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Florida Keys To Winter Fish

Florida Keys To Winter Fish

The weather channel is dishing out reports that look like a meteorological Armageddon. Some reporter has climbed out of a warm van and is standing for effect in blowing snow, describing scenes that are repeated like a mantra year after year — phrases like icy roads, marooned motorists, and power lines down. It's winter, and in these parts, fishing (other than praying over a hole in the ice) becomes a distant memory.

Less than a day's flight away from much of the US is a world-class alternative: the Florida Keys. Granted, the Keys are not the virginal fishing grounds of travel brochures, but for a lot less trouble, they're a reliable place to catch a variety of species and do it safely and comfortably in most weather.

Last year, for instance. we went down in December with my friend Shaw Grigsby to chase bonefish. Fronts had slapped most of the east coast with winds just short of hurricane strength. Even in the Keys, our prospects looked bleak. We called Steve Thomas, our guide, expecting to be talked out of a day on the water. Instead, we were handed a handsome list of alternatives.

One of the wonders of the Keys is that you can easily fish two different bodies of water. If the Atlantic side is rough or the tide is not to your liking, just slip between islands to Florida Bay. That's what we did.

Within fifteen minutes, bare-footed and in shirt sleeves, we were catching jacks, barracuda, and blue runners — all for bait. With the water roiled by winds on the outside flats, sight fishing was out, shark fishing was in. With plenty of bait onboard, we cranked up and headed out. Thomas' flats boat planed easily over anorexic shallows as we glided down mangrove halls. Wading birds flashed by and schools of mullet wrinkled the glossy surface of the water just ahead of the boat.

Thomas knew all the places to get out of the wind, but when fishing for sharks his plan was to use the wind to help the sharks find us. He chose a pass where the wind and tide were punching through in unison. This doubled our chances of attracting sharks. We started a chum line with bloody hunks of barracuda, a favorite entree on the shark menu. Shaw hooked up first with a lively five-footer on heavy bass tackle that tore long scars in the bay's skin.

Catching a shark in shallow water requires a bit of description. Not to disparage the strength of freshwater fish, but a shark, even a common one like the lemon shark that Shaw had on, will run the length of a football field faster than Deion Sanders, before jumping out of it's home waters, often spinning while airborne.

After splashdown, it races back at you faster than you can reel, white water bulging around its shoulders and dorsal fin. It then repeats the process until your strength is zapped. For a change of pace, he may do tumble turns at boatside — which, in this case, involved wrapping his rough ­denticle-covered hide around the part of Shaw's rig unprotected by leader.

At the last minute, Shaw made some impressive high-speed maneuvers to unwrap his line from his adversary. The shark retaliated by biting the boat, leaving a series of four-inch slashes.

Thomas brought out a rope and went cowboy on us. He looped the cord around Shaw's line, then was able to slide the loop over the shark's arching carcass and pull the line tight on the tail.

After bringing the boatbiter onboard for a closer look and a few snapshots, we released him. When Shaw's reel screamed again, he handed it to me. His look said he didn't want to repeat the past performance. Forty minutes later, a six-footer came onboard. A day that could have been written off as a bad-weather day at most any saltwater destination in the US became a day we would long remember.

Destination Key West


The winter and early-spring star of the Keys has to be Key West, the southern most island. In winter, it's a world away from the rest of the United States, with fishing just part of the big show. If this is a family trip, you'll find plenty of shops, a saltwater aquarium with pettable sharks, Hemingway's house complete with six-toed cats, and plenty of fine dining at local conch watering holes.

Duval street by day is a Mecca for shoppers in search of the unusual, but late at night, Duval can raise the eyebrow of even the most jaded city slicker. One perfumed gentleman who smiled at me in passing was dressed in a black leather cowboy outfit complete with spangles and chaps. As he strode on past, it became evident that he wore no pants beneath the chaps. I doubt he would have been so at home in an old west scene, but trolling down Duval he seemed to be doing just fine.

Fishing during winter in the Keys provides wonderful options. If bringing home a cooler of fillets is what you want, offshore fishing features party-boat trips for snapper and grouper. Trollers will find wahoo, hard-­fighting blackfin tuna, king mackerel, and even high-flying sailfish. For those who like to cast at their quarry, inshore offers permit, bonefish, barracudas, and tarpon in March. While fishing for permit with Shaw in Key West, our guide Tom Rowland told us of a winter cuda phenomenon. Large barracudas spend most of the year offshore. But in winter, according to Rowland, they move into the thin, slick water of the flats to chase redfin needlefish.

