Winter is a tough time to be a Tampa Bay angler. • When water temperatures dip to the high 50s, it seems most species have lockjaw. Weekly cold fronts, with their high winds and waves, keep many an angler in port. And if that isn't depressing enough, the season's extreme low tides make it nearly impossible for many fishermen to even put a boat in the water. • But 20 years on the fishing beat has taught me some valuable lessons about surviving the January blues.
Chill out. Slow down.
There was a time when local anglers could get through the winter by fishing for gag grouper off docks and sea walls. Winter was the one time of the year when these deep-water bottom feeders come close to shore. New regulations, however, have the season closed in state waters through March 31.
So that means you'll just have to make do with inshore species such as trout, redfish and snook, though the latter is strictly catch-and-release through Aug. 31.
If you are like me, you want to be on the water when the sun rises. Every angler learns at young age that the early bird gets the worm. There is a lot of truth to that old adage. Dawn is usually when bait is most active. If you find the bait, you find the fish.
Sunrise is also what I like to call the "shift change." Just like a factory that runs two crews, the sea has some species that like to work at night and others that work during the day. Your chance for success is best when you fish when both are out and about.
That is, unless, of course, the air temperature is in the mid 40s and the water temperature is just 10 degrees higher. But instead of rushing out and suffering through the morning cold, kick back, enjoy that second cup of coffee and read the newspaper.
Give the sun time to warm the flats. Believe it or not, a few hours of strong Florida sun can actually increase the shallow water's temperature by a few degrees. And that may be all you need to get the fish biting.
Another trick: Fish the west side of a canal, which has the most exposure to the sun. Look for mud flats. Redfish often are found sunning themselves in late afternoon, especially in areas with a dark bottom that retains heat.
When it comes to sport fish, the red drum has one of the most extensive ranges of any species in the United States. Anglers from the Northeast to Key West target these tackle-busters in Atlantic waters. In the Gulf of Mexico, redfish are caught all year in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, where it gets a lot colder than here.
While anglers in every region have their own tricks and tactics, live bait is usually scarce around here during the colder months, which is why many local fishermen rely on shrimp to carry them through the winter. Since fish are cold-blooded creatures and their metabolisms slow as water temperature drops, they have a more difficult time feeding when it is chilly.
An old trick, one that seems to work particularly well with redfish, is to pinch the tail off a live shrimp to hamper its mobility, which makes it an easier prey. A shrimp with no tail also makes its own chum slick, which might be just enough to entice a slow-moving fish to feed.
But cold water affects both predator and prey. That is why many anglers choose artificial baits, so they can control at least one half of that equation. Soft-bodied plastic baits, commonly known as "jigs," seem to be the bait of choice here on the west coast of Florida.
Anglers will debate color, shape, size and even scent, but one thing is for sure: the slower the retrieve the better. A jig bounced slowly across the bottom will work well in most scenarios. If the fish aren't biting, slow down your retrieve. If that doesn't work, and the fish still aren't biting, slow your retrieve. If that doesn't work, slow down your retrieve. Get the picture?
But winter fishing does have its drawbacks, especially for the angler. It doesn't take much to become chilled. A little wind and rain can cause shivering. When the core body temperature drops, it doesn't take long before the cold begins to hamper judgment. Play it safe. Dress warm and keep an eye on the weather.
If you find yourself in trouble, a personal flotation device will increase your chances for survival. If you capsize, stay with the boat. Your chances for survival are better on an overturned boat than in the water.
If you do find yourself adrift in cold water, keep your arms at your side and knees together to conserve as much heat as possible. Seventy-five percent of your body heat is lost through the head, so a wool watch cap might just save your life.
But the best advice is, don't get yourself in that situation.
Leave a "float plan" with friends or relatives. Let them know where you are going and what time you expect to be back.