Based on the fact that I still see everybody running around in shorts and T-shirts, I don’t know if everyone else realizes it’s getting pretty cold out. If you’re not sure whether our fish are cold, look for me. If I have more than one pair of pants on, they’re cold. And when the fish gets cold, it changes our fishing a lot.
Fish are going act, feed and plain-out live differently from winter to summer. Remember that fish are cold-blooded, and the temperature of the water they’re in determines their body temperature. Every species has a range that works best. Get them too hot or too cold, and their metabolisms slow down.
With their metabolism slowing down big time as our water gets chillier, the fish don’t feed as much. When they are hungry, they’re looking for easier meals they don’t have to use much energy to catch so they can focus on staying warm. They’re going to start turning off fast-moving things like baitfish and are going to really start feeding on shrimp and dead bait.
Another thing that happens this time of year: The water gets so clear that you have to stay further away from the fish or they will not eat because they can see you. This is when I put away my 7-foot rods and bring out the 7.5-foot Reapers to get some more distance. These rods cast very well. Other tips to cast farther: Use light braid (10- or 15-pound) and choose a reel with a slicker lip on the spool.
Winter time is shrimp time, so that’s my primary bait when it’s cold outside. Shrimp are not fast in the water and are easy prey for fish to feed on. I know a lot of people think shrimp spend all their time jetting around backwards, but go to your favorite tackle shop and ask to see the shrimp in the bait tank. Unless they get startled, they just sit on the bottom or maybe crawl slowly across it.
A few other things that I like to look for in the winter are mud, black bottom and concrete. The reason why I look for those things is that they absorb heat better than other types of bottom. Lay your hand on a white car on a sunny day. It’s warm. Now try a black one. Hot! A dark bottom does the same thing.
Now try this: Go to the Laishley Pier on a cold morning before sunrise. Lay your hand on the concrete deck. It’s cool, but not cold. Then touch the metal railing. It’s like ice. Concrete (bridges, seawalls, docks, etc.) absorbs heat during the day and then gives it off all night.
Where can we find dark bottom and concrete? In the canals. The water there is going to be warmer water, which means the canals usually hold a lot if fish this time of year.
Want to fish the flats instead? OK. But that water’s going to be cold, cold, cold on a chilly morning. Instead of waking up early, stay in bed where it’s warm. When you do get up, there’s no need to rush. Get some coffee, maybe breakfast. Let it warm up outside a little bit. The fish are still very cold from the night before. They aren’t going to be very active till it warms up. So instead of looking like I do (sometimes they call me Eskimo Karl), wait until mid-morning instead of getting out at sunrise like we do in summer.
Don’t think that artificial lures are out of the question. I use a lot of artificials in the winter time. Mostly, I go with soft plastic baits, and for one reason: I can work them a lot slower then a hard bait. I like a Savage or Gulp shrimp, usually on a jighead. Rigged like that, I can bounce the bait very slowly off the bottom.
Winter is a fine time to fish if you’re willing to adapt and recognize that it’s not the same as fall or spring fishing. Listen, I would be surprised if there is anyone who does not like the cold more than me. I wear many layers this time of the year so I won’t freeze to death — but the fishing has been very, very good and is only getting better. Just be careful of the negative tides this time of the year. They can get very low, and those sandbars will just sneak up on you.
Capt. Karl Butigian lives, breathes and eats Florida fishing. He owns and operates KB Back Country Charters (KBBackCountryChartersFishing.com) on the waters of Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico. To book a trip or for info, call him at 941-565-7325.