December swings in water temp will influence fishing success
by Capt. Greg Stamper
The month of December is the big swing month for Southwest Florida. This is the time of the year when serious cold fronts can make their way through us causing big changes. Depending on what mother nature chooses to bestow upon us, we either get another few weeks of great fishing or it gets a bit more challenging as water temperatures can drop below the mid 60’s. Water temperatures being the driving factor, we see certain signs telling us the change into winter fishing has begun.
First and foremost, are the schools of threadfin herring and pilchards that seemingly disappear overnight along with the tarpon as they follow warmer water south. These schools of bait can handle a slow drop of water temperatures, but should we get a serious drop in temperature over the course of a day or so, they’re gone! Strong consistent north and northwest winds also scream winter has begun and can make for some tough days after each frontal boundary pushes through. Oddball predominantly northern species that show up randomly such as bluefish, and the ability to catch offshore species very close to shore like kingfish, also clue anglers into switching things up to standard winter-time South Florida fishing patterns.
So, what are winter fishing patterns here in Southwest Florida? Well, when we get big dips in water temperatures usually after a day or two, fish should start eating again. We do change up our techniques during these times, and for the sake of argument, these techniques are used basically through February. “Slow and low” takes first place for lots of different fish. We still throw artificial lures, plugs, swimbaits, and flies just a little different than we do in the summer time. “Slow” because often with the cooler water our fish tend to be a bit sluggish and stubborn to bite at times. “Low” because in general that’s where most of the fish are laying up on darker bottom that may be a degree or two warmer in places.
Fishing in December should the temperatures fall of quick, can still be productive in the backcountry haunts as well as river mouths and creeks. The areas feed by springs can be especially good as the water temperatures will variate less. Power plants that use water to cool off their generators can hold large amounts of different fish as the lay around in a spa like environment. So target those areas if you can directly after cold fronts.
Cut baits become very effective for species like redfish and snook. Cut baits are very simple rigs, so when thrown near mangroves or structure usually with a deeper edge and just left there, will eventually get you a take. Trying a variety of baits such as ladyfish, mullet, pinfish, even sardines can produce very good results when times get tough.
Downsizing your baits is another winter tactic. As most of the bait left around after cold fronts is quite small, you’re basically matching the hatch. Not to mention the fact that some fish prefer it a bit cooler, like sheepshead, and if your hook is too big you won’t have much luck catching those. Depending on water quality, downsizing your leader can help a lot. Usually after a good blow the water is a bit mudded up so you don’t have to downsize. However, to be frank, I prefer more action with a few broken lines versus little action any day.
Now on the flip side, the weather can stay nice and most everything will still be available to target and eager to play. Snook, tarpon, redfish, trout, sheepshead, and pompano will all be feasting as they get fat before food supplies move out with the winter. Mornings will be cool and afternoons will be downright beautiful. Water clarity should be very good without the wind from fronts, giving anglers options to sight cast fish laid up in the shallow waters. Ideally the water temperature is in the low 70’s during this scenario, or at least the upper end of the 60’s. Often slow trolling on your trolling motor or even drifting across open flats can be very productive this time of the year. Fish like to sit in the potholes or along the flats edges waiting on an easy meal.
Tides still play a big factor here, and if your only able to fish for a few hours be sure to pick times of the day when water is moving. As we move through December, tides begin to swing dramatically during the full moon phase and can become very low. Negative lows may drop close to a foot of water lower than what many anglers are used to. You have options here as well. There are two positives when fishing these extreme lows in the backcountry. One positive, is now as an angler you can easily see structure, holes, and tidal flow routes for the next time you’re out fishing the beginning of outgoing. The second is that the fish get pushed into the few areas that still have some water and are near the flats where they were eating earlier.
When targeting fish during these low tides, be aware of not spooking out fish in the areas your targeting them. Often these fish are just laying together in areas waiting for the opportunity to feast on the incoming. Get off the motor earlier than you normally would and, when applicable, try making longer casts to your favorite holes. Fish tend to pile up in areas and often you’ll have opportunities at several fish in the same spot. You can always move closer if you must, right? However, once you blow out a spot, it’s blown out! While fishing these low tide fish its always better when throwing artificial baits to fan your cast as far away from them as possible, slowly working the water closer and closer to them - like a water sprinkler. The same technique works just the same for live baits and cut baits. Throwing a bait right on your quarry’s head usually doesn’t work out so well.
These beautiful days allow anglers to fish whenever they want to, and enjoy Southwest Florida. Heck, last year we had great weather all the way until January 3rd!
Cap.t Greg Stamper