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Jacks or better to open

It's widely known that fishing during the winter months along the mid-central gulf coast can be a crapshoot. Weather patterns roll in like pinwheels on a slot machine. Usually the cold, the bad, and the ugly arrive just in time for Saturday morning. Or they blow into town around 1:30 in the afternoon and you're 25 miles from shore.

Now, if you're not the gambling type, take a tip from someone who loves a sure bet: Fish for jacks or better to open.

Mornings this time of year are normally cool, not the time to be throwing a castnet for bait. But hang a small piece of fresh or frozen shrimp on a small jig, work it around channel edges, through sandy potholes on the flats, or right up on the beach, and you might be surprised at the quality action you find.

Jack crevalle, pompano and permit _ all part of the jack family, and fantastic fighting fish _ will gulp down these little morsels in a minute. Like the lights and bells whirring and ringing on the million-dollar slots in Vegas, what happens next is pure pandemonium.

If more than one angler hooks up, it's the proverbial fire drill. Simple childlike excitement. Anglers scrambling around the boat in small circles, trying not to cross lines, lose the fish, or fall overboard in the process. By the way, pompano and permit make extremely good tablefare.

Fishing for these feisty slab-siders is simple and easy. No special tackle is needed, just a medium-weight spinning outfit. The reel should have a smooth drag system and hold plenty of line. Permit near 20 inches make incredibly long runs and fight hard right up to the boat.

Light line is essential when fishing for pompano and inshore permit; 8-pound should do. However, we see very clear water this time of year. Hedge your bets a little by keeping extra spools aboard with 6-pound line on them. Fishing light line makes the gamble more exciting.

After each successful trip it's advisable to change your line. It only takes a few good fish to beat it up. The last thing you'll want on your next trip is to lose fish because it's frayed, badly curled, or stretched too far.

Leader material becomes a matter of preference. Many pompano and permit anglers forgo its use to try to increase the amount of hook-ups. And while you will increase hook-ups, you'll lose more fish. Try this tip: Drop down to 15-pound test and shorten the length of leader you use. Many times these fish hit hard and fast, swallowing the jig entirely. Use only enough leader material to extend out of the mouth of the fish (about 4 or 5 inches will do).

Rigging jigs for this kind of action is simple. Eighth-ounce jig heads will work best. Oftentimes you'll be jigging sandy potholes on the grass flats, the same shallow flats you jig for trout. No need for heavy jig heads here. On jack fishing days, trout become a consolation prize. Not bad if you need consoling.

When using frozen shrimp, all you need to do is thread the tail of the shrimp onto a jig head and work it using small hops on the bottom.

When the fish are finicky, try using a small jig head, a plastic jig body, and tip your creation with a piece of smelly frozen shrimp. Scent is a very strong dynamic during the cooler months. The combination of soft plastic jig body and a real shrimp tail offer mouth-watering appeal to the jacks family.

Though pompano can be found as deep as 130 feet, primarily they'll be found inshore along oyster bars, grass flats, and beaches. They rarely grow larger than 3 pounds and present a terrific challenge for their size.

Their fondness for crustaceans and mollusks make them easy prey when using jigs. Start with lighter colors. Yellow jig bodies on a white jig head, or yellow heads with white bodies will work well up against the beach. Go to darker colors when fishing grass or around oyster bars. Root beer- or pumpkin-colored bodies on white heads are superb.

Some manufacturers _ seeing a dramatic increase in the populations of these fish since the net ban _ are beginning to make jigs specifically designed for this kind of fishing. Look for them, they work.

As the day warms, turn your attention to other gaming arenas. Perhaps a little trout fishing along the flats. Or if tides permit, head into backwater bays looking for redfish.

During the cool of the morning, reds tend to be a bit cantankerous about their eating habits. But let the day warm up a little, get positioned around some rocky areas and oyster bars, throw a few of the right baits or lures, and you've stacked the odds of winning in your favor.

If this is the kind of action you're looking for, take a tip before placing your bets: Start with jacks or better for your openers.