March 14, 2013
For most Gulf of Mexico anglers, prime offshore fishing is considered a warm weather deal – not for any lack of opportunity during the colder months, but rather the lack of access. Make that comfortable access.
Truth be told, winter through early spring delivers some of our windiest conditions churning the Gulf with brutal waves that keep a lot of fisherman at home, or resigned to protected inshore waters.
Occasionally, though, the last quarter of one year and the first quarter of the next will deliver brief windows of calm weather that makes the offshore waters quite comfortable – often downright pleasant. You gotta keep your gear ready to go and your crew on standby, but diligent weather watchers can score big when the big ponds puts on its happy face.
With far less fishing pressure than the warm season, even the well-known spots can yield impressive action. And if you're fortunate enough to have a few private numbers that rarely, if ever, get another glance, well it could very well be lights-out.
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I enjoyed just such a day a couple of years back when my longtime Gulf pal Dan Hayes invited me on long, but fruitful run out of lower Pinellas County on Florida's Central Gulf Coast. Loaded up with bait, ice and bottled water, we and a few buddies set out before daybreak, all bundled up like we were competing in the Iditarod.
Hayes ran 75 miles southwest of Pass-A-Grille and we fished about a half dozen spots in the 180- to 230-foot range. Seas ran 2-3 feet at our predawn launch, but the Gulf laid down to a near glassy smoothness with just a subtle ground swell by day’s end.
Joined by brothers Ryan and Kevin Farner and friend Jerry Solovskoy, we made a few drops with live pinfish and vermilion snapper, but dead baits worked best. Dan had packed plenty of the standard Spanish sardines, but he also grabbed a case of Boston mackerel. The latter proved strategic, as red grouper, gag grouper, Kitty Mitchell grouper and red snapper made short work of each of the big baits that hit the bottom.
Ryan nailed two amberjack and a couple of nice-sized scamp grouper on Shimano Butterfly Jigs, and bullet head bucktails tipped with sardine strips also did the trick for a few red snapper (released for the closed season). We flat-lined live finger mullet for the big kingfish and wahoo that frequent these sites during winter, but that deal yielded only an irate blacktip shark.
Similar success can be found during rough conditions, but sloppy seas make setting and holding an anchor heading very difficult. It's also frustratingly difficult to properly present baits without oversized lead sinkers, while keeping your balance and just standing still to fish becomes a constant challenge that leaves you exhausted by day's end.
Monitor the weather and pick your days based on realistic weather expectations. Watch for approaching fronts that bring the big blows. If the weather looks good, formulate a game plan based on a handful of spots within close proximity so you can quickly relocate when the bite slows without spending half of your time running.
Even in good weather, a long run is a long run, so assume your safety will be challenged and prepare prudently. That means a visual check on personal floatation devices and all safety equipment, a well-stocked cooler with plenty of water and food, and multiple communication devices (VHS radio with handheld backup and satellite phone).
Take great caution when heading offshore this time of year, as winds can whip up in a hurry. Check the coastal condition and offshore buoys, file a float plan with at least two responsible adults and dress warmly. That being said, don't miss these rare but golden opportunities of pre-spring opportunity. Call in sick, get a babysitter, skip class – do whatever you have to do to get offshore and get while the getting's good.