When you think of inshore fishing in Florida, it’s hard not to think of redfish. Known for their copper-bronze coloring and iconic spotted tail, redfish can be caught throughout Florida in coastal waters and estuaries year-round. They are, without a doubt, one of Florida’s more widespread inshore species and one of the most popular sport fishes.
Approaching the winter months, Redfish transition from their fall routine of roaming flats in large schools to staying in deeper water in search of warm areas of water. When water temps drop below 70 degrees, these fish can be targeted in a variety of environments throughout the state, and all of them have to do with water temp.
To start, we’ll head to the inlets. In these colder months, inlets and bridges tend to have warmer water coming in from the Gulf or Atlantic than the inland areas. Earlier in the day, anglers can target reds in the deeper areas of the inlets or bridge channels and they gradually move shallower as the day gets warmer. Dead baits such as mullet, ladyfish or blue crab soaked on the bottom with a sinker and long leader are a favorite of large redfish. Live mullet, shrimp, pinfish or white bait fished near the bottom around the structure will also work well.
Moving inshore, shallow docks, mangrove shorelines and deep canals with seawalls or oyster bars present can also hold large pockets of fish. Muddy bottoms along shallow docks, mangroves or seawalls tend to stay warm and heat up throughout the day. Depending on the current, using a light jig head tipped with shrimp while moving from dock to dock or down a mangrove line is a good way to cover water and locate groups of cold, hungry fish. The stronger the water movement, the heavier the jig you want to use. The game is to skip your bait up under the dock or mangroves and let it sink to the bottom, moving it as slowly as possible toward you until you feel the thump of a redfish. This is an action-packed method of targeting winter reds and your bycatch is often a black drum or sheep’s head. You can also use a chunk of pinfish or mullet on a jig head in the same method — skipping the bait up into the deep holes of mangroves or under docks and letting it sit there for a few minutes at a time.
If artificial lures are more your style, you can have some of the best red fishing days of the entire year during the wintertime if you pre-plan around the conditions. Targeting channels and deep pockets on a cold, windy day with an outgoing tide resulting in a negative low is what you’re looking for. A negative low tide is when the water levels drop below sea level, exposing the dry flats and leaving only a few areas for redfish to hide. Creek mouths that empty into deep holes along the flats tend to have stable, warm water. That’s exactly what these redfish are looking for, somewhere that’s warm down on that deep bottom on a windy day. Find an area you think might have these deep holes and bounce from spot to spot until you have the school located. Don’t get discouraged or spend too much time on one particular spot if it’ not producing fish. Often even perfect-looking areas might be duds, but, when you find them, you’ll have nonstop action.
Multiple lures can be used in these situations, but one thing remains constant, you need to be slow. Painfully slow. Until you get dialed in on what they’re eating, you’re going to want to use a balance between suspending twitch baits, paddle tails on a jig head and shrimp patterns. If you’re curious about what to start off with, just pay attention to the size and types of baitfish you’re seeing around your target areas.
Suspending twitch baits imitate larger bait presentations and should be used when you see those present — the classic “match the hatch” technique used in all fishing. The color of your baits really doesn’t matter, but, when it comes to hard baits, you’re going to want something with a lot of flashes depending on how murky the water is. The redfish in these holes are going to be lethargic and reluctant to chase down a fast-moving target, but you can have a lot of success with a flashy twitch bait worked slow and methodically. If the suspending twitch bait bite isn’t happening, your next best alternative is a soft plastic paddle tail rigged on a jig head. In these dirty water pockets, these fish can hone in on the vibration these lures throw off while being slowly worked along the bottom. This is especially effective in deeper holes. If you see a lot of shrimp in your target areas, then any kind of artificial shrimp of your choice will do the trick. Even if the water is on the clearer side, these shrimp imitations look extremely lifelike and also should be worked slowly and along the bottom.
One thing winter brings to the flats is clean, clear water. On a calm, clear day, you can sight fish spooky redfish cruising the shallow flats. You’re going to want an extremely lightweight setup with a 5-10 lb. braid and a long 15-20 lb. leader. As far as baits, the key is being stealthy and presenting a bait in a way that the fish doesn’t spook before you get an opportunity to get bit. Weedless jerk shads rigged on a 1/16 oz. weighted hook are great baits because they don’t make too much commotion on the cast, and they have a subtle action that imitates an injured baitfish.
In recent years, an extremely popular method of fishing freshwater for bass has made it to the saltwater side. We’re talking about ned fishing. Ned fishing is a freshwater finesse technique used when bass are tough to catch during cold fronts or heavy fishing pressure and it has a lot of parallels for targeting spooky, shallow redfish. When water temps are between 50 to 60 degrees during the coldest times of the year, these small 2- to 3-inch soft plastic lures will produce bite after bite. Much like using a jig head tipped with shrimp mentioned previously, a net rig is easy to fish throughout mangrove shorelines, understructure or sight fishing the flats and eliminates a lot of pinfish and unwanted bites that come with using live shrimp. A favorite of many anglers is the Z-man ElaZtech TRD rigged on a jig head. Its buoyant body causes the bait to stand on its head when you stop your retrieve. “These baits are the perfect match for so many of the small creatures eaten by inshore predators — marine worms, shrimp and other invertebrates, as well as sea horses. The upright posture of a TRD on a jighead shows fish a lively morsel that moves with the slightest underwater current — even when you’re not moving your rod at all,” says C.A. Richardson, a local expert.
Whether you’re clinging to inlets, soaking baits or getting super-technical on the flats, one thing is for sure, redfish are a lot of fun to figure out and target during the winter months.