I have a feeling that all you snowbirds who have migrated down from your northern home-away-from-home homes have been enjoying the last few cooldowns that have plagued our area. It probably gives you that warm and fuzzy less-homesick feeling as you set up your southern roost — the one that you abandoned earlier this year just as the Florida heat was starting to melt the ice in your glass faster than you liked. Well, there’s one thing I’d like to say to all of you: Welcome back, and let’s go catch some fish!
I’m just going to give you a rundown of what I normally give you a rundown of each year when you flock back down for the winter. I figure after six months of catching walleye, perch and bass, you guys and gals could use a quick refresher on how to target and catch our salty southern fish.
I know you have probably heard what I’m about to tell you a hundred times, but what I’ve learned over the years writing for WaterLine is that most of its readers are old and that old people forget stuff. Now that I’m in my 50s myself, I can vouch for the forgetful thing as I struggle to remember what the heck I’m supposed to be writing this column about. Oh yeah — it’s about how to catch trout and sheepshead, or in other words, Southwest Florida wintertime fishing.
Let’s start with sheepshead, because that is our most sought-after species in the colder months. There are a few ways to target sheepshead, but I’m going to give you the easiest, most productive method known to man.
The first thing you do is make a porgy, chicken or dropper rig (which ever name you prefer). Use a 3/0 inline circle hook attached to the loop, which should be about 8 to 10 inches above your weight. You can use J-hooks if you like, but you can’t legally keep any reef species (e.g., snapper or grouper) you may happen upon.
The next thing you will do is attach a fresh (I reiterate — fresh) shrimp to your hook and drop it down to the bottom of the nearshore or inshore reef or piece of structure you have chosen to fish on. Reel up so your line is taut and the sinker is sitting just on the bottom.
Now here comes the hard part. Do not set the hook like Bill Dance hopped up on illegal diet pills. Instead, when you feel the fish nibbling, slowly lift your rod. If you feel any pressure, just reel, reel, reel. I’m no scientist, but I’ve watched thousands of clients over the past 30 years fishing for sheepshead. The ones who pull back to set the hook catch about a third as many fish as those who just reel, reel, reel.
If you’re not sure how to make the rig I described above, please visit your favorite local tackle shop and ask for help. They’ll show you how, and if you’re nice to them they may even tell you where the best bite is going on.
Trout are the most sought-after species year-round in our state, and one of the most fun to target because they will readily take both natural and artificial baits. As a bonus, they’re really good to eat.
I personally prefer to use lures, but on my trout trips I always bring a few dozen live shrimp with me. If throwing your back out, dirtying up your boat and wasting precious fishing time by tossing a castnet first thing in the morning is your thing, small grunts, pinfish and whitebait also work very well.
The best trout fishing in the winter is usually found in the 3- to 5-foot depth range over open grass flats. But weather can move these fish all over the place in the winter. When this happens, one of us writers will tell you where and how to catch them for sure. But for this column, let’s stick to a nice winter day.
My most productive trout trips occur when I have one angler tossing a soft plastic bait attached to a quarter-ounce jighead out of one side of the boat, and on the opposite side a second angler tossing a popping cork with a shrimp under it. I’ll change colors on the soft plastics if needed, but chartreuse, white or root beer usually gets the job done.
If the shrimp are doing better, then I’ll switch the other angler to a popping cork and vice versa. The biggest trick with the popping corks is to pop them a few good times just after they hit the water and then again about every 30 to 45 seconds. With the soft plastics, just work them slow and steady to trigger the best bite.
Winter fishing changes with each front but normally only for a few days and then it goes back to normal. Keep reading WaterLine Weekly and listening to Radio WaterLine (Saturday mornings from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX Country 92.9 FM) so you’ll stay up to date on what going on in our local waters. And since my next column won’t be out until 2019, I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Capt. Mike Myers, owner and operator of Reelshark Charters, is a full-time Charlotte Harbor guide. Having fished the waters all along the Southwest Florida coast for more than 40 years, he has the experience to put anglers on the fish they want. His specialties are sharks, tarpon and the nearshore Gulf waters. For more info, visit ReelShark.com or call Capt. Mike at 941-416-8047.