These cooler months are a great time to explore the flats to find potholes and depressions that game fish use as ambush areas.
The negative tides leave shoals exposed. This allows anglers to see the many sandy potholes that dot the shallows. Gin-clear water throughout St. Joseph Sound creates great sightcasting opportunities to large speckled trout and redfish.
Offshore, grouper have moved within sight of the beach and are using the many visible rock piles inside 30 feet. Small-boat owners can fish nearshore and inshore on the calmer days.
With the larger female trout moving inside the barrier islands toward the grass flats, throwing artificials has been most productive. Turtlegrass green slammers and brown pumpkin bucktails are rewarding anglers with good catches in 2- to-4 foot depths. Focus on sandy potholes that have good current flow, such as the flats east of the spoil islands along the Intracoastal Waterway. When fan casting the region, work the lures all the way to the bottom, as cooler days put fish down and they are not chasing offerings to the top of the water column.
When live baiting these big speckled seatrout, rig a select-sized shrimp about 3 feet from the cork to create a good presentation in the clear water. By taking a peg cork and breaking off a small part of the top, it will also "chug water" when it is "popped" every so often. This action often draws reaction strikes from nearby fish hearing the commotion. Be sure to tail-hook these crustaceans to increase casting distance and cover more water.
The lower incoming tide will bring redfish tight to the flat's edges. They will show an aggressive feeding behavior and oftentimes will have half their body exposed while rooting around the bottom. This tailing activity often creates mud clouds in the area, so the offering must be directly in front of these fish. A shrimp works best, especially if the last tail section is broken off to give off more scent. By taking a few more small chunks of shrimp and spreading them around up tide of the area, these reds will key in on the smell and capitalize on the angler's offering.
Docks are another key area redfish use during the winter. Small crabs and worms become an essential part of their diet, and the many oyster bars that sit between these structures are ideal habitat. Most of these bars will have sandy edges that circle the shells and essentially become fish highways. The darker backs of these bronze fish will stand out against the sand and can be seen easily. The shady regions underneath docks are key ambush spots and work as a haven for reds even in the worst of weather. When presenting a lure or bait in the zone, be sure the offering stays along the bottom, as this is where these fish hold. Scented plastics work well when slowly crawled to stir a muddy bottom.
Many anglers are enjoying a nearshore grouper bite that is usually reserved for deeper water. Rocks and ledges inside 30 feet have been producing plenty of keepers on days with good moving water. The key to fishing these shallow structures is to pull the fish off the piles with chum and cut bait, then bottom fish the sandy open areas. Avoid sitting on top of the wreck to alleviate the pressure in these skinnier waters.
With the water so clean and clear this time of year, increased stealth pays dividends. Downsizing to 50-pound leader also helps to produce a bite. A great way to find new bottom this time of year is to drag lures as the fish become compressed into smaller areas. Keep your eyes open also for signs of life, such as bait on top of the water or sea turtles, which hold near good structure.
Jim Huddleston charters out of Tampa, Palm Harbor and Clearwater and can be reached at (727) 439-9017 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.