Winter in Florida isn’t quite like winter elsewhere. We can have our share of sub-freezing mornings, but they seldom last. Nor, do they have a significant affect of the fur, fish, and fowl we pursue.
Winter in Florida is actually kind of cool. The opportunities to fish or hunt abound, and the weather can be far more pleasant that in northern climes. That might be one reason why so many of our northern neighbors decide to make a visit this time of year.
From the perspective of the locals, however, that does create somewhat of a dilemma. Where is the best spot to go, and what should I target? There is no simple answer to that. But here are five locales scattered around the Sunshine State that can provide topnotch sport but also easy access.
Let’s start in the Panhandle and just work our way around the state.
This Tallahassee area impoundment is well known for its excellent largemouth bass angling and bragging-sized speckled perch. It also happens to be one of — if not the — best spots in Florida to catch striped bass. And, the December through January period is a peak time to do it.
“There are 20-pound stripers caught every year out of this lake,” said veteran guide Mike Mercurri, “and a lot of them are caught on the same lures and tackle we use for largemouths.”
Mercurri concentrates his efforts in the lower third of the reservoir — from the dam to a couple miles upstream. This section is bisected by the main river channel, a number of secondary channels, and features numerous submerged tapering sand points. Deep water and an abundant shad population make this a striper heaven.
One effective tactic is to idle along the edge of the main channel to locate shad schools and concentrations of fish on the depthfinder. Once the right “picture” is seen, the fish can be vertically jigged with a 3/4-ounce chrome Hopkin’s Shorty Spoon, or a 3-inch pearl-colored plastic swimming tail on a 1/2-ounce leadhead jig. Don’t be surprised to catch largemouths and outsized specs at the same time. They mix right in with the stripers.
Sometimes looking up is a better bet than looking down.
“These stripers often surface school this time of year,” Mercurri said. “It usually happens from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. I’m always looking for diving birds, because they find those schools for you.”
You may not be able to get there quick enough to take part in that eruption, but stick around because the fish come up again very soon, and in the same general area. The same spoons and plastic jigs used for vertically jigging the channel edges are deadly when cast to breaking fish, as are any of the chrome colored countdown crankbaits, like the Rat-L-Trap.
Another effective option is to work the face of the rock dam itself. This can be especially effective if water is being released from the dam. That creates a feeding funnel, and the larger stripers take advantage of it.
Mercurri likes to put the boat about one good cast length off of the rocks and make quartering casts ahead of the boat, while he moves smoothly along it. This thoroughly covers the water from the dam to the boat, and that water column is where the stripers most often prowl. Rat-L-Trap type lures are effective, but Mercurri often favors the Road Runner Hyper Striper jig. White is his color and 3/8 to 1/2 ounce is the size.
Lastly, if you’re looking for a real heavyweight, don’t be in a hurry to leave the water.
“Late in the afternoon when the light levels have dropped and the water has reached its maximum surface temperature for the day there will be some huge stripers move up onto shallow sandbars to feed,” Mercurri noted. “The key is to find a shallow, flat sand point with 2 to 3 feet of water on it that has an abrupt drop off to 20 feet or more of water. A good topographic map of Talquin will show these areas, and I want to hit every one I can on the way in.”
It may sound crazy to catch a big striper in 3 feet of water, but on a recent trip I tagged along as Mercurri pulled up to such a flat during the late afternoon. The water on the bar was less than 3 feet, but we had 27 feet under the boat as he made his first cast with a Hyper Striper. That produced a 17-pound fish!
Moving into the Big Bend, our next winter hotspot is the Suwannee River: specifically the lower section and the maze of creeks and passes at its mouth. When cold weather settles in these sheltered waters can offer top fishing for trout. But, it’s a gradual migration.
“A lot of trout will come off the Big Bend flats and winter in the Suwannee River,” said Capt. Jimbo Keith, “but it’s not an overnight migration. The fish will move into the river in stages.”
During much of December the trout will be gathering around the river and pass mouths. Look for them along channel edges, and shell bars. One spot that should never be overlooked is a dark oyster bar on a high tide, late in the afternoon when the sun has had the opportunity to heat the oyster. Big trout love this situation!
As the water cools, the trout move into the river.
“I look for trout to come off the flats and get into the river and creeks when the water temperature on the outside flats hits the low 60s,” Keith offered. “That’s the trigger that gets them off the flats and into the lower river.”
Once the trout move into the river their preferred habitat is not hard to find. Like most expert anglers, Keith looks for deeper holes, especially on outside bends, where rock or limestone ledges exist and meet a hard rock bottom in the deeper holes.
“Once the trout find a spot like this,” Keith noted, “they can spend almost all the winter in a relatively small area. They want a hard bottom, and the ledges allow them to change their depth while staying over hard bottom.”
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