Although cold weather slows some inshore fishing options, it opens others.
Snook fishing will be difficult, as their metabolism slows and they feed much less. Diehard anglers can catch a few by working dock lights at night or sight-casting with live shrimp on the sunnier side of dark coves and canals at mid day. Keep in mind that snook must be released through the end of January.
Most migratory fish such as Spanish mackerel and cobia have moved south, but a few have been stranded in the warm outfall canals of power plants. These fish typically remain in the canals until spring or when the hot water stops flowing.
Sheepshead are seldom the primary target for fishermen, but this month is different. The big breeder sheepshead spawn in January and February and gather in huge schools on the reefs offshore and around channel edges and jetties that connect estuaries with the gulf. At the peak of the spawning period, just about every ledge and rock pile within 5 miles of shore holds sheepshead. The best have hundreds of fish, many weighing 5 to 8 pounds.
There are a variety of mollusks or crustaceans that work as sheepshead bait, and fiddler crabs are one of the best because less desirable fish such as grunts and spots seldom bite them.
To locate a school of sheepshead, watch your depth recorder as you slowly pass over rocks or artificial reefs. Sheepshead often are suspended well above the bottom when they are spawning. When the recorder shows a a lot of marks high above the rocks, chances are good you have found them.
At times the sheepshead come all the way to the surface, where they can be seen from a boat. Any bait that makes it to the bottom usually gets hit. On several occasions while free-dive spearfishing, we have set up on what we thought was a good show of grouper only to be completely engulfed in a giant mass of sheepshead. The bag limit for sheepshead is 15 per person with a minimum length of 12 inches, measured from the nose to the rear, center edge of the tail.
Speckled trout season has opened, and they become the mainstay of flats fishermen this month. They prefer cooler water and feed on all but the coldest days.
Overcast skies are preferable when targeting big "gator" trout. They are usually caught in shallow water and are sensitive to sunlight. Although boating can be tough in the fog, some of the best trout trips are on foggy days because of the low light and lessened boat traffic.
Fog is likely in January when the water is cold and the air temperatures warm. Using the plotter on a GPS unit is the best way to work an area during periods of reduced visibility. This allows you to see the exact heading of your drift and, by placing icons on the screen each time you catch a fish you can identify the zone with the best action.
Redfish don't mind the cold too much. They are often found on cold, shallow flats that are empty of most other fish. Because the tides are low more than high in the winter, a shallow draft boat is helpful. Bigger reds often work far up onto the flats in knee-deep water.
Another redfish option this month is to work deep potholes or dock structures with live shrimp. While the average size of the fish is somewhat smaller than when flats fishing, it can provide steady action if you find the right spot.
When things get tough, bouncing jigs over deeper grass flats almost always produces a mixed bag. Any given cast here could produce a bluefish, ladyfish, speckled trout, flounder or even a small grouper.
_ Ed Walker charters out of Tarpon Springs. Contact him at (727) 944-3474 or by e-mail infolighttacklecharters.com.
Anglers should take a moment to brush up on the finer points of catch-and-release and other practices that will make the water a better place for everyone:
+ Whether you fish with artificials or live bait, start by pinching the barb down on your hooks. Barbs are designed to keep live bait on a hook and do little to help in the landing of a fish.
+ Use non-stainless hooks. If the fish swallows the hook and you must cut the line, the fish's digestive juices will cause the hook to deteriorate quickly.
+ Tighten your drag and use a line in adequate strength to land the fish quickly. Don't fight a fish until it is exhausted.
+ Leave the fish in the water if possible. The fish will be less traumatized if it stays in its natural environment.
+ Don't use a net if possible, because it damages the thin membrane that protects the fish from disease. If you must handle the fish, use a wet towel.
+ If you bring the fish inside your boat, don't let it thrash around the deck. The fish usually will calm down if you turn it on its back.
+ Keep a pair of needle-nose pliers handy so you can unhook the fish quickly. If the fish is hooked deeply, cut the leader or the hook shank.
+ Don't throw or drop the fish back in the water. Gently place it in the water. If the fish responds slowly, hold its mouth open and move it back and forth in the water to move water through its gills.
+ Watch the fish swim away. If it doesn't look healthy, pick it up and try again. Remember to keep a camera handy. Photos last a lot longer than fillets.
+ Properly dispose of all trash, including worn lines, leaders and hooks, and help keep fishing sites litter-free.
+ Take all precautionary measures necessary to prevent the spread of exotic plants and animals, including live baitfish, into non-native habitats.
+ Learn and obey angling and boating regulations, and treat other anglers, boaters and property owners with courtesy and respect.
+ Respect property rights and never trespass on private lands (including docks) or waters. Keep no more fish than can be eaten. Never wastefully discard fish that are retained.
Tom Pardue caught this 41-inch, 26-pound redfish near Redington Beach in December with 15-pound line and cutbait. For more on Great Catch photos, please see 16L.