December 02, 2021
Captain Bobby Abruscato’s center-console slid into yet another blackwater bayou in the Fowl River on the west side of Mobile Bay.
"Throw that topwater right across the bar and then walk it back slow," he said. We were several miles upriver in water that looked a lot more like largemouth bass country than seatrout and redfish habitat, but I hadn’t walked the Rapala Skitter Vee five feet when a big, yellow-mouthed trout slammed it with that lovely BA-LOOP! sound they make, and I was hooked up.
We had no sooner dropped that one into the ice chest when another trout of similar size slurped the lure down, grabbing the tail hooks rather than the head as trout usually do on a surface strike. That fish made a short run, shook her head and returned the plug back to me.
Less than a minute later, Bobby hooked up on the Slick Lure he was throwing. The Slick is a soft-plastic mullet imitation, fished on a single wide-gap hook. It doesn’t look like much, but the fish love it. We caught six trout on that 300-yard-long bar before the action shut down, but Bobby had plenty more great spots upriver in his pocket.
The next stop, a rocky hole in front of a residential dock, was loaded with slot-sized redfish (16 to 26 inches in Alabama), and they were partial to the Vudu Shrimp. It’s a flex-tail lure that most anglers fish under a slip-cork. A similarly effective design is the Savage Gear TPE Manic Shrimp, made of especially tough plastic with a nylon mesh in the tail that adds greatly to its durability. With either shrimp, pop the cork and the lure hops upward, flexing its tail, then drifts slowly back down—and that’s when the take usually comes.
We landed three reds from the hole and once again the bite slowed; late in the season, schools of fish in the creeks tend to be smaller than in fall, and a bit more wary of lures. We caught trout on several more bars on the way back downriver before our half-day trip came to an end at the Fowl River Marina, just off the Dauphin Island Parkway.
“They come into the rivers every year soon after we get our first frost,” Abruscato says. “And the action can be good all winter, though the numbers of fish get picked over in January and February. A few warm days in March send the fish back out of the rivers and into Mobile Bay toward their summer haunts.”
The migration on Mobile Bay is typical of flats species all around the Gulf Coast from Texas to south Florida. Because most coastal rivers are blackwater streams (waters that originate in swampy areas with stained water), and many have springs flowing into them, they tend to stay significantly warmer than the flats from mid-November into mid-March. The fish move in to enjoy the winter spa, sometimes migrating up coastal creeks barely deep enough for a kayak to reach deeper holes upstream.
While trout, reds, snook and sheepshead are saltwater fish, they can all endure brackish water for extended periods, so they don’t seem to mind the falling salinity as they move upstream. And because there’s not the same abundance of food in the freshwater as they’re used to in the bays and on the flats, these fish are usually hungry and ready to attack a lure or a live shrimp.
GETTING TO THEM
One of the many great things about winter fishing along some parts of the Gulf Coast is that you can get at the fish without a pricey saltwater boat. A kayak or SUP allows launching at any bridge, and even a float tube or a pair of waders will get you to the fish in some areas. Because the rivers are always calm, you’re unlikely to have any issues except for dealing with the current and boat wakes.
Standard center-consoles are fine, as well, but on some creeks, you must keep a sharp eye on the sonar and the channel markers, or you’ll wind up sitting on a bar—or replacing your prop after running over rocks. Use your trolling motor set on low to approach any spots you suspect are holding fish, as it’s not hard to run them off their feed by blundering in with the outboard in the sometimes-narrow confines of the rivers and creeks.
While reds, trout, sheepshead and mangrove snappers tend to settle into the deepest, rockiest holes they can find in the dead of winter, there’s a travel progression as they enter the coastal creeks and rivers. The first day after a major front will see them in the lower reaches; if there’s a warmup immediately after, some fish may head back out on the flats. But if the cold stays three or four days, the fish are likely to start heading farther upstream.
Snook will actually travel far up into water that’s completely fresh on the larger rivers of Florida, but reds, trout, snappers and sheepshead throughout the Southeast’s coastal waters generally stay in the lower reaches, going up no farther than the tide reaches because they prefer brackish water.
Sheepshead, mangroves and reds generally stay close to rocky cover and shell beds in the rivers, though in the Louisiana Delta they also prowl out into the grassy ponds and marsh edges on sunny afternoons. Trout can be anywhere, but often hang under docks and bridges where they can find them, in the prop dredge holes around large yachts and close to the mouths of small creeks draining into the larger river, particularly when falling tides pull baitfish out of those creeks.
If you can afford to invest in quality sonar, particularly side-scan or forward-looking, this technology can be deadly for trout and reds as well, allowing you to quickly sort out which holes have fish and which don’t without having to motor directly over them. An alternative is simply to slowly troll a couple of swimmer-tail jigs up and down the creek or river until you get bit. As with all trolling, this takes a bit of adjusting lure weights, boat speed and line length to get the lure running just off bottom where the fish are likely to be holding, Once you get that sorted out it’s an easy process.
