The sun was peaking above the trees, just beginning to warm the crisp morning air as the Mercury outboard roared to life. The outgoing tide was coursing through the oyster shell mounds and over mud flats on its way to the ocean. Sand gnats were non-existent due to previous freezes and the cool morning. As we eased into our first destination, a mud flat peppered with oyster mounds, we were full of anticipation. Our hope was a school of redfish had pulled out of a nearby feeder creek and were feasting on crabs and baitfish that swept by the oyster mound just a cast from our boat. The tide was perfect, as we impatiently zipped our first casts to the still water behind the mound. Five cranks of the reel, and the rod was bowed double, and the lure raced the opposite direction while stuck in the face of an oversized redfish. Several redfish later, and the tide turned, allowing the redfish to push back into the creek to root for fiddler crabs.
Not to be disappointed, we fired the motor and moved a couple miles to a deep creek and splashed down the anchor. We bottom-fished with dead shrimp for most of the flood tide, catching dozens of tasty bottom fish and a couple not-so-desirable stingrays. As the tide approached full-pool, we trolled the upper end of the creek and cast to submerged oyster beds, pulling a dozen seatrout from the channel and shoreline cover.
The previous story was not a specific event, but a description of what is available all winter on our bountiful coast. The weather can be dicey this time of year, but if you pick your days and are familiar enough with your waters, you can duplicate this scenario from Savannah to Saint Marys.
Redfish: These copper-colored brutes roam in huge schools in search of food during winter. The places to find them are mud flats at the mouths of small feeder creeks. The more creeks dumping onto a mud flat, the better. My preference is to stake out (because of the stealth factor) on flats within casting distance of oyster mounds or creek mouths. I also work slowly around flats with my trolling motor, looking for large schools. You can see the copper-colored aggregation well ahead of you when fishing clear water. Try to cast ahead of the approaching school and work your offering into their path. When you find a school of hungry redfish, it is typical for everyone in the boat to hook up.
While live shrimp and dead bait work, I prefer casting artificial lures. A few of my favorites for redfish are Flats Stalker in-line spinnerbaits, Thunder-spin (bass-style) spinnerbaits, shallow diving crankbaits (match the running depth to the flat you are fishing) and Texas-rigged Saltwater Assassin 5-inch Shads. My spinnerbaits are always rigged with Assassin Sea Shads. The most productive colors of plastics for my redfishing lately have been hot chicken, electric chicken, goldfish and Calcasieu brew. My crankbaits always have some chartreuse in them. I keep my color selection simple, typically starting with electric chicken in murky water or low light and switching to more natural colors, such as goldfish and hot chicken, in bright sun or clear water. Expect the water to be much clearer during winter than it was during the high tidal fluctuations of fall. When you are staked out, it is not a bad idea to put a piece of cut baitfish or dead shrimp on the bottom behind the boat to attract redfish you may not see.
Seatrout: When you think coldwater seatrout, you need to think narrow. I’m not saying there are only a few techniques that will catch them, but that they will be in areas that are literally narrow, as in the backs of creeks and rivers. The trout move to the upper reaches of creeks and rivers and spend the nasty, cold times in the deeper holes in those systems. They will definitely venture out and feed during warm spells, but start your search in the upper ends of creeks. I can cast all the way across some of my best wintertime areas. A depthfinder is an extremely valuable tool this time of year to find likely holes. The fish will move around from deep hole to deep hole, so trolling is an effective presentation to find them when compared to casting for hours along a stretch of bank.
My typical trolling method is to pull my lures straight behind the boat using my trolling motor. I put a rod out each side and sometimes one down the middle and ease along. I like to move fast enough to barely keep my lures above the bottom. If my lures “tick” the bottom a couple times each minute, that is perfect. My favorite lures are Assassin Sea Shads rigged on either 1/8-, 3/16-, or 1/4-oz. jigheads, depending upon the depth. When the fish have lockjaw, I usually break out crappie-sized offerings, which include 2-inch Curly Shads (Assassin makes them in electric chicken, candy corn and other effective saltwater colors) and little 1/16- and 1/8-oz. jigheads. I also troll my prototype double-rigged spoons (chartreuse has produced best for me) with a 1-inch curly tail grub skewered on the back of the spoon. When I find the fish while trolling, I usually stop and fan-cast the area with a Sea Shad and jighead or a Cajun Thunder Float-Sea Shad rig. With the float rig, I suspend the jighead about 30 inches below the float during winter and fish it with longer pauses between twitches than during the warm months. For both trolling and casting for trout, my most productive wintertime Sea Shad colors are goldfish or glitterbug in clear water and Calcasieu brew and Texas roach in stained water.