If you think barracudas are like muskies, think again. First of all, barracudas usually are not hesitant to strike, the big ones are plentiful, and for short distances are arguably the fastest fish in the world. A forty-inch barracuda hitting a topwater bait in two feet of glassy water will give you muskie amnesia. After the initial detonation, the fish is likely to zip around so fast you have to follow it by watching the path of the line ripping through the water.

One day, we broke off from stalking permit and went after these missiles with teeth. At times, they came completely out of the water, attacking from above and destroying our plugs. When a big cuda follows your lure, you can twitch to elicit a strike, but never stop it. Barracudas like things lively. As for technique, you're required to make long casts and retrieve faster than possible. Zara Spooks and shallow-running diving plugs are the baits du jour, but be careful because cudas love to follow a bait.

Your guide may instruct you to lift the lure out of the water away from your body, and you would be wise to follow this dictum. On occasion, cudas have pursued a plug out of the water, landing in the lap of the terrified angler. Lots of stitches and newspaper articles follow an incident like this, but likely the spark to chase barracudas will have dimmed.

Extensive flats near Key West and the nearby Marquesas attract a strong winter population of permit. Though cold fronts can move permit to deep water for a while, Rowland finds winter a prime time to pursue this elusive gamefish. Permit have received a good bit of attention as a fly-fisherman's quarry, and it is possible — barely — to catch these powerhouse members of the crevalle family on a fly.

Rowland assures me that improved techniques in recent years have increased your chances of success. Still, you should ask yourself a few questions. Are you capable of casting an 8- or 9-weight fly-line 70 to 90 feet? With exceptional accuracy? Into the wind? Do you mind waiting, often all day, for a couple good shots at a permit? Can you stand by after all you've spent on rods, reels, lines, flies, guide fees, and hotel costs only to have this elitist fish sniff briefly at your offering and dump you for a crummy crab?

While I have fly-fished all over the world and enjoy the challenge of permit on a fly, I have to say that after a day or two without success, I wilt and pick up a spinning rod and admire what permit can do. Even on spinning tackle, catching a permit in the crystal atmosphere of the flats requires an excellent guide and, at times, a long accurate cast. But this time with a small crab.

Tension is the single word that best defines this type of fishing. At high tide, large permit glide into ridiculously shallow water. They're spooky. A bird's shadow passing over may cause them to bolt off the flat. An extra clank in the boat, and the guide's look would melt an iceberg.

But when everything is right, you may see the silvery sides of the permit marbled in prismatic light. While its face is down, bemired in the alluvial ooze searching for a hard-shelled snack, you may have a shot. Your crab hooked in the side of the carapace is slung like a Frisbee ahead of this flats neurotic. You hope the splat will attract rather than spook him; and you hope he will slip over, tilt down, and crunch your crab.

Part of the attraction of permit fishing is the thrill of the stalk; the other is the fight. A permit's wide body and sharp-forked tail give it a sprinter's speed and a marathoner's endurance. Whether you fish with a fly-rod or light spinning tackle, keep your rod tip high, maybe even raising it over your head. The speed at which permit move can cause any turtlegrass thicket or ­barnacle-encrusted debris to slice your line. Don't bring cheap rods, old line, or reels with wimpy drags. A large permit — say a 30- or 40-pounder — may require a chase of over a mile. Use your guide's tackle, or bring the best you can afford.

If you're lucky, after a series of sizzling runs, this perfectly adapted flats predator will swim near enough for your guide to grab it. All the stress of winter will disappear. Everything else in the world but that moment will seem far away. Unless I miss my guess, one permit or a day of maniac sharks and barracudas, and you'll be sold, as I am, on the Keys as a winter destination.


Winter fishing in saltwater may be the easiest time to find concentrated fish. In Virginia, large schools of stripers leave their summer haunts off the coast of New England as water temperatures drop. These are the Schwarzeneggers of the species — 30- to 50-pound brutes that strain tackle and melt hearts. They start slipping in off the coast from the tenth to the fifteenth of December and stay much of the winter.

Look for bait boiling and diving birds. Not just any bird will do, though. The bait necessary to attract a thirty-pound striper is a pound and a half menhaden. Gannets, a large, long-winged bird are one of the few birds large enough to swallow the stripers favorite prey. So big bird and big bait equal big fish.

Stripers in the Chesapeake Bay may be a bit smaller, but in December, they can be caught on jigs, eels, and even flies. On our trip, we caught numbers of small stripers on jigs on almost every structure and rock pile we fished. The bay striper fishing season closes December 31. Coastal areas of Virginia and North Carolina are open to three miles offshore. Check regulations.

