They all have it: Beaufort, North Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia, Tampa, Florida, New Orleans, Louisiana, Orange Beach, Alabama, Corpus Christi, Texas...the list goes on and on.
These cities all present wonderful historical and culture experiences for visitors, but there’s something else: the often-overlooked gem of winter—saltwater fishing opportunities right there in the downtown waters.
In truth, these and other coastal cities find saltwater fish roaming downtown waters most of the year, but winter’s harshness tends to drive more of them into the relatively safer confines of deep, wind-protected harbors. Throw in some dredged channels, natural rivers, commercial and residential canal systems and fish lack not for cozy digs in which to pass the chilly months.
Who’s There? The list of common species includes speckled trout, redfish, black drum, sheepshead, mangrove snapper, gag grouper, jack crevalle and ladyfish. Tarpon often make a show-stopping appearance and in Central to southern Florida, you can add snook to the guest list.
What Do They Like: As we mentioned, deeper water is a big deal, as the warmth and stability contrasts the tough winter conditions fish often face in more exposed areas. Equally important is food and considering that the baitfish schools common from spring through fall have mostly vanished, expect a lot of focus on shrimp, crabs, finger mullet and even those freshwater forage species like bream and mud minnows.
Habitat also plays a big role in winter fish concentrations and if you just think about what holds heat, you won’t go wrong. Seawalls, docks, piers, sailboat hulls, dark muddy bottoms—winter-weary fish will huddle close to the heating blankets during low-light periods and venture out to feed more during the warming trends.
Best Baits: Everyone has a favorite lure for tough conditions, but one of your best bets is a simple lead head jig. Rig it with a paddle or curly tail for more active presentations or a more subtle grub or shrimp tail for slower drags.
Definitely keep a topwater handy for isolated periods of surface activity (fish busting glass minnows) and a spoon for probing broad areas.
Live fiddler crabs or freshly shucked oysters/clams will temp a number of species foraging around pilings and seawalls, but the closest thing to a can’t-miss winter bait is live shrimp. Rig your crustaceans on a simple split shot rig or hook them through the tail with a 1/8- to ¼-ounce jig head and work every piece of structure you can find.
Remember, even in these cozier winter refuges, fish will still be rather lethargic this time of year, so patience is your best asset. Good thing is, your downtime will be well spent with pleasant tours of the downtown waterfront.
Related video: Fishing Tampa Bay Reds