Where there’s one fish at this time of year there are likely to be dozens, so mark the spot and return to fish it thoroughly. Don’t overlook manmade canals in your search for winter fish, either.
Anglers load up on trout from Alabama’s Theodore Canal, which feeds into Mobile Bay, catching trout as deep as 30 feet—particularly when a big flush of fresh, muddy water flows into the head of the bay and sends the fish looking for refuge. There’s similar action on the Cross Florida Barge Canal and the Duke Power Plant Canal, both north of Crystal River, Fla., where fish run off the vast, shallow flats into the warmer confines of the dredged waterways.
Live shrimp on a size 1 to 1/0 short-shank hook is the universal fish catcher in the creeks and rivers in winter. If you’re primarily targeting sheepshead and mangrove snapper, a fresh-cut shrimp tail fished on just enough weight to get it to bottom is the best bet.
For trout and reds, a whole shrimp often does better, either hooked through the last joint in the tail or under the horn on the head. Again, just enough weight to cast and get it to bottom in the current is best.
If you’re not a live-baiter, a jig in the 1/8- to 1/4-ounce size with a plastic shrimp tail is hard to beat. You’ll catch more if you put a sliver of fresh-cut shrimp tail the size of pencil eraser on the hook. Alternatively, opt for a scented lure like the Berkley Gulp! Alive! Shrimp. Bounce the jig slowly along bottom, paying particular attention to its drop, which is when most fish hit. A word to the wise: Take plenty of jigs and plastics. The holes in most rivers tend to have lots of snags. A good thing about this rig is that it catches all four of the saltwater species likely to be in most rivers.
If you’re specifically targeting trout and reds, the above-mentioned Slick Lure is a good bet, as is the old-time favorite MirrOlure 52M, a slow-sinking hard plastic. Fish both these lures slowly—the colder it is, the slower the fish like the lures to move.
Another good bet for redfish is a chunk of cut pinfish or mullet fished on bottom. If there’s good current flowing to spread the scent a bit, this can work when the reds are turning up their noses at all sorts of artificials.
The same tackle that works well on the flats will do well in the rivers and creeks. A 7-foot, medium-light spinning rod, 2500-sized reel and 15-pound-test braid, with a couple feet of 15- to 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader tied in with a double uni knot is the do-it-all rig, though anglers who fish live bait for big winter snook in Florida go much heavier.
Fly rodding is also a possibility, especially for the trout and snook. A bullet popper about 3 to 4 inches long fished on 10-weight gear will sometimes light them up. When the reds are coming and going around the river mouths and in the creeks, a Clouser streamer in size 1 to 1/0 or a shrimp pattern will fool lots of them.
Give these rivers a try when the weather and water turn cold.
There are hundreds of coastal rivers and creeks around the Southeast that produce great winter fishing for reds, trout and sheepshead. These are among the best.
On the Gulf Coast, the spring-fed Homosassa and Crystal rivers are both fish magnets. Fish settle into rocky holes as they gradually work their way up toward the springs with each successive cold front. A bonus here is the occasional big snook. Any of the plastic shrimp imitators work well here, as does a live shrimp.
Even more productive are the Steinhatchee and the Suwannee rivers in the Big Bend area farther north. These rivers open onto massive grass flats, and when the chill comes, thousands of fish flood off these flats into the rivers seeking deeper, warmer water.
Finally, don’t overlook the Apalachicola River in the Panhandle, a massive body of water that has dozens of winding estuary creeks in its delta, many of them with 15- to 20-foot holes that load up with trout and reds in winter. Shrimp on bottom is hard to beat but working a MirrOlure Heavy Dine in the holes will catch larger fish.
The Dog River, Fowl River and Heron Bayou on the west shore of Mobile Bay are famed for their winter fishing, as is the Theodore Canal, a deep dredge cut on the northwest side of the bay. The Bon Secour and Fish rivers are also very productive. All of them have topwater action in warm spells but switch to live shrimp or soft-plastic imitations like the D.O.A. Shrimp when it’s coldest.
The many “bayous” flowing into Mississippi Sound and Biloxi Bay are all productive, but the delta of the Pascagoula River, with its many canals, deep creeks and brackish lakes, is like a miniature of the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana in terms of producing trout and reds. Look for falling tides here and concentrate on spots where the smaller creeks with 6- to 8-foot depths dump into the larger flows. A live shrimp under a slip cork is a favorite local setup.
Pretty much every wet spot from Pearl River to the Sabine River loads up with reds and trout as the water cools, sometimes traveling many miles into the brackish bays and “lakes” and into the vast marshes and oil industry channels. It’s a matter of moving and casting until you find a hotspot. Here, one hole can produce a hundred reds or trout, and they will be the fattest fish you’ve ever seen due to the amazing fertility of this estuary.
I’ve mostly fished west of Venice with local buddies—and did extremely well—but they tell me the east side is just as good. Jigs, single-spins and jerkbaits score, as does live shrimp. If you’ve never fished here, hire a local guide to get the lay of the land. Even with GPS assistance, there are just too many dead ends and unmarked obstructions to run around blindly.