At times, the larger coastal stripers chase bait right up into the surf. At such times, surf-casting can produce trophy fishing right from the beach. Later in the season, fish hold in deeper water, so trolling offshore is more productive. Trolling with Mann's stretch thirty and big spoons like #23 Pet spoons are established modes of catching deep-feeding rockfish.

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A more unusual rig involves a dropper of 50-pound line attached to a 12- to 24-ounce bucktail jig with a #10 to 12/0 hook, hooked through a large, sassy shad body. Knotted on the line trailing behind the three-way swivel is a huge spoon, called a crippled alewife, sporting a 12/0 hook of its own. Often three or more of these rigs are trolled.

According to local striper expert Claude Baine, seeing double hookups of two 30-pounders on this rig isn't unusual. Sometime in January, or in warm winters, as late as February, if water temperatures drop below 43°F, large stripers become lethargic.

Contacts here include Claude Baine, 757/491-5160; Captain Joe Wool, 757/481-4545; Captain Eric Burnley, 757/430-1903; for fly-fishing in December, trolling in January and early February, Captain Pete Bregant, 757/631-9793.

North Carolina

If December finds you a bit farther south, say off the coast of North ­Carolina, expect some of this same striper migration. Guide Brian Horsley (252/449-0562) runs his 20-footer out into the blue water, chasing schooling 20- to 25-pound stripers that are chasing menhaden. Horsley commonly targets these large schoolers with flies, one of the first guides in the area to regularly do so. Whether you use a big bunker pattern, a large deceiver, or clouser, the fly needs to be from six to twelve inches long.

Scattered schools of bluefish from 5 to 16 pounds also are available at this time. Shorefishing, and that means surf-fishing, is a favorite way to target them.

Even more unusual is a relatively new winter fishery for big bluefin tuna. Joe Shute (252/240-2744) tells me these back-breakers range from 140 to 700 pounds. From late November to February, they're lying over wrecks in relatively shallow water. For the most part, this is a catch-and-release fishery that offers a chance to hook onto one of the fastest and most powerful fish in the world.

Shute says, at times, when the winds lay down, these giants move into shallower water, say ten feet or so. They eat bluefish, gray trout, croakers, and about anything else that swims near their giant maw. On special days, you can hand-feed them off the back of the boat. This is big-tackle fishing for a species few have ever seen under these remarkable conditions.


Farther south, Mark Noble (912/634 1219) guides out of Saint Simons Island, in Georgia's golden isles. This group of islands are forty miles north of the Florida line and four hours out of Atlanta. Mark's winter fishery is red drum (red fish) and sea trout. When the cold weather hits, these fish pile up in holes far back in the creeks, at the mouths of coastal rivers, and in any water deep enough to give them an extra degree or two of warmth from the winter chill.

The action can be nearly nonstop. Days just before or several days after a cold front will be more productive and more comfortable. If possible, plan your trip on short notice to accommodate the weather. What makes Noble's hot spot different is the size of the reds. He's had fish from several pounds to 20 pounds, with speckled trout up to five pounds as a bonus. These trout and reds take artificials as well as bait.

Stuart, Florida

Going south, we'll have to pass some good winter fisheries because there are just too many. You'll find some fine skinny-water red fishing around Jacksonville Florida, a relatively new sailfish fishery off Daytona Beach, and snook and bluefish schooling near enough to shore to fish. You can even have good days on the numerous piers from Daytona Beach to Sebastian Inlet south.

But for my money, I'm heading to Stuart, Florida, where record numbers of sailfish have been boated in recent years. This is a location where cold weather brings more fish. Long runs to find this glamour species often are unnecessary; at times they're within sight of the beach. If a cold front moves through and pushes the sails down the coast, there are days when you can jump fifteen sails and land ten. That's hot sailfishing anywhere in the world. Other carnivores also attack — cobia, barracuda, kingfish, sharks, big bonita, and the occasional dorado. Contacts here include Guide Charlie Stuve, 561/746-5419; and Pirate's Cove Resort, 561/287-2500.

South Florida

Miami's Biscayne Bay harbors some big bonefish, and Captain Jim Webber (800/982-3110) knows right where they are. I was not only impressed by the size of the fish but the size of the schools. Webber says that in addition to permit on the flats, small tarpon hold under many of the bridges. Shrimp often move through under the lights at night where tarpon gulp 'em down.

Small tarpon from 5 to 30 pounds jump like their elders, but with no crowds to fight and plenty of strikes to keep the action interesting. As well as being a knowledgeable captain, Jim is just plain fun to fish with.

