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How low can you go?

When boaters run too shallow, the fragile sea grass habitat often suffers long-lasting damage.

DAVID A. BROWN | Special to the Times

When boaters run too shallow, the fragile sea grass habitat often suffers long-lasting damage.

It happens every year: trout and redfish pile into the deep holes and troughs on the east side of Anclote Key and inexperienced anglers end up adding a few more slashes to the area's sensitive sea grass.

They're called "prop scars" — those ugly narrow trenches dug by propellers spinning in water that's way too shallow for such things.

Sometimes these environmental encroachments occur when boaters suddenly realize they've run out of water. You hear a loud gurgling behind the prop and notice the telltale cloud of mud and shredded grass blades. At this point, it's too late for "oops."

In other scenarios, boaters may sneak into the backwater area and fish comfortably, only to find the outgoing tide has drained their exit when they try to leave.

The tidal trap presents a potential problem throughout the calendar but the chilly months merit greater concern. Winter sees the year's lowest tides, and the hard winds of frequent cold fronts can push shallow water even shallower. The strong tides of new and full moons produce the most dramatic lows.

At Anclote Key and throughout North Suncoast backwaters, random bottom depressions will hold enough water to support fish through low tides. The trick is getting in and out safely and responsibly.

Knowing this seasonal truth and learning to work with the conditions will help anglers catch more fish, while sparing the environment.

Know the area

Consider these points: First, any decent boating/fishing chart will show you the depth ranges and if you've ever looked at a chart of the Anclote area, you know that most of those depths behind the island are pretty skinny.

Second, tides rise and fall daily, so sufficient water going in won't stay sufficient forever. Lastly, nature offers signs. If the water looks like it's covering a porcupine's back, that's the tips of sea grass, a clear indication of meager depths.

Likewise, there's a reason anglers often refer to blue herons and great egrets as "Gulf Coast depth finders." If these birds are standing in the water and you can see their knees, it's way too shallow for running.

Most importantly, a straight line may be the shortest distance between two points but it's not necessarily the safest. Bottom contour meanders, so you'll often have to pick your way into the shallow water sweet spots.

The approach

Running the big outboard motor into shoreline shallows is never a good idea, if for no other reason than the likelihood of spooking fish.

Trolling motors will get the job done, but even these little hummers may bump a rock or oyster bar if you're not paying attention. At slow speeds, the damage is usually negligible, but that big boil followed by dozens of streaking wakes was your school of redfish blasting out of town.

The other way folks inadvertently spook shallow water fish is switching their trolling motor speeds. Inshore fish like trout and reds can be remarkably tolerant to alien sounds, as long as they remain constant. Sudden changes in pitch put them on high alert, and often send them packing.

Push poles require more work, but they offer quiet propulsion with the option of "staking out" — planting the pole's tip in the bottom and tethering the boat with a rope.

Proper poling and staking out inflict no environmental damage, but striking rocks or shells can alert wary fish to your presence. Tapping a push pole on the deck will also ruin your shallow water stealth, so lay a towel, bath mat or sweatshirt under each end of the pole to minimize the scraping sound that can occur from incidental bumps and bounces.

For ultimate approach stealth with minimal environmental impact, shut down your outboard and ease into the target area on a wind drift. As you move shallower, you'll need to trim up the engine, but keep it tilted downward and angle it as needed to help steer your drift.

The right baits

Just like the approach, "slow and patient" applies to shallow water fishing during winter. Fish will perk up during warm, sunny mornings, but cold water will keep them generally slower than spring and summer.

Shrimp on jig heads or hooked through the tail and weighted with small split shots will tempt anything with an appetite. Just keep the crustacean over sandy spots or your bait will hide in the grass.

Artificial shrimp lures are also effective when slowly hopped across the edges of sand and grass. For optimal versatility, rig a soft plastic jerk bait on an eighth- to a quarter-ounce jig head or a weighted worm hook. Experiment with colors and retrieve patterns until you determine what the fish want.

Once you're finished, ease back out as carefully as you approached and you'll leave the environment no worse for wear.

How low can you go? 12/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 1:12pm]
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