OFF HONEYMOON ISLAND — Jim Huddleston knew the trout would bite, he just didn't know when.
"If you are fishing Florida in February, you have got to follow the sun," the fishing guide explained. "The temperature can vary by as much as 10 degrees on the flats this time of year. So you have to find those pockets of warm water if you want to catch fish."
The weather report didn't look good. The wind was supposed to blow 8 to 12 knots by the afternoon, so Huddleston, a Palm Harbor-based guide, knew he had to get his catching in before the waves kicked up.
During the winter, Tampa Bay-area anglers are cursed, or some might say blessed, with extreme low tides. On or around a new or full moon, it's not uncommon to see drastic water level changes. Add a strong north or east wind and you might be stuck with a negative low tide for most of the day.
Fish feed when the water moves. Anglers may debate which is better, an incoming or outgoing tide, but all will agree that a slack tide is good for nothing except cleaning the bottom of a boat.
The tides play a particularly important role here on the Gulf Coast, where the water may fluctuate only 1 to 2 feet on the grass flats. All the things fish love to eat — crabs, minnows and shrimp — get caught in the current on a strong tide.
Tidal fluctuations, even though you won't notice them, also matter in deep water offshore. Trolling for king mackerel off Clearwater Beach this fall was as action-packed as watching paint dry, but when the tide turned, the lines started screaming.
Every species of fish, including trout, has an optimal temperature range at which they function. If it gets too hot, they slow down. If it gets too cold, they find a deep hole and hunker down.
"The key to catching trout at this time of year is finding that southern exposure," Huddleston said. "The fish need a place to get out of the wind, warm up a bit. It is not uncommon to find schools of 50 trout lined up, just soaking up the sun."
Seatrout are, by far, Florida's most popular game fish. The species can be found in the western Atlantic from New York south throughout the Gulf of Mexico, but the sea grass in areas such as Tampa Bay usually provide the best habitat.
"You can catch all the small seatrout, the 14- or 15-inchers, this time of year in the deeper grass beds," Huddleston said. "But if you want the big yellow mouths, you have to change tactics."
Huddleston wasn't interested in catching small fish. He wanted to catch some 4-pounders, or "big girls," as he calls them. The big trout are female, the breeders, fattening up on baitfish for the spawn that kicks off next month.
"You won't catch those big fish during the summer," he said. "If you want a trophy trout, now is the time to get out there."
Like most estuarine species, spotted seatrout spend most of their lives on the grass beds but will move to deep holes and into canals when the water temperature plummets. But after a cold front passes, a good place to find trout is on the leeward side of any of the barrier islands that shield the mainland from the Gulf of Mexico.
"You want to focus on the shallows," Huddleston said. "You will find them in water less than a foot deep."
People often think that big trout can only be found in deep water. But that is not true, Huddleston said.
"This time of year, you will find them sitting on the oyster bars, along docks in shallow water, even along the beaches," he said. "They are going to look for the superskinny water that gets heated up by the sun the most quickly."
So Huddleston followed his plan and anchored his boat off a point at the end of a barrier island and waited for the tide to pick up. It didn't take long for fish to find his bait. The first cast produced a 20-inch trout.
"That's what we are looking for," he said. "And there are more where that came from."