Winter has officially arrived, and the cool, crisp days are upon us. So if your wandering around the Harbor looking for those snook treats called whitebait — well, look no more. They leave along with the warm temperatures.
But don’t stress. Bait is actually a lot easier when you don’t have to throw a net on it. Just go by your local bait shop, get yourself a bucket, a bubble box and a few dozen shrimp, and you’re ready to go fishing.
Now you have the bait, the next question is what do I do with it. To really answer that question, we need to examine a few factors.
The first thing to consider is how cold it is. If we’re in one of those cold front patterns where the water has dropped 10 degrees in a few days, that will definitely change how the fish are acting. On these cold mornings, don’t be in a hurry to get out on the water. Sleep in or have a few extra cups of coffee, because the fish are cold too. Much better to go when the sun has had time to warm the water.
On these days, I like to take those crustaceans, break the fans off there tails, and rig them tail-first on a quarter-ounce jighead (as described in Capt. Josh’s Fish Coach column last week). My preference is a Rockport Rattler because they have a rattle chamber built in, and the vibration helps to get the fishes’ attention.
I usually start in the mouths of canals and find areas with the most concrete. Concrete holds heat, and a few degrees is a lot to a cold-blooded fish. Pitch the bait as close to the structure as you can and let it sit for a few seconds. Then give it a short hop, let it sit, and repeat.
If canals are not your thing and your boat has the ability to float in shallow water (because you don’t want to be stuck on the sandbar waiting on Sea Tow to come to your rescue), head to the west side of the Harbor. The sun rises in the east (yup; some things never change) and will hit the west side first, so the water warms quicker in these areas. Look for the same areas you would fish in the summer — creek mouths, deeper shorelines, mangrove overhangs, etc..
In this situation I still use a jighead, but I let my bait sit in the strike zone longer. Just like in summer heat, cold fish are lethargic and will be less aggressive. Sometimes I’ll add a float. If you do, make sure your leader is long enough for your bait to rest on the bottom — otherwise, the current may move it away too quickly. Basically, the float is acting as a strike indicator while the jighead acts as an anchor to keep your bait in the strike zone. The species you will mostly catch in these areas are snapper, snook and redfish.
There are a few local fish that enjoy the cool water, especially sheepshead and spotted seatrout. Let’s discuss the seatrout first. I like to target these fanged critters on the grassflats. A 15-pound fluorocarbon leader about 2 feet long is more than enough — those teeth are pointy but have no sharp line-cutting edges.
With trout, I don’t like the bait to be on the bottom, but I still use a jighead. I use a popping cork to get their attention, then they see the bait falling back down. I’ll just put the whole shrimp on — no need to break off the tail, because it’s a reaction bite and not a smell thing.
If you want to target a bigger trout, throw a pinfish out on a bobber and just let it be. You might be rewarded greatly. Pinfish are usually available at the local bait shops in the winter.
If live bait is not your thing, your favorite small soft plastic will work great. My personal favorite artificial bait for trout is a 4-inch new penny Gulp shrimp, but they’re usually not that picky.
Sheepshead love our winter temperatures. Now for you up-north folks, this is not the same sheephead y’all have back home. Yours is a freshwater drum; ours is a saltwater porgy — and it’s a very tasty and desired catch.
Sheepshead mainly eat crustaceans. They usually hang out around pilings and concrete because of the barnacles — one of their favorite foods. Sheepshead are happy to eat shrimp but also love fiddler crabs, which are usually available at bait shops in the winter. These bait-stealing bandits require some finesse and a quick hand.
I use a No. 6 hook with a 15-pound fluorocarbon leader. Fluorocarbon leaders become more important in the winter because the water becomes very clear due to lack of runoff from the Peace and Myakka rivers. I also use a small splitshot sinker about 6 inches above the hook.
If shrimp is your preferred bait, just use the tail. If you peel it, they are less likely to spit it out. Just cast the crab or shrimp up next to a dock or bridge piling and be ready to set the hook as soon as you feel the bite set the hook.
Winter might be my favorite time of year to fish on Charlotte Harbor. Just remember to slow down and keep your bait in the strike zone. Fish don’t want to burn hard-earned calories to chase food, so make it easy for them and you’ll catch more.
Remember to get your kids hooked on fishing — they won’t be able to afford drugs.
Capt. Steve “Pegleg” Phillips owns and operates Southern Charm Charters, with his wife Heather as occasional first mate. If you’re wondering why his friends call him Pegleg, stop in at Fishin’ Frank’s and meet him. For charter info, contact him at 678-787-4750 or through his Facebook page at https://bit.ly/2vesgVn.