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Although our local waters are home to a wide variety of saltwater game fish during the majority of the year, the list narrows considerably in the winter. Warm-water fish such as Spanish mackerel, bluefish and pompano long gone are roaming areas far to the south, while prized species such as flounder are wintering in deep offshore waters. Among anglers, late February and early March aren’t known for their diversity.
Thank goodness for the red drum. Although the piers are empty and the surf is likely to yield only skates or dogfish sharks, large schools of red drum are still weaving in and out of our shallow coastal creeks. More dependable than speckled trout and better fighters than black drum, redfish are a true cold-water treasure.
Of course even red drum aren’t as easy to entice this time of the year as they are in warmer water, and in really cold weather even they might get lockjaw. Your best bet to catch up with some of these bronze beauties is to hire a fishing guide who specializes in finding and fishing these redfish schools in the winter.
Capt. Mark Dickson of Shallow Minded Charters is one of the local guides who chase redfish in the winter. He says that some days are clearly better than others.
“This time of the year they bunch into groups and follow the food,” Dickson says. “You have to use a totally stealth approach. Sometimes you can see them, but it’s so cold they won’t bite.”
Despite the lethargic nature of redfish in the winter, Dickson has reported consistent catches through the first part of this year. One of the keys to his success is his use of a long pole to get his boat into position to cast to the redfish schools without spooking them. Another key is using wintertime tactics, such as tossing out a lure and letting it sit on the bottom for a while instead of instantly retrieving it.
“This method is referred to as dead sticking,” Dickson says, “and is extremely effective this time of year. Past experience has taught me that this time of year the fish don’t have much energy.”
Like many redfish (and speckled trout) anglers, Dickson has transitioned to the Gulp line of baits manufactured by Berkley over the last few years.
“Berkley Gulp Shrimp fished on a quarter-ounce jig head are top producers,” Dickson says, “and in the really cold water Berkley Gulp Crabs rigged on a Old Bayside heavy hook seem to work best. But remember to fish slow.”
Many people think of winter as a time that fish rest in deeper water. That isn’t necessarily true of red drum, however, as the fish Dickson and other guides target often roam around in water so shallow that anglers can spot their tails sticking out of the water. When they find these “tailing” fish, schools of reds may number 40 or 50 at one spot, and they like to frequent flats and banks where the water warms more quickly in the sunshine.
Those in small boats have to be able to get as close to the fish as possible, being both silent and wary of getting stuck as the tides shift. A loud anchor, a dropped rod or the grinding of a boat in the bottom can scare the drum away quickly.
“If you are interested in a guided trip, make sure that you are fishing in a true flats boat,” Dickson says.
Although red drum can get huge, most of the fish Dickson reports catching in the winter range from the 15- up to 24-inch range. Anglers have to be aware of the strict restrictions on red drum. You are allowed to keep only one fish a day in the slot between 18 and 27 inches. Most of the wintertime redfish action is catch-and-release fishing for the hard-fighting drum, a struggle that can chase the chill away from your bones.
Dickson and other local guides often report seeing big schools of red drum daily, and sometimes they can clearly be seen even if they aren’t in the mood to bite. This directly contradicts some anglers’ misguided notions there aren’t any fish to be found in local waters during the winter.
“You have to put your time in to find them,” Dickson says, “but they are a great winter fish.”
You can schedule a trip with Dickson by contacting Shallow Minded Charters at (843) 458-3055 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
JEFFREY WEEKS is a fishing columnist for the Beacon. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.