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Fish Panhandle potholes in colder weather

Frank Sargeant Special to
the Times
The Apalach Times

Water expands when heated, contracts when cooled. In a nutshell, that’s why we have lower tides in winter than in summer, and also is part of the reason global warming is increasing sea levels year round.

While too little water can be a bad thing for fish, less water on the saltwater flats and in the estuaries can be a good thing for anglers. Lower water means there are fewer places for the fish to get to, and that allows anglers to eliminate a lot of spots where they ain’t.

Added to the usual lower water of winter are the frequent north winds that accompany cold fronts. On the Panhandle coast, a north wind blows the water out of the backcountry and the bays. A sustained 20-knot blow can lower water levels a foot, and can even prevent a high tide from occurring.

For anglers, this means that the sea trout, redfish and sheepshead in inside waters are forced into the channels, tidal creeks, dredge holes and other deepwater refuges that remain. Find one of these locations and it can be fish soup.

The fish particularly like backcountry creeks and blackwater rivers, which tend to soak up any heat available from the sun. They sometimes travel several miles up these streams into water that’s almost completely fresh, though heavy rains inland can force them back towards the salt. The fresher waters, often protected by shallow entry-ways, are also less likely to hold porpoises, deadly warm-blooded predators of cold-blooded fish slowed by the chill. Fish also pile into dredged residential canals and the harbors dredged out for marinas, and also hang around the prop-wash holes where large boats dock on fairly shallow private docks.

Getting to fish in the tidal creeks takes a shallow draft boat; a flats skiff, kayak or canoe is best, and some can be reached by wading. The “deep” water in these creeks may be only four feet deep, and the entryways may be only a foot - or sometimes completely dry during a sustained north wind.

Because of the often narrow venues and shallow water, a slow, silent approach is a must, as is keeping a low profile. It’s a matter of steadily working upstream in these creeks, casting a plastic-tailed jig on a 1/8-ounce head with a 1/0 to 2/0 hook as you go until something bites. Adding a small sliver of fresh cut shrimp or FishBites artificial bait will greatly add to the action. The DOA Shrimp in three-inch size is also effective for this action; cast it upstream and inch it down with the current, barely moving it until something takes.

If you particularly want sheepshead instead of trout and reds, a one-inch piece of fresh cut shrimp on a size 1/0 hook with a bit of split shot will work better. Whole shrimp usually get nipped off by the sharp teeth of the sheepshead, so a section is better. The sheepsheads and reds particularly tend to hang around oystery holes.

Where you find one fish you may find dozens, so it pays to cover the water thoroughly. The usual seven-foot medium light spinning rod, 2500-sized reel and 10-pound test braid with two feet of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader does the job.

The coastal rivers are more forgiving - find a rocky hole 10 feet or deeper and it’s likely to hold all of the winter species, all of them in a biting mood. A quarter-ounce jig or a whole shrimp on a fish-finder rig works better in these deeper waters.

Bridge action

The many bridges that span the bays of the Panhandle also offer lots of fishing action in February. Those fishing for the table can find sheepshead tight against the pilings anywhere there are oysters or barnacles crusted on the concrete. Scrape the shellfish with a spud to create a chum line, and catch the ‘heads with a piece of fresh cut shrimp right against the pilings.

The bridges also frequently hold oversized reds in winter. While these fish are well over the 27-inch maximum size for harvest, they can provide some great action. Best way to find the fish is to troll a deep-diving plug in the six- to eight-inch range in and out of the pilings until you hit the first fish, then anchor up and work them over with live bait - pinfish or croakers are hard to beat, but large shrimp also work.

This is no spot for ultralight tackle. A medium-heavy spinning rod, 4000-sized reel and 30-pound-test braid with 40-pound-test mono leader is about right for these fish, which may weigh 15 to 25 pounds. Remember this is all-release fishing, so enjoy the fight, snap a quick photo and then get them back into the water - these are the spawners that maintain the fishery.

February fishing can be a bit of a challenge in Panhandle waters, and right after a front it’s likely you may have to suit up as if you’re headed out for a day of ice fishing in Wisconsin, but with persistence and know-how the action can be well worth it.