Bottom Fish: Lots of different species can be caught with a piece of shrimp fished on the bottom. The most common (and most tasty) include whiting, spot, croaker and even yellowtails (silver perch). Sharks are usually a rare catch this time of year, but expect a stingray every now and then. While winter is often overlooked as a good time to boat whiting because of the red-hot bite later in the spring, you can catch plenty of “bull” whiting during winter. This January, I had a report of anglers catching more than 100 keeper whiting during a day in the Brunswick area. Those fish are preparing for the spring spawn and will eat it up when you find them.
You can try your typical spring holes, but more often than not, you will have better success dropping your baits into deep holes of tidal creeks. My favorite holes in Crooked River are in the large feeder creeks in the system. If you can find an area where the creek is 6 or 7 feet deep and then drops to 15 or 20 feet on a bend, you have found a likely spot. During really cold weather, fish even deeper, as deep as 30 feet.
Rigs for bottom fishing run the gamut. The most popular is the Carolina rig, like the one used in bass fishing. It involves an egg sinker above a swivel and a leader of about a foot and then a hook. While this presentation works great, I prefer to offer the fish two baits at a time. I use one of my prototype Stealth Rigs, a double-dropper made of fine wire. Each hook stands out a few inches from the main line, with one hook right near the bottom and the other about 10 inches above it. The two main reasons I like this rig are that it offers a bait right on the bottom like a Carolina rig, but also one off the bottom for fish that feed up in the column. I have had trips when I caught almost exclusively croakers on the top hook and only whiting on the bottom hook, but some days everything bites both hooks.
During the heart of winter, it will be more of a chore to castnet your bait than it is worth, so purchasing your bait is the best option. Better bait and tackle shops carry a wide variety. While a fingernail-sized piece of shrimp works great, I like to include a small strip of squid in my offering. The primary reason is if something takes the piece of shrimp, the tougher squid is still there as a back-up. Frequently, I will thread a piece of squid on my hook first and then a small piece of shrimp.
If you have never prepared a squid for use, it is simple. Take the squid and run your knife under the outer layer of meat all the way to the tip of the head. Once you have split the bait open, clean out the innards and pull off the “wings” and head. I like to then scrape off the purplish-brown tinted outer membrane to expose the white flesh. Cut the wings and meat into strips about a half-inch wide and as long as you need. During winter, I typically cut the strip about an inch long. I use 2- and 3-inch strips during warm periods for flounder, but this time of year I am just trying to offer a small morsel that anything around will engulf. Hook the squid once about 1/4-inch in from the edge, and you are ready to fish.
If you want to take children fishing during winter, there is no better bite than bottom fishing on our coast. Most children are just as tickled with pulling up a pair of yellowtails as a trophy trout, and it is possible (and likely when you find the right hole) to land a pair of fish on every drop.
Timing: Super-cold snaps typically turn the fish off for a couple days after the passage of the front, but the cold is great for positioning the fish in deeper holes. Wait for the wind and cold to blow through, and fish the warming trend several days after a front. Winter fishing requires a good bit of schedule flexibility, as the odds are very slim of choosing a date on the calendar a month out and actually being able to successfully fish that day.
Grab a tide chart (or look it up on www.saltwatertides.com), and mark the time frame that puts low tide around midday. This will allow the mud flats to warm in the sun and raise the water temperature on the flood tide, hopefully triggering the fish to feed. If your only option is to fish on a nasty day, try to find a deep bend that is protected from the nippy northeast wind. Such protected areas exist in the lee of barrier islands. Several times I have caught fish after fish during a 20-knot northeast wind while the sand gnats buzzed around in my protected honey-hole.
Gear: Just a few outfits will get the job done this time of year. My workhorses are a 7-foot medium action All Star ASR rod and a 7 1/2-foot medium-light action Ugly Stik Lite. I pair them with a Pflueger Supreme XT (#9235XT) spinning reel. For trolling, casting light lures and bottom fishing with light weights, the ASR is perfect. The high-modulus graphite translates even the lightest nibble. For bottom fishing with heavier weights, casting redfish lures and flinging Cajun Thunder rigs, the longer Ugly Stik gets the nod. I spool all my rods with 15- or 20-lb. test Vicious braided line. I like the extra sensitivity that braid provides, especially this time of year, when a bite can just be a mushy feeling.
With light outfits, you want to set your drag so that it barely slips on a hookset. You can back off the drag if you need to, as you have to keep in mind that a big fish can easily pull a hook free with the lack of stretch provided by braided line. You can opt for monofilament line, but you will have more difficulty detecting light bites because of the stretch it provides.
Wintertime does not necessarily signal that you need to moth-ball your boat for the next few months. Sure, many February days are raw and better to check off items on the honey-do list. But, on those warmer days with reasonable winds, you might just make a catch that gets you to wondering why you have not tried wintertime inshore fishing before now.