January is often a better month to sit in a deer stand than to fish the inshore waters of North Florida. In fact, for those who hunt as well as fish, January and February are the preferred months, the time when the biggest bucks of the season are often on the move on the frosty mornings that seem to fall so often around the full moon.
But for hard-core anglers who have to get their fix, there are also winter opportunities here. Though water temperatures will be in the low 60s during warm spells and upper 50s after cold fronts, the reds and trout still have to eat at least occasionally. And they tend to school tightly during the cold spells, as dozens may huddle into a deep hole the size of a small bedroom when the surrounding flats chill rapidly.
"Deep" water is relative on the flats and in the marsh creeks that feed the bays. A hole that’s 5 feet deep surrounded by flats 2-3 feet deep can be a fish magnet after a norther blows through. The same is true of oyster-lined potholes in the back-country creeks that feed all the bays in North Florida. These tannin-stained waters and black mud bottoms also soak up the sun’s heat quicker than the clear water on the flats, making them doubly attractive to fish.
Typically the cold wind blows in from the northwest, then switches around to due north on the second day, then northeast on the third before dying out, and that sunny day with the dying wind is when the fish really start to bite in the back country.
In some areas there’s also a good bite during the strong north winds; anglers who wade or get to the holes by kayak, canoe or air boats can sometimes load up during these periods, because the sustained wind tends to blow the water out of the marshes. This in effect strands all the fish in the remaining holes until the wind settles and the tide returns. It’s not a good idea to go up these creeks in standard outboard-boats because it’s very easy to get stuck back there, and it may be many hours before there’s enough water to float out if you do.
The universal tool for exploring winter creeks and potholes is a 1/8 to ¼ ounce jig with a 3- to 4-inch soft plastic shad tail. Some anglers prefer only white and pearl, others swear by black and root beer. In my experience, they all catch fish when you finally find that right spot. Add a small sliver of fresh-cut shrimp to the hook and in addition to reds and trout you’ll catch sheepshead, black drum and flounder. Of course, shrimp on a popping cork is always a good choice, as well, and the DOA Shrimp catches plenty if you fish it exactly like the real thing, dead slow.
Trout will also hit topwater lures during warmups after a front moves through. The Rapala Skitter-Vee is a personal favorite, but any walk-the-dog type lure will get them, particularly on overcast or foggy days. Don’t be in a hurry - walk the lure a couple feet, then stop it for 5 seconds before moving it again. The strikes often occur on the pauses.
The universal rig for backcountry fishing is a 7-foot medium light spinning rod, 2,500- to 3,000-sized reel (check out the waterproof Tsunami Shield, among others) and 10-pound-test braid. Add 5 feet of 15-pound-test fluorocarbon leader to stiffen the rig and prevent tangles with the hook—tie it in with a double uniknot.
(There are new rules for seatrout this year due to decreased numbers, with both bag and slot limits being tightened. Check the FWC page here to get details: https://myfwc.com/news/all-news/seatrout-1219/ )
Big reds also hang around the bridges crossing the bays of the Panhandle during winter. One way to find them is to troll a big diving plug as close to the pilings as possible. Where you catch one, drop a marker on the GPS because there are likely to be lots more. These are not often the monsters found along the beaches in fall, but there are plenty of them in the 10- to 15-pound range, plenty big enough to put up a great catch-and-release battle. (This requires heavier gear, obviously—medium spinning gear, 4000 reel and 30- to 40-pound test braid is a good choice.)
While the trolled lure is a good locator, it’s easier to catch schooled reds with live pinfish, or with whole shrimp threaded on a half-ounce jig with a size 3/0 hook.
Sheepshead are nearly always found around areas with barnacles or oysters because shellfish are their primary food, so fishing encrusted pilings, wrecks and rocks is the ticket for them in winter. A piece of fresh-cut shrimp on a size 1/0 hook fished right against the cover gets them. Scrape the pilings to create a chum line of broken shell anytime the action slows.
Other than that, January fishing is a pretty simple matter. Don’t forget your stocking cap, insulated gloves and wool socks; fishing in North Florida in winter can be fun, but it’s not for sissies.