Warm days finally gave way to cooler weather just in time for the Christmas holidays. It's been really hard for anglers, and fish for that matter, to establish a winter pattern with unusually warm weather. Heading into the New Year, look for slightly cooler temperatures to get fish into their winter habits.
Inshore, with the water cooling down the sheepshead bite should take off. Just ahead of Christmas, fish to 20 inches were taken from under docks around Punta Rassa, Useppa and Captiva Islands. Other areas worth noting for sheepshead included the Matlacha Bridge, Sanibel and Bokeelia Piers, plus oyster bars in Pine Island Sound and Matlacha Pass. Cut shrimp was the most popular bait, however fiddler crabs proved a deadly bait for a few anglers. Quarter-ounce white jigs tipped with a small piece of shrimp also worked well when lightly jigged across bottom.
We have caught some of the largest trout in recent memory for December, so I expect good fishing to continue into the New Year. As the water cools, baitfish are no longer their main diet; shrimp and small crabs will be their primary meal through the winter months. Remember when the water is cold their metabolism is slow, it very important to slow the bait down and get it near the bottom. A small jig or soft plastic jerk bait is a good choice and even better when tipped with shrimp. Allow the bait to sink to bottom then slowly bounce along the bottom. Change your retrieve until you find the speed the fish like. This will vary with the different conditions.Over the past week we have caught several nice trout while fishing small pieces of shrimp on bottom for sheepshead.
That's no sheepshead! While targeting sheepshead, Angelia Nelson of Hedgesville, W.Va., struck up a surprise battle with a 30-inch redfish. The big red was caught and released in Matlacha Pass while fishing with Capt. Bill Russell
Lots of the redfish reported over the past week were running above or below the legal 18 to 27-inch slot. Many of the smaller fish were taken in creeks in southern Matlacha Pass and "Ding" Darling. Shrimp or shrimp-tipped jigs worked best in the deeper creeks with good tide flow. The larger fish were scattered in sand holes in Pine Island Sound during the lower stages of tide. Cut baits, including pinfish, ladyfish and mullet took reds up to 32 inches, plus a few large trout.
Off-shore, red grouper were caught from depths ranging between 45 and 80 feet. Most were taken while drifting favorable bottom with live pinfish, cut mullet, and squid/jig rigs for bait. Grunts, porgies and lane snapper were also on the same bottom. For good action, the near shore artificial reefs are producing a mix of snapper, sheepsheads, mackerel, grunts, small sharks and a variety of other species. Most anglers are anchoring slightly up current of structure and dropping live shrimp to the bottom, either on a jig head or with a small hook and enough weight to get the bait down.
For a New Year's Resolution it's a good idea to go over your safety equipment 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. Of course, 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. It's a good idea to keep a hard or paper copy onboard just to be sure, plus it comes in handy when you catch one of them odd ball 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 2014.