(ran PINELLAS / HILLSBOROUGH edition)
The wind had blown hard out of the east for three days. The anglers gathering for the captain's meeting the night before a king mackerel tournament wondered whether the fishing would go ahead as planned.
The weather service predicted more of the same _ heavy wind and high seas. Then the tournament director stood up and made a promise: "Those of you who fish tomorrow will be let in on one of the best-kept secrets around."
The next morning, the wind still howled out of the east at 45 mph. The waves offshore towered at 6 to 8 feet. But near the beach, the water was relatively calm because of the windbreak provided by the land and buildings.
Water close to shore is less disturbed on an east wind and, as a result, a lot cleaner than the water offshore. Bait fish, which find protection in numbers, like clean water because they can maintain contact with each other more easily.
"The east wind has a vacuum effect," veteran kingfish angler Jay Mastry said. "It sucks the bait right into the beach."
Where you find bait, you find kingfish. The anglers who turned out to fish that windy November day one year ago did not regret it.
"Everybody caught kingfish," tournament director Larry Hoffman said. "The average size was 28 pounds, which made it one of the best tournaments we have ever had."
Understanding weather patterns and how they affect fish is the key to successful angling.
The Tampa Bay area gets at least a dozen cold fronts each winter. The fronts usually follow the same pattern. The old salts say they can tell how hard a front will hit by how hard it blows from the south the preceding day. They call it "feeding a front."
"When you get a solid blow from the south like that, you will usually find people fishing in the shelter of Egmont Key," Hoffman said. "That is one advantage flats fishermen have over their offshore counterparts. They can usually seek shelter in the lee of an island."
Sheltered water allows an angler to make a more natural presentation of bait. But calm water has its drawbacks. The clearer the water, the more clearly a fish can see. That's why tournament anglers often downsize their line, leaders and terminal tackle in calm conditions.
Conversely, when the wind blows hard offshore, the water looks "'dirty," or full of sediment. Anglers may switch to heavier leaders to assure the landing of more fish. The weather, of course, is directly linked to the seasons. Fall brings shorter days and, subsequently, cooler water. In the summer, when water temperatures rise above 80 degrees, fish move to deeper water, where they can get below the thermocline.
Each species has its favorite temperature range. Generally speaking, extreme hot or cold water usually means fishing will be difficult. But cool water _ 68 to 78 degrees _ brings out the best in most species.
"The weather usually will determine where I will fish on any given day," inshore guide Eric Shaprio said. "Tampa Bay is so big that the wind can have a real effect on where the fish will be."
When a cold front hits, a heavy north wind literally can blow water out of the bay, or, simply put, keep the tide from changing.
"You can sit there in the upper bay waiting for high tide, and it won't come," Shapiro said. "A strong south wind will do just the opposite. You won't get a strong outgoing tide."
As the front passes and the wind clocks around out of the east, many areas on the west side of the bay can become difficult to fish. That might send anglers looking for calm water, be it in a residential canal or on the leeward side of one of Tampa Bay's bridges or causeways.
Fish usually feed heavily before a front hits, perhaps because they sense feeding will be difficult in the heavy wind and cooler temperatures. Cold fronts can drop water temperature on the grass flats several degrees in a matter of hours, which in turn can cause some species to adopt winter patterns.
That means fishing should be done in depths greater than 6 to 8 feet, which will hold layers of warm water.
"When the water drops below 65 degrees, I start fishing the canals, deep creeks and power plants," Shapiro said.
After cold fronts pass and the wind and weather stabilize, Tampa Bay often gets sunny, calm days typified by crisp "bluebird" skies.
This is the time to again look for fish in shallow water. But don't target their warm water (summer) habitats, the grass flats. Look for a dark, muddy bottom.
"I came across this by accident one day when I was out wading barefoot," Shapiro said. "I could feel the mud was warmer than the water. It is dark, and it holds the heat. Then I looked around and saw redfish all over the place, hundreds of them, just soaking up the heat."
It took awhile, but Shapiro got them to eat.
But most good things never last.
The south wind will start blowing again, meaning another front is headed for Tampa Bay. Then the whole thing starts over.
How a cold front can move the wind around the clock
We get a dozen or more good cold fronts every winter. This is how it works. The day before the front hits, the wind blows hard out of the south. Old timers call it "feeding the front." The next day (sometimes even the same day) the wind will start to clock around out of the west, then northwest, then north as the front hits and the temperature drops. Then as the front passes, the wind will start to clock around out of the northeast, then east. Things stabilize until it starts to blow out of the south again. Some folks say you can tell how strong the cold front will be by how long and hard it blows out of the south.