As I write this, we’re feeling the effects of a cold front roaring through. The temperature has plummeted from the low 90s to the mid-80s (it was mid-60s this morning). A howling 12-knot breeze is trying to blow the windows in, without much success. The humidity has dropped from 90 percent down to 60. And I know that a bunch of people are taking this as a sign to go fishing for sheepshead and crappie.
My advice: Not yet, folks.
It’s been fall for six weeks, according to the calendar. But like I always say, the fish don’t use a calendar. They go by environmental cues, such as day length, water salinity and temperature. Right now, two of those things say autumn — but the temps don’t. And until they do, the sheepshead and crappie (both traditional winter targets around these parts) will probably stay low-key.
Even if we start seeing more normal seasonal daytime air temps in the upper 60s to low 80s, it will take a little time for the water temperature to drop. Water is an amazingly good insulator, and although the flats can cool down quickly, deeper water (more than a few feet) will take weeks to chill. Conversely, in the spring it takes time to warm.
Since fish spend most of their time in the water, they respond to the temperature there. So when you’re fishing, water temperature is much more important than air temperature. It also takes them a bit of time to change their behaviors. They don’t go from summer to winter patterns in a day. They need to see that the weather is going to hold. You need to be patient.
Most of our cold fronts will be more intense than the current one. When a good one comes screaming down from the Arctic, it will push a strong squall line in front of it. The weather will be warm the day before because the air ahead of the front gets squeezed and heated up. The barometer drops, which often is a herald of excellent fishing. Being out a day or a few hours before the front arrives can be a very good plan, although you’ll often have to work around a strong south wind.
As the front comes over, the winds pick up and the rain starts. Often there will be lightning. Once the squalls pass, the wind will shift to the north and usually pick up, and the temperature will start to fall. How much? If it’s a powerful front, 20 to 30 degrees in a few hours is very realistic, and it can be more than that. Fishing through the front and after it usually sucks. Plan accordingly.
Usually the fishing is less than spectacular for a day or three after the front. The high air pressure probably has something to do with that. Fish feel air pressure despite living in water because of their air-filled swim bladders. That’s OK; it’s going to be windy and probably chilly. This is a great time to organize the garage.
As cold fronts begin rolling in more regularly — and they will, sometime in the next few weeks — we’ll also see our winter tide pattern begin to take hold. Winter tides are generally lower than summer tides.
There are a couple reasons for this: First, winter winds are primarily out of the north and northeast, which tends to push water out of the Harbor. Second, sea surface temperatures in the Gulf and Atlantic will drop considerably. As water cools, it contracts — not by a huge amount, but by enough that sea level is lower in winter than in summer.
Less water in the Harbor means places you could run across in summer may not be accessible, and you’re more likely to run aground if you’re not paying attention. Also, it means summertime fish haunts such as mangrove roots may not hold enough water for them to get to. More fish will seek out structure in deeper water, even on the flats — and so should you.
And by the way, you can still get dehydrated and sunburnt even when it’s not hot out there. Take plenty of water, and don’t forget to actually drink it.
We’ll have a lot more winter fishing to talk about over the next couple months. Personally, I’d just as soon keep summer around all year, but there will be some excellent opportunities for us to enjoy that only come along in the cooler months.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.