Late Winter Creek Hopping | Outdoor Channel
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Late Winter Creek Hopping

Until spring's arrival, coastal waterways offer dependable action

By: David A. Brown,

Looks like spring's full-time warmup is just around the corner, but Florida fish are usually pretty smart about not rushing into their vernal patterns too quickly.

Pretty much all of the state's snook and a lot of the redfish, trout, ladyfish, jacks and juvenile tarpon spend their winters in the warm, stable environments of coastal waterways. Of these cold-season solaces, tidal creeks rank highly for their natural design, abundant habitat and available food sources.

Late February to early March always sees an early wave of fish emerging and cautiously feeding on the newly arriving pods of scaled sardines ("whitebait"), but they'll hold close to the creek mouths and dash back inside whenever a late-season cold snap blows through the area. So, until the end of the first quarter, coastal creeks remain a good bet for bending a rod on a variety of inshore species.

Click image for the photo gallery:

The Standard Scene

Snook are the most common creek residents, as warm water is absolutely essential to their survival when winter grips the flats and outer shorelines. Look for snook under docks – especially those with big boats that blow out deep holes under the propellers. Deep bends and undercut mangrove edges are also a good bet for linesiders.

Docks of all sizes are actually the catchall structure for most creek and canal fish. Redfish, jacks, mangrove snapper, juvenile grouper and trout will seek shelter and feeding opportunities around these structures.

Elsewhere, expect to find reds, sheepshead and black drum snooping around oyster bars. Storm drains in residential canals often sport these shell structures at their openings.

Quiet pockets off the main runs will gather trout, snook and redfish – especially when windy days push pods of baitfish into these confines. Watch the open water in center channels for baby tarpon, which roll topside to gulp air.

Top Tactics

Although pilchard schools will be steadily increasing, they can be tough to find in this transitional season. Pinfish remain available year-round, but live shrimp is a can't-miss.

Best all-around tactic involves hooking a shrimp under the horn and hanging it beneath a cork. Use the tide and wind to carry your bait into prime spots and when the cork disappears, you've got a taker.

When targeting docks, go with a more streamlined presentation. Pinch off the shrimp’s tail fins, insert your hook at the end of the tail and thread the shrimp onto the hook. This rig is easy to cast at specific targets and keeps sheepshead and undersized snapper from pecking a head-hooked shrimp to pieces.

If you need a little more weight for casting, add a split shot just above the hook on your leader. Another option: replace the hook and split shot with a jig head.

On the artificial side, ¼-ounce jigs with shad or grub tails or soft plastic jerk baits work well. Experiment with colors to see what the fish want, but you’re usually good with chartreuse, root beer, gold or white.

Other productive tactics include bouncing jigs in the center channels for tarpon, ladyfish and jacks; working topwater plugs around daybreak for trout and trolling shallow diving plugs past docks for snook.

Here are a few pointers for making your day successful.

Tide Time

No different than the habitats outside the coastal waterways, tides play a key role in where fish will position and when they feed. Rising water grants access to fertile shorelines and shallow structures, while falling tides concentrate fish in the deeper spots.

Incoming tides will renew and area with freshly oxygenated water, while the outgoing cycle pulls baitfish and crustaceans from marshes and mangrove edges past points and bars and over deep holes where predators ambush the easy meals.

Forage Central

Schools of finger mullet running the shoreline shallows, pinfish shining in sea grass beds, or snook chasing creek chubs against a sand bar are all activity that indicates opportunity. If the creek is still and silent, chances are the bite will be slow until more favorable conditions take shape.

Stealth Matters

Minimizing noise is always a wise inshore strategy, but in this scaled-down playing field, it demands even greater consideration. Cut the big motor well before reaching your target area and ease into range with a trolling motor, push pole, or better yet – a wind drift.

If you need to stop and work a spot, carefully lower the anchor with no rattling or clanking. Same goes for retrieving an anchor. Eliminate accidental sounds between uses by laying your anchor on a towel or jacket.

Want to Wade

Don't hesitate to beach the boat on a sand bar and hop out to approach the fish on foot. On sunny days, when visibility is high, wading can get you into casting range of fish that will likely shy away from a boat in the creek's narrow confines. Don't forget your neoprene waders. It'll be several more weeks before you'll want to step in much deeper than your shins.

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