They're more than an afterthought; more than a backup plan. Coastal creeks and canals are downright worthy of top billing when winter besets the North Suncoast.
The benefits are significant: shelter from the wind, warmer water, fewer porpoises and ample food sources. For anglers, you'll burn less fuel than you would running from spot to spot in the outside waters. You'll also have relatively shorter casts and fewer boats working the same spot.
Productive waterways of the North Suncoast include the back side of Sand Bay, the Gulf Harbors canals, Cross Bayou, Oyster Creek and tributary streams off the Cotee River. The old mining canal at the back of Filman Bayou can be red-hot during a cold winter.
Work the tides: Just like the shorelines and structures outside the North Suncoast's coastal waterways, tides play a key role in where fish will position and when they feed. Rising water grants access to fertile shorelines and shallow structures, while falling tides concentrate fish in the deeper spots.
Incoming tides will renew and area with freshly oxygenated water, while the outgoing cycle pulls baitfish and crustaceans from marshes and mangrove edges past points and bars and over deep holes where predators ambush the easy meals.
Look for signs of life: Whether it's schools of finger mullet running the shoreline shallows, pinfish shining in sea grass beds or snook chasing creek chubs against a sandbar, activity equals potential. If you see and hear nothing but your partner's foot tapping, conditions just aren't right.
Keep it quiet: Stealth is always a wise inshore strategy, but when you narrow the playing field, noise matters more. Cut the big motor well before reaching your target area and ease into range with a trolling motor, push pole or better yet — a wind drift.
If you need to stop and work a spot, carefully lower the anchor with no rattling or clanking. Same goes for retrieving an anchor. Eliminate accidental sounds between uses by laying your anchor on a towel or jacket.
Whom to expect
Snook are always a likely inhabitant of coastal waterways because the stable water found within is their only hope of survival when winter chills the exposed flats and outer shorelines. Look for snook under docks — especially those with big boats that blow out deep holes under the propellers. Deep bends and undercut mangrove edges are also a good bet for linesiders.
Docks of all sizes are actually the catchall structure for most creek and canal fish. Redfish, jacks, mangrove snapper, juvenile grouper and trout will seek shelter and feeding opportunities around these structures.
Elsewhere, expect to find reds, sheepshead and black drum snooping around oyster bars. Storm drains in residential canals often sport these shell structures at their openings.
Quiet pockets off the main runs will gather trout, snook and redfish — especially when windy days push pods of baitfish into these confines. Watch the open water in center channels for baby tarpon, which roll topside to gulp air.
Live sardines, the staple of warm-season fishing, are harder to find until spring. Pinfish are still available, but live shrimp is the winter standard for natural bait pursuits.
When working broad, open areas you'll do best by hooking a shrimp under the horn and hanging it beneath a cork. Use the tide and wind to carry your bait into prime spots and when the cork disappears, it's game on.
For dock fishing, a more streamlined presentation works best. Pinch off the shrimp's tail fins, insert your hook at the end of the tail and thread the shrimp onto the hook. This rig is easy to cast at specific targets and keeps sheepshead and undersized snapper from pecking a head-hooked shrimp to pieces.
If you need a little more weight for casting, add a split shot just above the hook on your leader. Replacing the hook and split shot with a jig head accomplishes the same thing.
On the artificial side, quarter-ounce jigs with shad or grub tails or soft plastic jerk baits work well. Experiment with colors to see what the fish want, but you're usually good with chartreuse, root beer, gold or white.
Other productive tactics include bouncing jigs in the center channels for tarpon, ladyfish and jacks; working topwater plugs around daybreak for trout and trolling shallow diving plugs past docks for snook.
The options for fishing creeks and canals during winter are so diverse you may find yourself wondering why you ever ventured outside.