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A wading wonderland

Published Dec. 2, 2006

It's like opening the amusement park gates and telling guests to have fun.

Each winter, extreme low tides drain creeks, flats and oyster colonies, allowing waders to push farther into secluded pockets and troughs. Redfish, trout and other gamefish pile into the deeper spots during low tide and anglers willing to take a briny stroll can experience tremendous rod-bending revelry where no motorboat can go.

As with boat fishing, the best action is where points and drop-offs create ambush opportunities for predators.

The same medium-action spinning gear that serves warm-season anglers suffices for winter trips. But as baitfish populations dwindle with the cold weather, predators turn their attention to crustaceans. Therefore, tube jigs, artificial shrimp and crab imposters work well. (Flies that resemble crustaceans also take plenty of winter fish.)

Anglers walk their way to fine catches throughout the calendar. For most of the year, shorts and protective footwear suffice.

But when the temperature plummets, Nature Coast waters will numb knees in a matter of minutes. Venture much deeper than that and hypothermia becomes a concern.

Keep warm in a pair of neoprene chest waders. Common sizes are 3 millimeters and 5 millimeters. You can get by with the former, but you won't regret having thicker protection when winter shows its stuff. You can always roll down the top of thick waders if the day warms, but you can't make thin waders thicker.

Also, go with stocking-foot waders and a separate pair of wading boots. Boot-foot waders offer one-piece convenience, but if a muddy bottom grips your boot, it's easy for a foot to slip out, usually causing a spill.

WADING WISDOM: Remember this rule: "Waders work best when the water remains on the outside." That said, avoid a tumble by watching where and how you step. Filling up waders is a serious winter hazard, so walk with caution.

Other considerations include:

KEEP IT SIMPLE: Hauling the usual load of fishing tackle just won't cut it for wading missions. Limit yourself to a single tray of lures with a couple backups of your favorites. Wading vests help organize lures, pliers and leader spools, but tucking a tackle tray in the front of waders does the trick.

AWARENESS: Wading is a lot like eating potato chips, it's tough to stop. Be sure to monitor the incoming tide's progress. You don't want to turn around and find 200 yards of chest-deep water between the shoreline and the bar you've been perched atop.

PROTECT YOUR VALUABLES: Even with waders keeping your body mostly dry, waves, wind and general fishing action can splash corrosive saltwater in all directions. Shield your wallet, watch, cell phone or other delicate items with a small dry bag (waterproof and sealable).

KEEPING KEEPERS: Load your catch onto a cord stringer or secure them one at a time to a clip chain. Longer is better, as it keeps fish from bumping into your legs and impeding movement. Sharks pose little, if any threat during winter, but dangling a fresh fish behind you is not without concerns. Dead or dying fish usually will float, but if you're wading in shallow water - maybe casting into a passing channel - those fish might fall into crab range.

Keep moving and you won't have much worry with crustaceans. However, if you stake out a good spot and stand still for more than a few minutes, don't be surprised to find a testy blue crab helping himself to a few trout nuggets.

HYDRATION AND NUTRITION: Beverage options range from bottled water, to a shoulder strap canteen purchased from a military surplus store. Simple or fancy, don't forget the liquids. Winter weather can be deceiving, in that cool temperatures may preclude perspiration. But the body still needs water to replace what you'll expel by breathing, especially after trudging a couple hundred yards through shallow water.

Depending on how long you intend to wade, a few light snacks will help you maintain sufficient energy for the activity, while keeping you warm in winter weather.

PADDLE POWER: For optimal wading access, consider combining this pursuit with a canoe or kayak.

These lightweight, shallow draft vessels allow you to paddle across deeper cuts that may block your course to the next bar or flat. Also, when traversing coastal creeks, wading in marsh mud is like trying to walk through oatmeal.

Neoprene waders will increase your bulk, so take that into consideration when entering and exiting a canoe or kayak. The additional weight affects balance and flexibility, so keep it simple and make your moves as shallow as possible.

Avoid a common trouble spot by dismounting only when you can reach one leg over the side and rest your foot flat on the bottom.

If you consistently experience difficulty entering or exiting a canoe or kayak when wearing waders, minimize boat drift by sinking a wooden or PVC stake on either side to steady the vessel. Toss the stakes into the cockpit between uses and paddle to your next wading spot.