Fishing this month depends on the weather. Cold water affects fish appetites for the next two months.
For a week we have fished in 35 to 60 feet for grouper. Things started slow soon after several cold fronts, and frozen sardines seemed to be the bait of choice. As the water warmed, grouper began to cooperate. Their appetites grew, and many live baits worked. You can count on finding a few fish at these depths all winter, with some weighing more than 15 pounds.
To be successful when the water is below 60, you need patience. We try to give a spot 15 minutes before letting restlessness take over. The statement "I know they are down there" is used often by captains trying to persuade cold-water grouper to bite.
When the bite turns on, it is well worth it. If water temperatures climb higher, you can be more aggressive, moving from one spot to another. Give each spot five minutes until you find the jackpot. Sometimes a frozen sardine gets their attention, other times a chunk of squid or even a small pinfish works. Take all types of bait to cover the bases.
Small pinfish work when grouper are not feeding well. Silver dollar-sized pinfish are herding in schools about a mile west of the passes. A short session with gold-hook rigs can fill the livewells with ease. Tossing small pieces of squid or shrimp overboard often entices the school of the hungry baitfish to your transom. Sometimes we throw the cast net over the schooling baits.
Large pinfish can be found schooling a few miles farther out. Large and small pinfish prefer areas with sandy bottom.
Offshore, in areas such as the Middlegrounds, grouper fishing peaks this month. Many fish have already schooled in preparation for their annual spawn. Many of the large ledges in this area can hold more than 100 fish. Mangrove snapper and amberjack are sometimes nearby.
Weaving as you drive over these large structures is the best tactic. Some of the ledges run good distances, at least as long as a football field. As soon as the sonar picks up the fish, mark the spot on your global positioning system, then anchor. Some of the ledges are quite tall, reaching at least 15 feet off the bottom.
The Middlegrounds start about 75 miles northwest of Clearwater and easily can be found on fishing maps. Water temperatures are higher about 70 miles out, so live bait is crucial. Pinfish, grunts and a large variety of baitfish work fine. Even a baitfish called sailor's choice works well out this far.
A sailor's choice resembles a pinfish except for the green body and rounder shape. Like pinfish, they are porgies. Water depths of 30 to 40 feet hold huge schools of these baits this month.
Grouper and many other game fish rarely spend the effort to attack this inshore bait, but at the Middlegrounds it's a different story.
Squid is commonly used by bottom fishermen this time of year. Chunks of squid on bottom attract many smaller reef fish to your boat. All the activity entices curious grouper, too.
Key West grunts are common out to 100 feet. Any farther and they tend to thin out. Porgies then tend to take over. The most common are blue point porgies and pink porgies. Both can reach a few pounds and are good to eat.
The porgies weighing about a pound also make great amberjack bait. Hold on, because if an AJ swallows one of these big baits, you can bet it will be bruiser. This month brings more amberjack to wrecks and springs close to the beach. Early in the month it's a hit-or-miss deal in depths of less than 100 feet.
_ Dave Mistretta captains the Jaws Too out of Indian Rocks Beach. Call (727) 595-3276, or e-mail salesjawstoo.com.