Invariably, our winter months bring lower tides and stronger winds. These can make fishing a challenge for even shallow-draft boats. If you’ve got the draft to handle the rough water, you probably can’t get in real skinny water — and if you can run in 6 inches of water, 20-knot winds are not your friend.
However, there are places you can go to catch fish while avoiding both problems. One of the more popular places is in our canal systems. A lot of people will look down their noses at people who fish the canals because it’s “too easy” to catch fish. That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Who wants to go out there and make it hard?
Now I’m going to preface canal fishing with a strong warning: Don’t be an idiot. Take into consideration that you will be fishing around other people’s boats and docks and property. Treat it as if you are fishing your own. No, scratch that — treat it better. Take a look at the other side of that coin. How would you like to find chunks missing from your gel coat? How would you like dead stinky shrimp stuck to your dock? How would you like to find fishing hooks in your mooring lines, the hard way?
Also keep in mind that our canals are no wake zones. Yes, you’re going to see other people boating too fast. That doesn’t mean you can. Keep your speed respectable. You really shouldn’t anchor in the canals either. I recommend just using your trolling motor and being mindful of other boats. You are the intrusion, not them. Give other boats as much room as you can and be willing to move out of a fishing spot for a moment to let them pass if need be.
Basically, fish the canals with respect.
The canals are great because they provide several things that some fish may not have in their natural environment. Water depth, water movement, and a slightly warmer temperature are all things the canals offer on even our lowest tides and coldest days. There are spots in some canals deeper than the deepest hole in the Harbor (excluding Boca Grande Pass).
Because the canals are deeper and stay murkier than the open Harbor, they will warm up faster and retain that heat better than open water. And the sun shining on those seawalls (or what’s left of them) can actually act like heating blankets for snook.
Fishing the canals is much like fishing the mangroves. Where do you fish in the mangroves? Underneath the branches. Same in the canals: Fish under the docks. Docks provide the same overhead protection that mangroves do. They can also offer shelter to the same food sources, so it’s common to find the same fish — snook and redfish being the big two. But you’ll also find snapper and sheepshead and your occasional trout.
So the good news is the same rigging, baits and lures you use while mangrove fishing will work well. One thing you may consider is slightly heavier leader. I’ll usually start at 30-pound leader when I hit the canals, and be ready to bump up to 40 around oyster-crusted pilings.
Docks aren’t the only structure either. The seawalls themselves can be structure. Many times there is rip-rap laid in at the base of the seawalls, and that is excellent sheepshead and snapper habitat. Boats are structure too — especially those that have been in the water for a long period and are starting to grow that green hair around their waterline.
Again, fish the seawall like you would fish the mangroves. Boats are a little more challenging because you must cast into tighter areas. Tighter, more expensive areas. If you aren’t an excellent caster, I would recommend passing on fishing under canal boats. But you can still fish the current around boats. Cast close to whatever end of the boat is facing into the current and let your bait sink and roll across the bottom under the boat. Again, expect snook, redfish, black drum, sheepshead and snapper.
What do you usually catch when you don’t cast your bait far enough under the mangroves? Catfish. Well, the canals are no different. The middle of the canal is usually catfish country. All your structure is on the sides of the canals. Concentrate your efforts there.
There are a few other spots in our canals worth mentioning also. Deep holes can be an excellent place to find big black drum and, once in a while, juvenile jewfish. (Sorry, I refuse to call them Goliath grouper, which is actually more insulting than jewfish.) Both are an excellent fight in the canals.
Any bridge over a canal is an excellent place to fish. They are extra structure and will always provide more current than the surrounding canals because every bridge is a bottleneck. Trolling the canals is also another great idea, but remember that the sides are where most of the good fish are.
So don’t write off a planned fishing trip just because the tides or the weather isn’t right. We’re in an El Niño cycle right now with fronts rolling through every week, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping any time soon. Fish protected water.