Fishing Tampa Bay’s Windy Flats In The Winter

With winter approaching, you can count on cold fronts and fishing in the wind.

It’s gonna blow, and some days it’s gonna howl! On the gale force days, I leave the boat in the lift and head for the couch, confining my trips to and from the refrigerator. But on the days when it’s 10- to 15 out of the north, I usually go fishing. With a north or northeast wind, I like to drift the Southshore flats of Tampa Bay. This is more of a blind casting trip, as reduced visibility because of the chop means the fish you do see are too close to the boat to catch.

The nice thing about the north wind is that it blows parallel to the mangrove shoreline of the south side of the bay. This means you can get a nice long drift and cover a lot of water quietly. The extreme low tides of winter push fish away from the mangroves out onto the open water of the flats. The best way to cover lots of territory when the wind is blowing is to let the wind do the work while casting lures downwind. You can also do this with live bait, but you can cover a lot more water with an artificial that casts well than you can with live bait that does not. And out here you can employ lighter tackle than what you might use around mangrove roots.

Use Artificials For Drift Fishing
The lures I use for drift fishing consist of a small selection of proven artificials. People are always asking me if I’ve tried the latest hot new lure, and I always disappoint them with my answer. I rely mostly on jigs, jerkbaits, and a couple of MirrOlures. In the winter months when the water is clear and mostly free of weeds and algae, I rely on jigs. A lead-headed jig not only casts well, but it also affords an easy change of shape and color through the endless variety of soft plastic bodies you can hook onto it. On a sunny day in clear bright water, I might rig a chartreuse tail on a white jig head. On an overcast day I might fish a new penny tail on a red jig.

Fishing from the poling platform on a windy day lets you read the bottom better.

I minimize my selection of soft plastic as well. I carry plastic shrimp, jerkbaits, mullet, and blue crab patterns. I keep a small selection of each in light and dark colors. My preference is for new penny or motor oil for the dark color, and glow white for the light, although sometime the fish seem to like chartreuse.

When the bite is tough and fish refuse my selection of soft plastics, I might try downsizing. I like a 1/2-ounce pompano jig, chrome head, and chartreuse skirt tied with green thread. I have caught about every fish that swims on this lure, including a bonnethead shark — the only one I’ve ever caught on an artificial that was hooked in the mouth.

Target Redfish In Winter
I’m targeting redfish in the winter months, and when it’s blowing I like to line the boat up on a grassy edge and make long downwind casts to distant potholes. As I said before, most fish seen under these conditions are too close to cast at without spooking them. Instead, I rely on long casts with 8-1/2-foot rods with very short 5-inch butts. The reason for the short butt is two fold; it makes for tireless casting, and uses more of the rod to play fish.

When I’m probing the water downwind, I usually start with a 7MR MirrOlure in chartreuse and gold. Redfish love this plug, and it casts well on my long rods. This lure runs just below the surface on a slow retrieve and the advantage is that I can see the lure through the entire retrieve. If I see several fish approach the lure and not take it, I’ll switch to a jig, starting with the mullet, and switching to the shrimp or crab if they won’t take that.

As tide rises and fish move onto the grass, I will switch to a jerkbait rigged on a 3/16-ounce weighted keeper hook. I usually start out with new penny, but if it’s really bright I might throw chartreuse.

I am still using 8- and 10-pound monofilament for drift fishing with artificials. I am constantly popping the rod tip, which means retrieving some slack line. I have tried and tried to make the microfilaments work, but the constant wind knots and birds nests make it too expensive. And just try casting that stuff into the wind! I change my monofilament pretty often, especially if I’m catching fish. Redfish and jacks will stretch the line, and the lighter the line, the shorter its lifespan. Every two or three trips, I re-spool with fresh line.

Live bait may catch fish when the wind is up, but you will cover more water throwing artificials downwind.

Try A Fluorocarbon Leader
This is the one time of year that I use 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material. I don’t believe it’s invisible to fish, but it might be harder for them to see. Tampa Bay redfish are pounded so hard they are warier here than most places, and you need every advantage available to hook fish. For that reason, once the water temperature drops below 70 degrees and snook vacate the flats, I begin spooling 8-pound-test for extra casting distance.

Another key to my success in drift fishing is to be able to stop the boat in seconds with the push of a button. A Power Pole with a wireless remote is a great tool in helping to maintain your distance from fish, especially with 15 knots of Northeast wind at your back.

My ideal day is one with light wind where I can see the fish and use my pushpole, but it doesn’t happen very often between mid- November and May. When the wind blows, I simply go with the flow and drift.

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