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On the Water: Fishing the cooler months like January

By Capt. Bill Russell - | Jan 6, 2021

After catching sheephead for dinner, Ryan Dowdy, visiting from West Virginia, wanted to wrestle with a bigger fish. He was in luck as he won the battle with this 6-foot sand bar shark. Ryan caught and released his first shark fishing near Boca Grande Pass with Capt. Bill Russell. PHOTO PROVIDED

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 great opportunities on the water this month. 

Our primary 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 not touch a bait fish no matter how enticing the presentation.

Now 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 live 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 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 2 to 4 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 knots, but a double uni-knot is great 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 inshore, 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. Oldtimers say the best way to consistently hook sheepshead is to set the hook just before you feel the tap, good luck with that! In recent years, a small thin circle hook is a great option, I prefer Owner mutu light circles in a 1/0 or number 1. 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.

Days with favorable weather well give good opportunities to fish Gulf waters. Structure, including artificial reefs, ledges and hard bottom well within sight of land are holding a variety of fish. Again, live or fresh shrimp is the top bait. Cut squid is popular as well. Two popular bait rigs include knocker rigs with an egg sinker free to slide above a small hook and previously mentioned bare jigs heads rigged with shrimp. Both combinations work great over nearshore artificial reefs and hard bottom. Make sure and use enough weight to keep your bait on the bottom.

Sheepshead will become the target for many anglers in nearshore Gulf waters, but you will hook into other fish that may include snapper, grouper, grunts and permit to name a few. When fishing offshore, it’s a good idea to drop down a live bait if you catch bait fish like a pinfish, grunt or sand perch. This is a great way to hook into a big grouper, cobia, king mackerel and, of course, sharks. Good nearshore fishing locations include the many artificial reefs a few miles off the coast and coordinates for all of them are readily available. 

Season remains closed with catch-and-release only for snook, spotted sea trout and redfish in waters of Southwest Florida from the Hernando/Pasco county line south through Gordon Pass in Collier County. You can visit www.myfwc.com for all current regulations.

Our inshore water temperature may drop 10 degrees or more 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, sheepsheads are the exception. They thrive in the cooler weather and will give us some of our best fishing of the month. They are hard fighting and excellent on the table.

Heading into the new year, sheeps-head fishing was a little slower than expected, but will hopefully pick up soon.  

If you have a fishing report or for charter information, contact Gulf Coast Guide Service at 239-410-8576 (call or text); on the web at www.fish pineisland.com; or via email at gcl2fish@live.com.

Have a safe week and good fishin’.

As a lifetime resident of Matlacha and Pine Island, Capt. Bill Russell has spent his life fishing and learning the waters around Pine Island and Southwest Florida, and as a professional fishing guide for the past 23 years.