As water temps drop, moving off the flats may be all you need to do to keep your rods bent all day.It’s no secret that the fish that roam Tampa Bay’s flats don’t like cold water. Lower water temps mean fish are more lethargic, eat less, and move less. Water temperatures on the clean shallow flats of Tampa Bay fluctuate a lot throughout the day. As the sun sets water temps in shallow water can drop drastically and take several hours of sunlight to start warming back up. Conversely, water temperatures in deeper water stay much more constant. Muddy bottoms and structure also help to hold heat much better than the white sand of the flats that simply reflects the sun and disperse heat.
Moving off the flats and away from the shoreline doesn’t need to be as intimidating as some might think. You don’t need to have a secret wreck or rock pile to catch fish. The bay is full of manmade structures, marked artificial reefs, channel edges, and bridges that offer highly productive fishing this time of year. Fishing water depths from 10 to 40 ft. means you never know what you will run into. Catching snapper, grouper, sheepshead, flounder, trout, and sea bass from one spot is not unheard of and having steady action that lasts hours is also much more commonplace than it is on the flats this time of year.
Moving off the flats doesn’t mean you need to use different or specialized tackle. I often take my flats gear out and find that it makes fishing more exciting. Now sometimes you run into that big grouper that you just can’t stop on your 2500 series reel, but more often than not the rod and reel you use for your big snook and redfish will do just fine in deeper water situations. The only thing I change is the terminal end of my rigging. Adding weight and beefing up your leader to 30-50 lb. is key to getting fish off the bottom and into the boat. Using as little weight as necessary to reach the bottom is ideal. Depending on the tide weight between an 1/8 and 1 ounce will usually do the trick.
Catching live bait is also not as paramount when fishing deeper water as it is on the flats. Live shrimp and frozen or fresh cut bait works great. Fiddler crabs also work great for snapper and sheepshead and can be frozen and used again another day. One trick I use when targeting sheepshead or snapper is only using half a shrimp. Taking the head of a shrimp and rigging the tail on a jig head is often a very effective technique to getting light biting fish into the boat. Cutting up mullet, ladyfish, pinfish, or whitebait and using them as bait or to create a chum slick is a great way to bring the fish to you and keep the bite going.
Fishing in deeper water is not only a great way to find consistent action during the winter months and it is also a great way to fill a cooler of fish for dinner. Some of the best eating fish that call Tampa Bay home can be caught right now by simply changing gears and moving out to some deeper water. Remember to mark spots where you catch fish, chances are if they’re there today they’ll be there tomorrow.
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