a fish fry for the whole neighborhood, anglers can readily put their five-fish daily limit in the cooler.
Cold trout are slow trout, and the lures that succeed will also move slowly. A jig with a 1/8 to 3/16 head and a 3 to 5 inch soft plastic tail in tan or pearl is the go-to lure for most winter anglers. This is fished on light spinning gear and 10-pound-test braid, with a couple feet of clear 15-pound-test mono leader between running line and lure.
The action that usually draws the trout bite is to let the lure hit bottom (the light heads allow a slow fall), let it sit a couple seconds, then hop it a couple feet, then let it settle all the way to bottom again and sit another second or so, and repeat. The faster jigging that works in summer usually does not do the job in cold weather.
A lure very familiar to bass anglers but rarely used in saltwater can also do the job--the Strike King Redeye Shad, a compact lipless crankbait that sinks like a stone, can be deadly when fished right. Rather than cranking it to make it vibrate, as most anglers do, it works best for winter trout if allowed to sink all the way to bottom, then pulled up a foot or two, then allowed to sink back to bottom. The process is repeated in a series of slow hops--trout usually strike as the lure falls back. The bait looks much like a cold-stunned pinfish, which may be the reason it's effective. (Flatten the barbs on the back treble so that you can release undersize or over-limit fish without damage.)
Also effective are artificial shrimp, including the 3" DOA, the LiveTarget Shrimp and the Egret Baits Vudu Shrimp. The DOA works particularly well if there's current running through a hole--it can be drifted with the flow, without imparting any added movement at all, and absolutely kills the fish at times. The Vudu may need a tiny shot added just ahead of the leader to get it down to trout territory, but it's also a deadly fish catcher.
Live shrimp is also effective, though if there are catfish or pinfish in the hole, as there may well be, they will clean you out of shrimp before the trout can get to them. Again, a tiny split shot that will just drift the bait slowly through the hole is the best bet. A size 1 short-shank, light wire hook is the best choice, hooked under the horn if there are larger trout present, or through the last joint of the tail if you have to cast any distance to reach the fish. (Adding a half-inch cutting of fresh shrimp to a jig hook will greatly boost the number of bites, if you want to be conservative with your shrimp.)
While trout will generally be found in the deepest water available on the coldest days, a bright, sunny and calm day after a front may see them heading up unto shoal areas with black mud or rock bottom, where they soak up the sun in water as shallow as a foot. Keep your eyes open during a warm-up for spots like this--the fish may be up there so shallow their fins show as they bask in the warmth. (Of course, they're spooky in this situation--an unweighted Vudu Shrimp or the real thing is the best bet.)
Trout tend to get picked over in the back country by February, so you may have to hit a lot of spots before you find keepers, but persistence with the run-and-gun process will usually turn up a school of quality fish.
Sheepshead in February
Sheepshead are not nearly so affected by cold as other nearshore species, and they continue to bite pretty much all winter long as they fatten up for the March spawn. While trout seek depth, sheepshead seek rock, wood pilings, concrete or anything else that barnacles and oysters might grow on. Find a heavily-barnacled bridge standing in more than 5 feet of water and it's likely to produce sheepies all winter long.
In fact, in areas where the water is clear, it's not uncommon to see the sheepshead browsing on the shellfish, their black and white stripes clearly visible at depths of several feet. Their love for these creatures can be their undoing, because if you carry along a spudding hoe or other digging tool, you can knock the barnacles off the pilings to create a chum line that will soon bring every sheepshead nearby to your hook.
Once you get the chum stream going and see the sheepshead starting to show up, you simply lower down a fresh-cut shrimp section, about an inch long, on a size 1 to 1/0 hook with enough weight to take it to bottom and the sheepshead will do the rest.
They can be a bit tricky to hook, so using small hooks and baits is essential--their mouths are small and very hard, not surprising for a creature that lives by grinding up shells. There's a bit of a touch to it, setting the hook not at the first bump but rather just when you feel the rod start to "get heavy". Again, braided line can help--the no-stretch fiber allows you to feel the bite very clearly, and also provides a more solid hook-set in the hard mouths.
Another tactic that works well in holes with shell or rock bottom is to make a "shrimp jig", which is a bare jig in 1/4 ounce size, with an inch long section of fresh shrimp on the hook. This is simply dragged slowly on bottom until a sheepshead picks it up. The ratio of hookups is usually pretty high with this rig, but again it takes a quick and firm set to stick them.
What goes for sheepshead pretty much goes for reds in winter--they tend to hang around hard structure, with the main bay bridges particularly likely. One way to locate them is to slow-troll a diving lure like a Mann's Stretch 15 Plus as close to the pilings as possible, up one side and down the other, until you connect. Once the first fish is caught, a buoy goes over the side to mark the spot and you can anchor up to work on them with jigs or live shrimp. The fish found on the main bridges tend to be large, maybe beyond the 18 to 27 inch slot--if you're looking for keepers, oystery backcountry potholes and rocky canals may be more likely, and live "bull minnows" or killifish are one of the better baits. (Flounder also love bull minnows, and there are likely to be a few of those around the passes now, as well, though most are off the beach through the winter.)
Bull reds, 30 inches and up, tend to hang around the inlet jetties and fishing piers in winter when sea conditions are moderate. Again, towing large diving plugs can be a good way to locate them. Fishing live finger mullet, pinfish or pogies at the tip of the jetties and off the commercial piers can also be effective when the fish are in. Occasionally, a school will chase bait to the top, and diving gulls will quickly announce these locations.
February fishing can often be a challenge, no question about it, but hey, it's the shortest month of the year--and March is gangbusters fishing for everything the Panhandle's coastal waters have to offer.
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