For the persistent and patient, the mother lode of trout, reds and sheepshead may be just across the bay, down the channel or up the river.
January inshore fishing in the Florida Panhandle can be feast or famine; the fish tend to school tightly in suitable habitat, and to desert the much wider and more random distribution that benefits anglers in more temperate months.
Still for the persistent and patient, the mother lode of trout, reds and sheepshead may be just across the bay, down the channel or up the river. In general, cold weather moves fish off the beaches and into the black water bays, canals, rivers, creeks and potholes, which generally stay warmer in winter due to absorption of sunlight, and also because some are fed by rivers that are partially spring water, which maintains a level temperature despite cold.
Structure fishing in winter
One key to finding winter fish in the bays, rivers and backcountry is to seek out hard structure. Particularly reds and sheepshead tend to hang on concrete bridge pilings, rip-rap, docks, wrecks and other structure, maybe because these areas harbor small crabs, oysters, mussels and barnacles on which both species feed.
Some docks in otherwise shallow water, 2 feet or so, may have prop-wash holes that are 5 or 6 feet deep around the aft end of large inboard powered boats docked there. These are natural winter targets, allowing the fish to ease up on the dark mud of the flats during sunny hours, then slide back into the deeper water under the boat and the dock as the evening chill sets in.
Docks that sit on points or at creek or canal mouths can be particularly productive because they tend to get more tide flow than those tucked back into pockets. They usually hold more bait, and in turn hold more fish.
Bridges that span the coastal bays provide great winter habitat, starting in water only 3 or 4 feet deep and in some cases crossing channels that are over 40 feet deep. This allows fish to move from the shallows to the depths as weather changes or bait disappears, as well as providing them a bit of cover from dolphins, which love to prey on cold-slowed reds, in particular.
Waters under the Tyndall Parkway DuPont Bridge plunge to 46 feet, the U.S. 98 Hathaway Bridge over St. Andrews Bay to over 40 feet, and the Mid Bay Bridge on Choctawhatchee to over 30 feet. The Destin Channel is over 20 feet deep at the U.S. 98 bridge and has tremendous current action, making it always worth checking. The 331 Bridge on the east end of Choctawhatchee Bay has only about 10 foot depths, but on the northeast side there's a borrow pit with over 25 feet, sometimes a winter hotspot for trout and sheepshead. Bob Sykes Bridge over Santa Rosa Sound at Gulf Breeze has depths over 20 feet, as well.
Up the creeks
The deep creeks on the east end of Choctawhatchee Bay are also prime winter spots, particularly for trout and sheepshead. Black Creek, Mitchell River, Indian River, Cypress River and the Choctawhatchee itself are all highly productive, with lots of water over 10 feet and some holes to 20 despite being very narrow in some areas — it's the ideal area to fish on a blowsy winter day because there's never any wave action here.
Alaqua Creek, west of the Choctawhatchee complex on the north shore of the bay, is another great winter hidey hole, with some incredibly deep areas, over 30 feet, in a creek you can cast across in many areas. A boat ramp off S.R. 20 provides easy, protected access allowing even anglers in canoes and kayaks to safely get at the action. The entry channel to Basin Bayou, just west of Alaqua Bay, can also be a good spot, especially on outgoing tides with a north wind pushing the flow.
On Pensacola Bay, the Weaver River and Yellow River are frequently good winter trout spots — a fish camp off S.R. 89 at Pine Bluff provides access. To the west, the Blackwater River flows in — good fishing for miles upstream during cold fronts. Carpenter's Park in the town of Milton provides free launching, and there are several nearby marinas as well.
Fishing the bridges where the fish might be anywhere along the span, one useful tactic is to troll a crankbait as close to the pilings as possible. The Rapala Husky Magnum in the 25 size goes as deep as 25 feet, so it's a good one to explore the deep channel areas for bull reds, while the 15 series runs at 10 to 15 feet and is under 6 inches long, good for big trout as well as keeper-size reds. As in all trolling, line length affects the depth--let out just enough that the lure ticks bottom occasionally. Fishing the lures on 65-pound braid assures you get them back if there's a snag — add 3 feet of 60-pound-test mono or fluoro leader between lure and running line to reduce visibility. Run the boat just fast enough to bring out the action of the lure, usually around walking speed of 3 to 4 mph, depending on if you're going with or against the current.
Slow-trolling finger mullet, pinfish, croakers or any 4- to 6-inch baitfish you can catch at this time of year is also a great tactic for finding bridge fish — ease the boat along at the lowest speed of the trolling motor and let the nose-hooked bait explore. You'll usually need some weight to keep them down — add egg sinkers of 1 to 3 ounces above a swivel and 3-foot leader of 30-pound test mono, leading to a 2/0 to 4/0 circle hook.
In general, when you catch a fish somewhere along a bridge, it won't be alone. Take note of which piling you were nearest, make a circle, and come back to anchor at the edge of casting range to that spot. You can then cast live baits into the suspected hotspot, or work it over with plastic-tailed jigs from 1/4 to 1/2 ounce.
Fishing the creeks, canals and boat docks, lighter tackle is in order — a spinning rig with 10- to 15-pound test braid and 2500- to 3000-size reel is about right. Again, add a length of mono or fluoro leader, about 18 inches long in 20-pound-test, to cut visibility and give yourself a "handle" to control fish at close range — braid will cut your fingers under pressure. Tie in the leader with a double Uni-knot rather than a swivel to avoid casting issues.
The 1/4 ounce jig is the universal choice for fishing the backcountry, with either a shrimp tail about 3 inches long or a swimmer-tail 4 to 5 inches long. Most like darker brown or tan colors for the shrimp tail, lighter colors for the swimmers--white, pearl, chartreuse and yellow are all favored.
As in fishing the bridges, one way of locating where the fish might be holding in a given creek or canal is to slow troll with a spread of jigs, put out far enough back that they run just off bottom. Again, walking speed is as fast as you want the boat to move. When you get bit, punch in the spot on the GPS, turn around and anchor within range — winter trout, in particular, tend to form large schools in these cuts and holes.
Trout that have not already been worked over will readily grab not only the jigs, but also DOA and LiveTarget shrimp as well as soft plastic jerkbaits. They also take treble-hooked hardbaits like the venerable Mirrolure 52 M, but unless you flatten the barbs on these lures you may wind up killing a lot of trout you can't take home under the 5-fish bag limit for the Northwest counties.
On sunny afternoons, trout will sometimes move out of the holes to nearby bars and marsh edges, where they readily blast topwater lures like the Rapala Skitter Vee and Zara Spook. Though these are also treble-hook lures, trout tend to get the lures crosswise outside their mouths so successful release is usually easier than with a sinking lure.
If the bite on artificials is slow, you can't go wrong with live shrimp. Whole shrimp hooked in the last joint of the tail on a light wire 1/0 hook are just right for trout; add a split shot or two to get the bait to bottom. Fresh-cut shrimp is also the ticket for sheepshead around rocky holes, pilings and oyster bars — cut a 1-inch piece from the tail and slide it on 1/0 hook. The smaller piece of bait keeps them from stealing it as readily as they can with a whole shrimp.
Another more or less universal winter rig is a bare 1/4 ounce jig with a 1- to 2-inch section of fresh shrimp on the hook. This will catch everything in the backcountry, including sheepshead, reds and trout. It's simply cast out and crawled slowly along bottom until the fish scent it and latch on. Note that "fresh" is the operative part of the word — frozen shrimp turned pink in the shell does not catch much beyond the occasional marine catfish, but fresh shrimp will catch pretty much everything likely to bite in the bays and backcountry from now until spring.