Late Winter Creek Hopping
Until spring's arrival, coastal waterways offer dependable action
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.