Florida's Best Wintertime Hunting & Fishing
December 12, 2011
Winter in Florida isn't quite like winter in most other parts of the country. We have some days when the thermometer dips below freezing. But, during a normal winter you can count those days on both hands, with a finger or two to spare. Even on those chill days, anglers can often shed their coats by midday. Nor, is it common for such temperatures to linger for more than a few consecutive days before a warm up follows.
A sharp cold front can be a temporary inconvenience for anglers and fish, but it can also be a key signal for both. For some freshwater species it tells them it's time to start thinking about the upcoming spring spawning season. For a number of saltwater species, it will cause them to move to specific areas that are easy to define and fish.
For game animals, the weather also plays a role. It can dictate where the most abundant food sources will be, and it certainly will encourage waterfowl to migrate. In some areas of the state it will also convince whitetail bucks that it's time to begin the rut.
For hunters and fishermen, all winter means is that it's time to drag out a heavier jacket, change tactics slightly, and "keep on keeping on." Here are six sites where the "keeping on" should be pretty good in December and January for both hunting and angling.
There is no better time to catch a 10-pound bass than during the pre-spawn and spawn. In most Florida waters the spawn runs from late January through April. However, some bass start early, and when it comes to finding big bass, Rodman Reservoir offers an excellent early season option.
The first spawn of the year normally occurs on the first full moon of January on the Orange Spring Flats, composed of shallow cover along Orange Creek. During December the bass in that section of the reservoir will be moving towards those flats. The primary travel routes are the main river channel and the intersecting creek channels. During December, look for schools of big pre-spawn females to be stacking up along deeper cover edges in those channels.
The main river channel and the lower end of the Orange Creek channel are key areas during December. Guides have a great deal of success fishing live shiners in the 6- to 8-inch range near any vegetation cover they can find along the edge of those channels. Those that prefer artificial lures can do well with large spinnerbaits slow rolled over deeper cover, or Texas- or Carolina-rigged worms, lizards and craws worked tight to it.
As January arrives, experienced anglers shift their sights to the Orange Creek channel itself. The bass will be moving up from the main river channel and into Orange Creek before they fan out onto the flats to spawn. Any deeper water bend with hydrilla — or better yet, an outside bend that has floating hyacinths or water lettuce drifted in to form a solid mat of overhead cover — is a prime target. Flipping those floating mats with a compact craw can result in some huge bass.
As the weather warms, savvy anglers will put on their polarized glasses and move up onto the flats along Orange Creek to spot beds. If the bed holds a sow bass, anglers can work the fish with whatever weedless soft plastics they prefer. If the beds only hold buck bass, the experts will drop back towards deeper water and start flipping any areas of matted cover, no matter how small. If the beds are there and the sow bass are not, those big females are no very far away — and likely hanging out under whatever floating patch of hyacinths or water lettuce they can find.
If a 10-pound bass is on your 2012 wish list, this is a good place to start.
Largemouth Bass & Snook
Anglers looking to tangle with largemouths, but who certainly wouldn't mind another species mixed in, will want to look at the Myakka River. This sheltered river can provide topnotch largemouth action, but one also never quite knows when a 20-pound-plus snook, will grab their "bass" lure.
Those looking to specifically target largemouths will want to start their search in and around Lake Myakka, and Lower Lake Myakka, just a few miles south of Myakka River State Park.
While many river dwelling bass are homebodies who don't make lengthy seasonal movements, there is an exception — bass will move surprising distances during the spawning season to locate optimal bedding cover. Both of these lakes are nothing more than wide, shallow, spots in the river, but are heavily vegetated and offer excellent spawning conditions.
The first spawn of the year will normally occur in January, and the month of December will see bass moving towards those lakes. The early portion of December will usually see bass begin to stage along deeper, wooded banks near inflows and outflows of the lakes.
Texas-rigged plastic worms, jigs, and crankbaits are top bets for beating the banks. As January arrives, bass will filter into the lakes, where spinnerbaits, soft plastic jerkbaits, topwater plugs, and plastic frogs can produce well in the shallow vegetation.
Bass also inhabit the lower reaches of the river, where deeper wood-covered outside bends are top targets. That's especially true if near creek mouths.
But, don't be surprised if it's not a largemouth that nails your crankbait. Snook will migrate into the Myakka from its junction with Port Charlotte Harbor during colder weather and share the same affinity for deeper wood.
As of September 2011, there was a statewide closure on harvesting snook. So, expect the action to be catch and release for linesiders. After all, you are allowed to reclaim your lure!
King Mackerel & Tuna
If the blue water beckons you, the lower Atlantic coast offers a variety of opportunities. But, it's hard to argue with heading all the way south and launching out of Key West. Not only will these months see the first "smoker" kingfish run of the season, but there will also be plenty of blackfin tuna to add a little spice to the action, and sumptuous fare to the grill!
Look for kings over any natural or man-made structure in 50 to 250 feet of water; which is not a long run from any Key's marina. Slow-trolling live bait is normally the most effective tactic. Top baits, in this part of the state, include blue runners, speedos, cigar minnows, goggle-eyes, and pilchards.
