On the Water: January fishing — many opportunities await
Happy New Year and I hope you are ready for Southwest Florida winter fishing. January is generally our coolest month and our water temperature will be the lowest of the year. Of course, cool fronts only last a day or two, then it’s back to sunny mild days. There should be plenty of great opportunities on the water this month.
Shrimp are the top baits over the winter months. Shrimp are user friendly, readily available and everything eats them. If it’s cold, think slow and low, meaning fish the bait at or near the bottom, either stationary or with a slow retrieve. One of the best ways to cover the bottom and catch fish on a cold day is with a live shrimp/jig head combination. Take a live shrimp, bite or pinch off the tail and thread the shrimp tail first on a small jig head just like you would a soft plastic shrimp or shad tail. Now you have the best of both worlds – live bait that you can cover ground with, like an artificial. This combination will entice everything from big snook to pompano.
Some inshore targets this month are redfish, sea trout, sheepshead and pompano. The first two, redfish and trout, love small bait fish, but feed heavily on shrimp through the winter, while sheepshead and pompano are crustacean eaters. Sheepshead and pompano will chow on shrimp, small crabs and even oysters or barnacles, but will seldom touch a bait fish no matter how enticing the presentation.
Winter is the time to scale down your tackle, with the terminal gear at the top of the list. It’s likely you may catch any of these given species at any time; redfish and trout have a larger mouth and are known to inhale excessively large baits. Sheepshead and pompano, on the other hand, have a small mouth and the proper gear is critical for success. Not to mention a large sheepshead has a mouth full of teeth that would keep a dentist busy for a while. For terminal tackle (the rigging from the main line to the hook), the smaller or lighter, the better. I generally go with 1/0 or smaller Owner circle hook or a light jig head.
For leader, Fluorocarbon is the way to go; yes, it’s expensive, but when you add up all the time and money tied up in a day of fishing, it’s worth the extra expense. Generally, the cooler months give our water the highest clarity; fluorocarbon is necessary because it is pretty much invisible under water. Skip a swivel and tie two to three feet of 12 to 20-pound leader direct to your main line for the best results, using less terminal tackle (think less is more when rigging). There are many fishing knots to use, a double uni-knot is a great choice for attaching the leader, and if you just learn the uni-knot, you can pretty much use it for everything.
On the terminal rig, all that’s left is the weight. Keep in mind, less is more when attaching sinkers or weights. Often you will not need anything more than a spit-shot. You do not need an anchor, just enough weight to keep the bait in the target zone. Seldom do I use more than a split-shot or a light egg sinker, the current and depth will dictate the weight. Obviously if you are fishing a deeper area with strong tide flow like the Gulf passes, you will need to adjust the weights accordingly, but your best results will come while using as light a weight as it takes to get the job done.
Sheepshead and pompano spend most of their time feeding off the bottom, you want to keep the bait on bottom or as near as possible. Sheepshead are notorious bait thieves. It takes a while to feel the subtle tap, that’s the reason for as light as rigging as possible, to help feel the bite. Old-timers say the best way to consistently hook sheepshead is to set the hook just before you feel the tap, good luck with that! You will increase your chances by using a portion of a larger shrimp or rigging a smaller shrimp with as much meat as possible threaded onto the hook shank. Again, with the amount of bait on the hook, less is often more for this type fishing.
Our inshore water temperature may drop 10 to 15 degrees in less than 24 hours when a cold front drops down. While this drop in temperature slows down the bite for many of our fish, sheepshead are the exception. They thrive in the cooler weather and will give us some of our best fishing of the month.
On the good weather days with calm seas, making a short run to nearshore reefs is an option for action and a variety of fish. There are a number of artificial reefs well within sight of land and the numbers or locations are available to the public. You never know from day to day what a reef may hold, but chances are good at hooking sheepshead, snapper, mackerel, grouper, grunts, sharks and possibly tripletail or cobia, plus many other species. Our nearshore waters and reefs in the gulf took a hard hit from the summer red tide outbreaks but hopefully are on the rebound heading into the new year.
No doubt there will be some cold days, but also plenty of sunny warm days. Like the weather, fishing can change quickly this month, to be successful you need to monitor the conditions and adapt your fishing strategy accordingly.
For a New Year’s resolution, it’s a good idea to go over the safety equipment aboard your vessel and update your fishing rules and regulations. Check the condition and expiration dates of all safety equipment and replace if necessary. Obtain the latest updates of state and federal fishing rules and regulations. Our fishery regulations are constantly changing; it’s an ongoing process to keep up with current rules. There are phone apps to get the updates, but that won’t do you any good if the smart phone doesn’t work on the water. I like to keep a hard or paper copy onboard just to be sure, plus it comes in handy when you catch one of those oddball fish you don’t see every day.
Thank you for taking the time to read our column and for sending us pictures of your catch and reports. My family and I wish everyone a safe and Happy New Year. Hope to see you on the water in 2019.
If you have a fishing report or for charter information, please contact us Gulf Coast Guide Service at 239-283-7960, via the Website www.fishpineisland.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a safe week and good fishin’.
As a native of Pine Island, Capt. Bill Russell has spent his entire life fishing and learning the waters surrounding Pine Island and as a professional fishing guide for the past 18 years