Don't let winter's cold temperatures deter inshore fishing

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Inshore fishing right now is limited to those species that stick around during the cold months, but fishing for them has been good lately

As usual in the winter, action is taking place in three distinct phases during the day: early morning and late afternoon for speckled trout and redfish, and nighttime for black drum. In addition, the hours just before and after low tide are often effective times.

Speckled trout are well known to stage an early morning bite when they are present. Most of the year this is true, and it is true in winter as well except for the coldest days. During times when the temperatures plunge toward freezing, however, trout may not stage their usual bite until the day warms up a bit.

The same trait applies to redfish, which is why anglers can often wait and launch their boats until midmorning, much to the relief of those who aren’t big fans of the 6 a.m. winter chill. Often a few degrees can mean the difference between casting your arm off and catching fish.

Trout are gathered around creeks, points, hard structure like bridges and piers, and even just outside the ocean surf. Redfish wander in huge schools along the flats, seeking the warmest waters in the shallows and hiding from dolphins that love to eat them.

Both specks and redfish will be feeding on a variety of prey. Mud minnows always remain inshore and, true to their name, they often bury themselves in the mud. Redfish are particularly adept at rooting them out of this goop and gobbling them up. For this reason (and because they are often the only live bait available) mud minnows on the bottom are a top bait fished on a simple bottom rig.

Specks, meanwhile, are feeding on the tightly organized but slow-moving schools of striped mullet and small spot, silver perch and croaker. I often catch spot in the wintertime that come with gashes in their side from the sharp teeth of prowling speckled trout.

One thing the spot have going for them (and the reason so many survive trout attacks) is the trait that defines them scientifically. The “spot” on a spot is actually a false eye provided them as a defense mechanism by nature that fakes predators like trout (which, as any largemouth bass plastic worm angler will tell you, love to strike at the head) into making a nonfatal wound so the spot have time to flee.

MirrOlure plugs are a great substitute for live baitfish on days warm enough the trout are willing to chase them a little. The winter rule is you have to fish them slowly. At times, when the tide is moving, you don’t have to move the rod tip or retrieve at all, and when you do it should be a series of short bumps or twitches.

Grubs on jigheads or shrimp imitating soft baits must be fished as slowly or not retrieved at all if the current is moving them. Baits like the scented Gulp, DOA and Billy Bay Halo models imitate shrimp more than they do baitfish. Redfish and trout often hit them with soft bumps, so keeping a tight line and paying attention is key.

Black drum, meanwhile, are hanging around hard structure such as bridges, docks, piers and jetties. Black drum can be caught occasionally on lures and do feed on small baitfish (especially the larger ones) but are actually built for slurping shellfish off of pilings and out of shells and crushing them with their internal teeth. They feast on small winter shrimp, fiddler and blue crabs, and all varieties of clams, mussels and oysters.

Black drum will bite throughout the day but don’t really go to feeding until after sunset. They are nocturnal much like catfish. The best baits for black drum are cut shrimp or crab fished right on the bottom. You need to make sure you have enough weight to be on the bottom when drum fishing, although it’s OK if your rig moves some with the current.

One trick I like to use is adding a bit of Fishbites synthetic bait to the hook on a bottom rig. This bait will stay on better than cut shrimp when small spot or silver perch peck at it, so that even if your shrimp is gone, you still have bait on the hook. Winter black drum are true foragers and will also hit a simple nightcrawler, gob of earthworms or any other natural bait.

I caught more than 30 black drum in a few days of fishing last week, so I know they are still biting. They will range in size from small ones around 8 inches to big black drum up to a few pounds. Much larger ones are out there and are occasionally pulled in. The smallest and the largest should be thrown back, as it’s the middle size that makes the best eating.

Even though it’s winter, there are still fish biting. Days of extreme cold or bad weather might be unfishable, and there will be some dry spells when the tide is not right. But fish can still be caught and a tasty seafood meal can still be on the menu.

JEFFREY WEEKS is a fishing columnist for The Beacon. You may reach him at saltyweeks@gmail.com or follow updated fishing reports on his blog at http://saltyweeks.blogspot.com.