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Overall, the winter has been unseasonably mild and dry. These conditions are typical of a moderate La Nina (an atmospheric phenomenon of lower-than-normal temperatures in the Pacific Ocean) just as we had in the winter of 2005-06. Occasional cool snaps are normal in this weather pattern. The combination of these opposing forces keeps fish and anglers moving as the fish often spread out from their annual range.

We're just a couple of weeks away from the vernal equinox and the start of higher daytime tides. Inshore game fish nestled in the backcountry will be returning to the flats with consistency and out of necessity. In addition to the fish needing to replenish body fat lost during winter, many of the species need the protein and oils crucial for the rigorous activity of spawning in the spring. For our area, scaled sardines provide these vital sources of sustenance.

Salty North Suncoast livebait experts have been catching the sardines virtually all winter. When the baits first migrate in, they are most commonly found adjacent to deep-water structures, river and canal mouths, as well as along the beaches.

During the warming trends, the trout bite has been red-hot. In the deeper grass flats adjacent to the intracoastal waterway, school-sized trout are accumulating. Underneath the flocks of birds in the same areas, bluefish and ladyfish are wreaking havoc on the baits. "Gator" trout are consistent on the shallow flats around oyster bars, creek mouths, bends and cul-de-sacs.

For the past year, the North Suncoast has experienced one of the best redfish cycles in recent memory. Much like last winter, we have had several trips in which we easily achieved double-digit catches on a single drop of the anchor. Late-winter reds are notorious for hanging around riprap, oyster bars, and rock piles catching some rays at the top of the flood tide. At low tide, there have been a few "tailing" reds on the grass flats adjacent to deep water.

Soft-plastic jerk worms or eels are producing good numbers of both trout and the redfish for recreational anglers. But savvy livebait anglers are loading their livewells with scaled sardines and live chumming an area where this type of bait hasn't been available for a while. By providing this food source the fish likely haven't seen since the fall, anglers will be able to lure these fish from the backcountry and onto open flats.

The water temperature is hovering between 64 and 68 degrees. With La Nina, we will likely hit the benchmark water temperatures of 68 to 70 degrees, and the first of the giant tarpon will sneak into the deeper waters of the open gulf, larger bays and rivers as early as March. Inconsistent but noteworthy tarpon fishing is already being found south of Fort Myers.

Robert McCue can be reached at (800) 833-0489 or through his Web site