Florida's Mixed Bag Winter

Florida's Mixed Bag Winter

With hunting seasons open and great fishing abounding, it's a tough decision as to what to do this month. Here are some suggestions for Sunshine State action this winter.

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.

LAKE TALQUIN

Striped Bass

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.

Rodman Reservoir might be the best place in the state to catch a 10-plus-pound largemouth this month. Photo by Rod Hunter.

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!

SUWANNEE RIVER

Seatrout

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."

The key to taking those trout is simple: fish deep and slow. Slow sinking plugs like the MirrOLure or Countdown Rapala are long-time favorites. Another option is a scent emitting synthetic bait like Fish Bites or Gulp! on a leadhead jig, just heavy enough to get to the bottom and drift with the current.

"My favorite tactic," Keith said, "is to fish across the current with a Saltwater Assassin Blurp on a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce jig head. I cast this up current, let it hit the bottom, and reel it slowly enough to keep the slack out. This deep, dead drift will take a lot of big trout during cold weather."

The Blurp has a scent emitting tail and Keith prefers the 3-inch size.

RODMAN RESERVOIR

Largemouth Bass

Moving inland, we come to Rodman Reservoir. Traditionally one of Florida's top trophy bass lakes, it may be the best bet of all for a 10-pound bass this time of year. That's because the first spawn of the year normally occurs in early January and in an easily identifiable area -- the Orange Spring flats. The month of December becomes the pre-spawn period when the big sows move to the flats.

During December look for big spawners staging on vegetation along the main and secondary channel edges leading to the flats. By Christmas look for them to start moving up onto the shallow flats, especially on warm afternoons. Spinnerbaits and soft plastic jerkbaits are top tools at this time, although it's hard to beat a Texas-rigged plastic worm in June bug, red shad, or green pumpkin. Use the worm to probe the outside edge of heavy cover along channel edges. That can sometimes save the day if a cold front roars through and temporarily moves fish off the flats.

Savvy anglers also include a flipping rod in their arsenal. Rig this with a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce sinker and a compact 3-inch plastic craw or rubber-tailed jig in black and blue, June bug or green pumpkin. Any mat of floating vegetation on or near the spawning flats can hold a trophy bass. Flipping every mat you see may connect you with such a fish.

As January arrives experienced anglers start looking for beds. You should be prepared to sight fish them with compact soft plastics.

If the Orange Spring area fails to produce during the later part of January, shift your attention to Doctors Cove. Fish normally spawn there in February and will be pre-spawn staging in January.

GUANA RIVER WMA

Waterfowl

Easing over to the Atlantic coast we arrive at the 9,815-acre Guana River Wildlife Management Area. This slender sliver of public land is close enough to the ocean that you can smell the salt. Much of it consists of Lake Ponte Vedra, although some smaller ponds and upland areas exist.

When it comes to waterfowl hunting there are a number of very good public hunting areas along the east coast. Unfortunately, some require significant effort and fast fingers on the computer to acquire the appropriate permits for access. That's not the case with Guana.

During the season for ducks and coots 100 no-cost daily permits are available for each day of the season on a first-come, first-served, basis at the Six-Mile Check Station. Comedian and movie director Woody Allen once remarked, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." That's true at Guana, since there are many days when the allotted permits are not claimed. If you choose to collect one, the only other licenses and permits required are the appropriate hunting license, state and federal duck stamps, and a Wildlife Management stamp.

It's pretty much a "come as you are" environment. But, there are some specific rules of which hunters need be aware

The first is that no motors larger than 10 horsepower may be used,or on the boat in Lake Ponte Vedra. You will also be required to check all ducks at the Six-Mile Check Station by 1:00 p.m. Finally, that portion of Lake Ponte Vedra from the Guana River dam for 1/2 mile north is closed to hunting.

It's worth toting a fishing rod along with your shotgun, too. Lake Ponte Vedra has an abundant population of speckled trout and redfish. A few casts on the way in might provide a "surf and wing" dinner.

ALLAPATTAH FLATS WMA

Wild Hogs

If you're looking to put some pork in the freezer, shift a bit south along the Atlantic coast to the Allapattah Flats WMA. It's one of the best bets you find in the Sunshine State for a wild hog.

This 20,945-acre WMA in Martin County is actually a working ranch that was purchased by the South Florida Water Management District as a part of the "Save Our Rivers" program. There are leases for the grazing of cattle and horses, and hunters will see those animals.

With a mixture of cleared pastures, oak hammocks, dikes, ditches and a swamp or two, it's the type of terrain that was only previously available to hunters that could gain access to private ranches.

As any veteran hunter knows, the habitat improvement, fertilization, and accidental supplemental feeding that take place as part of ranch management creates prime habitat and conditions for many species of Florida wildlife. That especially includes hogs. They are thriving on Allapattah Flats. But being non-native, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission would like to have those hogs removed. In fact, this WMA actually awards hog trapping leases!

That also makes life easy for hog hunters. There are no quota requirements for this WMA. It's open every day during the small game season from 20 November to January 9, 2011. If you show up, you get to hunt.

Unlike some other nearby public tracts, there is no size limit on wild hogs. If you see a hog and you want it, shoot it! There is also no daily bag limit on wild hogs. Shoot as many as you can find, or want to haul home and process. If this isn't public land hog heaven then I don't know what is!

Hunters are required to have the appropriate small game license and a WMA permit. There are also restrictions on the type of harvesting gear. Only archery gear or shotguns are allowed. However, the definition of shotgun is pretty broad. If you have one of those high-tech rifled barrel and scope equipped marvels that will print 4-inch groups at 150 yards with modern sabot slugs, you're good to go.

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