The most effective rig is built from No. 5 or 6 coffee-colored single strand wire. A short-shanked live bait hook of 1/0 to 4/0, depending upon the size of the live bait available, adorned with a 3-foot wire leader and hook through the bait's nose. A No. 4 extra strong treble hook attaches to another length of wire coming off the eye of the first hook and hangs free alongside the bait. The length of that leader depends on the size of the bait, but it does foil short-striking kings.
Trolling speeds should be slow enough to allow the bait to "swim" instead of being "dragged," and a soft-tip rod with several hundred yards of line is the best choice. Twenty-pound-test is fine, because you don't want to put more pressure than that on those small hooks, anyway.
If the Kings don't cooperate, load the bait well with a few hundred pilchards and head to the West End of the Bar, or the Sub Wreck, which are both well-know local hotspots within a short distance, and chum up some blackfin tuna. A few dozen pilchard tossed over the stern will often bring the tuna to you.
Stick a hook in a pilchard, on a fluorocarbon leader with a 15- to 20-pound spinning rig, and join the fray. Most of these fish will run under 30-pounds.
UPPER ST. JOHNS
RIVER MARSH WMA
Wild hogs aren't the most glamorous of game animals, but at this time of the year they may well be the tastiest critters wandering the woods. The reason is acorns.
Once the acorns begin to drop in late October wild hogs descend on them like five-year-old kids hitting the cake and ice cream at a birthday party. After a summer of living on tank root, swamp grass, and whatever else they can find, it's their version of gourmet fare. It also turns the hogs into gourmet fare, because no food in the woods puts fat on a hog faster than acorns. After a couple of months feeding on acorns, they're prime fare!
The Upper St. Johns River Marsh WMA is a good spot to collect some of that pork.
This WMA hugs the St. Johns River from State Route 60, north to SR 520 — a distance of over 50 miles and encompassing more than 120,000 acres.
During the General Gun season and the following Small Game season, there is no bag or size limit on hogs. They may be hunted, with centerfire rifles, shotguns, handguns and bows, from 1/2 hour before sunrise to 1/2 hour after sunset. Hogs are not allowed to be hunted with dogs during General Gun season, and they may not be transported alive. No special permits or quota hunt requirements exist during December/January. A basic hunting license and WMA license is all that's required.
This WMA is huge, and encompasses a number of lakes, as well as wooded river shoreline. The latter is where hog hunters want to be. Find the acorns and you'll find the hogs.
A map, and the WMA brochure are almost mandatory, because there are a number of areas closed to land vehicles, but open to boats, or walking in. It's worth the time to explore, if you're looking to fill the freezer with pork.
TM GOODWIN &
BROADMOOR MARSH WMA
Hunters who truly want the best in waterfowling should get the proper permits for the T.M. Goodwin and Broadmoor Marsh Waterfowl Management Areas.
These two areas are not very large. In fact, they are nothing more than tiny dots on the map of the Upper St. Johns WMA. And they do require special access permits from Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, for which many hunters compete. Not all applicants will receive permits, and those that do must gain access through specific check stations where all harvested ducks will be counted. It's a structured hunting environment. But, it's worth the effort for those that do gain access.
These two small sections are a part of the Stick Marsh/Farm 13 complex. They were acquired by the state for the expressed purpose of managing them for waterfowl. The food and habitat are there, and the ducks responded.
During the 2010 - 2011 waterfowl season, these two postage-stamp sized areas resulted in the harvest of almost 2,000 blue-wing teal, 650 green-wing teal, 400 black belly whistling ducks, 300 Florida mottled ducks and about 300 ringnecks. Hunter success rates are high, and information on getting in on the hunts from the FWCC regional offices.
Throughout most of Florida, peak whitetail hunting runs from mid-November to the first week of December. That's the general opening of the season in much of the state, and the best time to find a whitetail buck that hasn't been pressured by hunters. Most WMAs also require a quota hunt permit for hunters who wish to participate in the first nine days of the season. On some WMAs virtually all of the season requires such a permit.
By the time December and January roll around, many hunters feel the 'best part' of the season is over. That, however, is not the case in the Panhandle. In fact, the best part of the season is just starting there.
Veteran hunters have learned that the farther north and west that you move in Florida the larger the bucks get, and the later they go into rut. In the Panhandle the rut normally starts in mid-December and continues through January. So does the general gun season.
There are a number of WMAs in this area that offer excellent hunting opportunities, but many require quota permits for some or all of the season. For those who forget the required pre-season paperwork, the Apalachicola WMA becomes an excellent choice.
Comprising over 580,000 acres and stretching across Franklin, Leon, Liberty and Wakulla counties, it requires nothing more than a basic hunting license, and the appropriate stamps for management areas and deer.
This huge area is broken up into dog-hunt, still-hunt, no vehicle wilderness sections, and a number of areas where the FWCC does active quail management with planted crops.
A map, and some scouting, is well advised. But, given a season that runs from mid-December through January, hunters will have plenty of time to keep on keeping on.