Fishing along the Panhandle in January and February can be very good, but also very cold. Along with being cold, the water levels are on average a couple feet lower than in the summer with the low tides typically in the mornings. This combination of cold weather and lower-than-normal water level can be intimidating to most bay anglers who are hoping to fish the same shallow areas that they had fished in warmer months. Though it would seem that all the specks and reds would move off the flats in search of deeper water, there are still plenty of fish to be caught in the extreme shallows. But this requires a few key changes in the approach and technique.
For starters, the boat needs to be a shallow drafting boat unless you are willing to do a little wade fishing. On days when the water level is very low, I usually leave my bay boat at the house and take out the 14-foot jon boat. Another key is to know the area you are fishing very well. The water is almost always crystal clear, another factor in making the fish very spooky. Knowing the area where you think fish will be hanging out is very important. If you wait until you are close enough to see them, chances are you will spook them before a chance to cast presents itself.
As far as lures go, a weedless Gulp is hard to beat. A slow presentation is effective, with periods of dead-sticking mixed in. Again, knowing the area well enough to stay confident that the fish are there is important. Otherwise, you will lose patience, move forward and see all the fish that you could have caught as they scatter in all directions.
There is an easier approach to fishing for trout and reds in slightly deeper water. Muddy inlets, creek mouths, and the river system provide plenty of action in the colder months. Instead of fishing in inches of water, these areas usually hold anywhere from 3 to 10 feet of water and can sometimes be stacked with fish. The only downside is that the majority of the fish are smaller than those fish on the flats. But the action they provide can make up for the lack of size, and occasionally there will be areas such as these that hold nothing but keepers. My lure of choice for these areas is a 1/8-ounce jighead with any Gulp bait. Again, a slower than normal retrieve is very effective.
Another option for the beginning of the year is to stock the freezer with flounder. As they spawn offshore, these very tasty fish can be caught with relative ease. Around nearshore wrecks, bridge rubble, and even natural bottom, flounder will spawn and feed until they make their spring migration back into the bay. One of the easiest ways to catch them is with a Carolina rig hooked up with a small cigar minnow, bull minnow, or finger mullet. For an artificial approach, use a ½- to 1-ounce jighead with any Gulp bait and vertical jig off the bottom, letting it hit the bottom each time.
So whether you’re looking for a shallow water challenge or an easy time stocking the freezer, the colder months along the Panhandle have exactly what you are looking for. So either way make an effort to get out on the water. Chances are you will have any spot you want all to yourself!
Capt. Blake Nelson has spent his entire life on the Panhandle fishing the back bays from Panama City to Pensacola. He is currently an inshore guide in Destin, Florida, targeting redfish, speckled trout, and flounder year-round. He also fishes in many redfish tournaments with his brother, Captain Wes, both locally and nationally.Contact Info: Capt. Blake NelsonLast Cast Charters(p) 850 499-3811(w) captainblake.com