As we move slowly but inevitably into our winter fishing pattern, there are a number of factors to consider in trying to locate your favorite gamefish. Water temperature, salinity, oxygen levels, bottom composition and the amount of available food will all have major impacts on where you’ll find fish.
It’s important to understand that things don’t just change overnight. You shouldn’t expect an invasion of sheepshead at the piers and bridges after three days of cooler weather — it takes time for fish to swim to their winter haunts.
Yes, there are some sheepshead there already, because there are always a few around. But there aren’t as many as there probably will be in January. Just like our winter tourists, they don’t all show up at once, and it takes a little while for a good number to build up.
Although the temperature has come down quite a bit from our summer highs, we have had a lot of rain this fall. That means the rivers are flowing more strongly than usual for this time of year, and that’s having an effect on the sheepshead, snook, redfish and trout.
The excess fresh water will slow their migration into the upper Harbor — not because the fish themselves aren’t tolerant of fresh water, but because a lot of their prey species require saltier water.
This is not all bad. Fewer big predators in the Harbor’s backcountry waters means that more of the baby tarpon, snook and redfish that were spawned this summer will survive. And the increased river flow plays a part in keeping red tide out of the Harbor, although that hasn’t been a problem this year.
One reason the upper Harbor becomes so productive in winter is the huge quantity of nutrients the summer rains bring down the rivers. Once the river flows diminish and the water gets saltier, those nutrients will form the base of a robust food chain, from plankton and tiny crustaceans to small baitfish and many species of shrimp. And, of course, gamefish.
In the fall, you can expect to find incredible but inconsistent action. For example, the flat on the south end Cayo Pelau is one of many areas that serves as a gathering point for fish moving into the backcountry — a fish highway. You can go there and find no fish at all, then come back a few hours later and find hundreds.
The fish are moving in all the time, but they’re also moving out. They might stay for a tide or for a week. Having a number of spots to fish is a good game plan, or you can try hunting around an area you think feels like it should be holding fish.
We haven’t really had much in the way of cold fronts this fall, but that can change quickly and have a dramatic effect. Right now, temperatures are in the “Goldilocks zone” — not too hot, not too cold, pretty much just right. We don’t have to deal with fish that are lethargic due to being overheated or chilled. They’re actively feeding and ready to chase.
Enjoy these conditions while they last, because the one guarantee with the weather is that it’s not going to stay the way it is. Now it the time to make plans and get out on the water.
Successfully fishing the fall transition requires a bit of knowledge and a willingness to change tactics to match what the fish are doing. As long as you’re willing to learn and be flexible, it’s not a bad thing.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. For more information about the shop or for local fishing tips, call 941-625-3888 or visit FishinFranks.com.