"Will winter ever arrive?" became the question of the day throughout the month of December. With daytime temperatures typically reaching 80 degrees, and water temperatures correspondingly higher, fall fishing continued unabated. Right up until the first of January, kingfish, bonita and mackerel were plentiful just a few miles off the beach. Mangrove snapper fishing remained red hot on the near shore reefs as well...and Tampa Fishing Guides had no complaints. In northern Pinellas County, Thanksgiving usually ushers in great large seatrout fishing, but at the expense of all the near shore gamefish mentioned above. This year with all of these different fish around, the hardest choice of the day became what to fish for.
Most Tampa Fishing Charters in December took advantage of the continuing warm weather. A typical day would start with kingfish in mind. Locating a large school of thread fin herring was the key. Once this bait was found and a few dozen were secured using a sabiki rod, one of two techniques would be employed. Ideally, if the fish were "thick" enough, the boat would be anchored, chum blocks would be deployed and a continuous stream of whitebait would be tossed off the stern. Mackerel would typically be hooked first and, with a little bit of luck, the kingfish would follow. On most days, they would arrive in waves, with short burst of bites followed by a half hour of silence. The larger thread fins would be ballooned off the back of the boat while lighter rods baited with whitebait would keep the fishermen entertained. Kings would eat both baits but the larger baits tended to minimize the mackerel strikes. If this approach failed to work, simply slow trolling the thread fins would always determine if fish were in the area. Kingfish can't seem to refuse these slow trolled baits.
After some drag burning runs, it was off to a local reef or ledge to take advantage of the still active mangrove snappers. Excessive chumming and regularly altering both presentation and baits was the key to tricking the larger specimens. It was not uncommon to arrive back at the dock with a half dozen or more snapper in the two to four pound range. 2015 had the best near shore snapper fishing in recent memory and hopefully, this will spill into 2016. It appears that the jewfish population is recovering well also as many snapper trips were interrupted or shortened by he presence of these
large grouper. In some cases, once these fish showed up, it became all but impossible to get a snapper to the boat.
Finally, during the first week in January, winter did arrive. The first significant cold front delivered several nights in the the low fifties and one in the high forties...chasing most of the near shore gamefish south. On the bright side, this cold brought with it a strong push of large seatrout that Tampa Fishing Guides have come to expect. Although there is pain during this transition, as these cold fronts totally shut down all fishing, the trout bonanza that follows is worth the wait. Trips run on the last few days have yielded multiple limits for all anglers with trip counts approaching 30 fish..all in the 17 - 22 inch range with an occasional larger fish showing up. For those willing to make the effort to catch whitebait, which is still available, the rewards will be great. Large seatrout go crazy for whitebait during this time of year and will rarely let one go by, unless tide or weather conditions are extremely poor. Large shrimp and swim tail jigs are also very effective. The Slammer, produced by Pumpkin Jigs, is hard to beat. The worm like plastic tail, used in conjunction with a 1/4 ounce jig head, just seems to be irresistible to big trout and will be consumed by numerous other species, including bluefish, ladyfish and flounder.
Redfish are around in reduced numbers, typical for winter fishing in this area. Many fish are small and the best approach is to fish docks and oyster bars with live shrimp. Occasionally, small groups of larger fish will be found over the course of the winter, but it's more of a pleasant surprise than an expectation.
On calmer days between the fronts, some Tampa Fishing Guides will head back offshore in search of both mangrove snapper and red grouper, the latter of which just re-opened on January 1st. With water temperatures still in the mid sixties, there's a chance that some red grouper will remain within reach of the near shore angler for the near term. With snapper being a little more cold tolerant than the recently departed near shore predators like kingfish, it will be worth checking to see if these fish have remained. With the big numbers that were present a few short weeks ago, this could well be the case.
For those looking for other outdoor activities this month, one option is to join the local invasion known as Gasparilla, a weekend of parties in Tampa based on a historic pirate invasion. For a more peaceful activity, catch a boat out to Anclote Key and spend time on one of west central Florida's most beautiful beaches.
Good luck and good fishing.