Many of you are originally from areas of the country where it gets cold. Really cold — snow and ice cold. If you’re in that club, you may regard Florida’s winter weather as very mild. In fact, you may think we don’t have a winter at all. Well, you can think that if you want, but it’s not exactly right. Cold is relative to where you are, not where you’re from.
OK, 40 degrees might not be very cold to you if you’re used to it. But this is subtropical Southwest Florida. Our fish are adapted to warm water. You don’t catch rainbow trout, walleye and smallmouth bass here — they need cool water. Some of our fish really prefer water even warmer than what we have. Snook are basically at the northern edge of their range. Tarpon are tropical by nature, although Charlotte Harbor is an important nursery ground for them.
Tropical fish don’t do well when water temperatures get chilly. When it drops into the mid-60s, those species start to suffer. Water in the mid-50s can be fatal, especially if the temperature drops rapidly. Some fish will migrate in search of warmer water. Most of our larger tarpon have already left us for points south. Snook don’t leave the area, but they do move from the beaches to the river mouths and other areas with relatively deep water and darker bottom sediments. Those areas are thermal havens, where the water will warm up faster and hold that heat longer.
Right now, we’re still in the middle of our transition to winter fishing. Every cold front that blows through will drop the water temperature another degree or two, sometimes more. The sun’s weaker winter rays can’t warm the water fast enough to make up for the temperature loss, so it gets steadily chillier. Part of that transition is the migration of fish moving south along our coast. The tarpon have left us already, but the fish that spent the summer in the northern parts of the Gulf — cobia, pompano, sharks, kingfish and Spanish mackerel — are all out in the Gulf right now.
Dropping water temperatures have driven them out of their summer homes, and each front drives them a little further south. How far they go depends on how chilly it gets. If the forecasts that have called for an extra-cold winter prove accurate, the migration might go all the way to Cuba. In milder winters, they sometimes stay off our beaches until it’s time to go north in the spring.
Then there are the fish that aren’t bothered by cold. Sheepshead, seatrout and flounder seem to actually prefer cooler water. Redfish are also cold-tolerant, but most of our decent-size redfish are out in the Gulf right now, hanging out with their bigger brothers. When the flats are abandoned by reds and snook, there’s a void of predators. It gets filled by the trout, which enjoy not only reduced competition but also far fewer sharks, tarpon and cobia that would happily eat any trout that showed up in warmer months.
On the flats, water both warms and cools quickly. When the humidity is low, our nighttime temperatures can be 30 or 40 degrees cooler than the daytime temps. Although the water won’t vary by that much, it can easily fluctuate by 15 or more degrees. Wind also has a major impact on flats water temperatures. A northeast wind, like we often have after a front, blows water out and exposes sand. Without a blanket of insulating water, that sand rapidly cools. When the water rises back over it, that chilled sand will suck the warmth right out.
Fish are cold-blooded. When its surroundings cool, a fish’s metabolism drops and it has no choice but to slow down and become less active. They need heat to get going, so they’ll move into shallow water to soak up a bit of sun. Once they’re up to temperature, they’ll be hungry — but that takes time. This is why you don’t need to get out on the water at 6 a.m. in winter. Stop for breakfast, and maybe even lunch. On a cold day, the afternoon can be the most productive fishing time. Often, south-facing shore lines, which get a little more sun exposure, will be a degree or two warmer.
Slow fish aren’t likely to chase down a fast-moving bait. Instead, a slow presentation is called for. And smaller baits are often better — a slow metabolism means small meals are more appealing. The water is getting clear, so you need to be stealthy. It’s great for sight fishing, but just remember they can see you, too.
If you go into the tackle shop and the staffers are all dressed like Eskimos, it’s cold. If it’s not cold to you, that’s fine. Just remember, no matter where you grew up, all our fish are from right here. Keep that in mind — it’s not a bad thing.
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.