In the middle keys, Captain Steve Thomas (305/853-0508) has some fine winter schools of bonefish around Islamorada as well as sharks, permit, and barracuda. A first-class place to stay in Steve's backyard is Cheeca Lodge (800/327-2888). Although you may have to give them most of your nickels, you may find ­yourself dining in the company of an expresident. George Bush is no stranger to bonefishing, and Cheeca is his first choice.

Key West and Lower Keys — Captain Tom Rowland (305/294-7447) and Captain Nick Malinousky (305/745-2326) are excellent guides for all flats species. Bonefish, permit, barracuda, and large sharks come up on the flats in winter to eat. Also, cero mackerel, Spanish mackerel, jack crevalle, and even schools of bluefish provide steady action in the passes. Tarpon action picks up in late March.

Captain David Esquinaldo (305/294-5670) is a superb choice for off-shore and near-shore action for everything from tuna, kingfish, and sails, to tarpon, grouper, and snapper. In the Big Pine area some 25 miles north, try Captain Neil Grant (305/872-4068). ­In-Fisherman has filmed numerous TV shows with both Esquinaldo and Grant.

Florida's West Coast

From Tampa Bay north to Cedar Key, you'll find a quiet winter fishery for grouper. These rock huggers move in from their water haunts to hunt the shallows. Instead of a three-hour offshore run, it's twenty to thirty minutes, even less in some spots. Local bait shops can cue you on locations. Take a bass flipping stick, jigs, and diving plugs. You can cast to them and catch them on artificials.

Steve Kilpatrick (352/493-7238) also knows where winter schools of trout and red fish are and how to catch them on flies. Last year we fished with Kilpatrick when the air temperature early on was 28°F. These are not normal winter temperatures for Florida. By the end of a day that should have skunked the best of guides, we had an 8-pound red on a fly and several other reds and trout.

Destin, Florida

Destin Florida in winter is another forgotten gold mine for offshore and inshore fishermen. Inshore is a good fishery for speckled trout, red fish, and large schools of sheepshead. Also pier, jetty, and shorefishing for most of these species as well as flounder, pompano, and whiting.

Most of Destin's winter fishing fleet specializes in deep-sea bottom fishing. Offshore charter boat Captain John Holly (850/837-4946) is out all winter. His main quarry are large gag grouper that come in close in the colder waters. John says the grouper average 20 to 60 pounds. If you've fished grouper before, you know that's not average.

Also a world-class snapper fishery is open some years and closed at other times, so check with local guides. Monster snapper, some record size, inhabit these waters. Holly also catches big amberjack; bring along a good standup rod and stretch out first. This thug can wear out major muscle groups.


For those of you who associate winter with the sound of a shotgun blast and a dog fetching a bird, Delacroix Island 45 minutes east of New Orleans' Bourbon Street may be your winter destination. Captain Steve Himel (507/682-4396) of Marshland Adventures offers cast and blast trips.

In the morning, your head will be tilted to the sky as gadwall, teal, widgeon, scaup, and pintail are welcomed to cajun country. In the afternoon, as temperatures warm, Steve Himel's trout and reds concentrate in deep holes in the bayous and nearby saltwater estuaries. He eliminates 70 percent of the colder shallow water to put you on concentrations of trout and reds in deeper pools. On cold days, you will have to shoot fast in the morning and fish slow in the afternoon.

"You work your jig slower than evolution," Himel says. A 1/4-ounce jig in purple or avocado and Carolina rigs are the hot ticket, while shrimp might add flounder, drum, and sheepshead to your catch. December and January can be great, depending on the weather.

Louisiana also offers numerous offshore winter fisheries, including a plethora of piscatores around the petrol platforms. A few minutes on the internet, and you'll have more destinations than you can fish. A good website to start with is Louisiana Fishing Magazine at.


The Texas coast has long been known for trout and red fish. But in winter, the summer crowds thin, and your chances for a trophy-sized speckled trout increase. In December and January, shorelines can produce red fish, flounder, and big trout. Wade fishing is a productive alternative if you know the waters. In February, the strikes don't come as quickly, but stick with it, and some of the finest trophy trout may come to boat. Trout over ten pounds have been caught in these waters.

Captain Mark Lee (281/328-4835), who has fished the coast for years, employs enough guides to accommodate large groups. Fishing out of the Galveston area, Lee and his guides offer excellent goose and duck hunting in addition to the trophy trout and red fishery. Former In-Fisherman TV Director Skip James (409/886-5341) also guides for fish and geese in the Beaumont area.

Lee will head offshore in early spring, where temperatures and the Marine Fisheries Board will help you decide what to catch — shark, snapper, king fish, or cobia. In the South Padre Island area, Captain Larry Corbett (956/943-3495) guides for red fish and trout.

Florida Keys To Winter Fish

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