Winter trout fishing

WaterLine file photo

Will Hoyt from Punta Gorda caught and released this big Charlotte Harbor trout. While many of our summer fish slow down or disappear in the winter months, others are more willing to play.

Although we are blessed with a subtropical climate in Southwest Florida, that doesn’t mean we don’t have seasons. Our summer is now at an end, which means saying goodbye to regular afternoon rains, water temperatures in the 80s, acres of baitfish and tarpon rolling in the Harbor.

But the arrival of the cool season (it hardly seems right to call it winter) isn’t the end of inshore fishing for the year. You just need to adjust your tactics to be a successful angler.

A lot of the bigger fish — tarpon, big sharks, overslot reds — are going to be largely absent for a while. Most of what you’ll be catching in the Harbor and other inshore areas will be smaller fish — rat redfish and especially seatrout are usually plentiful in winter.

Although you can catch these fish on heavy tackle, they’ll be a lot more fun if you go with light gear. Just how light depends on how saucy you’re feeling. A 2500 size reel spooled with 6- to 12-pound line and a 7-foot rod to match is about right most of the time.

Many of you have been used to going out and castnetting a bunch of whitebait. That’s pretty much out until next May. You’ve got a couple of options: You can switch to live shrimp or you can start throwing artificials. Artificial lures tend to work better in winter than in summer, because the fish don’t have an endless supply of baitfish available to them anymore.

Although shrimp will certainly catch plenty of fish, artificials have a couple advantages over natural bait. You can tailor the lure you’re throwing to the situation. For example, right now you can cast a topwater bait in the early morning and then switch to a soft plastic jig or imitation shrimp once the sun gets above the trees.

If you’re targeting a particular species, you can use a lure that appeals to that fish — can you say “gold spoon for redfish?” Also, artificial lures rarely attract catfish, pinfish and other bait thieves the way shrimp will.

Barring a late-season tropical weather system, the only significant rain we’ll be seeing is the squall lines ahead of cold fronts. Without the daily water from the sky, the rivers that feed the Harbor will be dwindling. This reduced flow will make significant changes to the Harbor itself. The water will be getting clearer for multiple reasons.

As fresh and salt water mix together, some turbidity results. Less river flow means less mixing. Tannic acid, which originates in the swamps and stains the rivers the color of strong tea, won’t be nearly as prevalent. The slower river flow also means less sediment getting carried into the Harbor.

Clear water is good and bad. It’s good because it will allow you to see the fish more easily. The downside, of course, is that the fish can see you as well — you’ll need to practice the art of stealth. In clear water, you can see bottom contours more easily and locate potential fish hangouts.

It’s also much easier to see your lure, which is great if you don’t have a lot of experience fishing artificials or if you’re using a bait you’re not familiar with. In fact, that’s one of the best ways to learn how to effectively work a lure — just playing with it in clear water and watching how it reacts to your input.

Less rain and low river flow also means the salinity of the Harbor will increase. One of the results: More gamefish in the upper Harbor, which is great for anglers who live in Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda. Fish also like this area because the sun warms dark bottom more quickly than clean sand. That’s right — fish know all about solar hot water, and they’ve been using it way longer than we have.

Not only will the water be clearer, there’ll be less of it. Winter’s tides are naturally lower, plus there’s a predominantly northeast wind blowing, which pushes even more water out. That means that even high water isn’t all that high, and some of the low tides can be incredible. It’s not at all unusual to see a flat all but dry.

When you see this someplace you fish, take note of the things you can’t see in the summer — bottom contours are important, and knowing where the dips and potholes are will help you catch fish all year.

If you didn’t already know this, you won’t like hearing it, but you should know that the wind isn’t going away until spring. It’s tough to cast in windy conditions, so working around it might be your best bet. Look for places you can duck out of it — the mouths of the canals will be fairly protected and will be holding good numbers of fish. The lee side of an island is also a great location when the wind is too much to take.

Our winter fishing can be excellent, but you can’t expect to fish the same ways you did in summer and have the same kind of success. A good angler knows that adapting to the changes is necessary. There’s nothing you can do to stop the calendar, so just roll with it. It’s not a bad thing.

Robert Lugiewicz is the longtime manager of Fishin’ Frank’s (4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Charlotte Harbor) and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Contact him at 941-625-3888.

Robert Lugiewicz is the longtime manager of Fishin' Frank's (4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Charlotte Harbor) and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Contact him at 941-625-3888.

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