“Wanna go fishing?” I ask, and more and more I get the same answer, “Are you crazy? No way José, it’s too darn cold!”
Well at least I tried, right? But even when the temperature is in the lower 30s I have been layering up and coming home with the bacon. If only people knew.
Right off the bat, I’ll admit that winter is, by far, my low point of the year. Maybe if I had a few more pounds on my slender frame it wouldn’t bother me so much, but seeing how I weigh the same as I did way, way back in high school, there just isn’t much there to ward off the chill.
But after decades of freezing my you-know-what off, I have layering down pat. Silk long johns first, a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt second, followed by a warm flannel shirt, a vest and, finally, a nice warm, weather-proof jacket. Add a wool cap, gloves and two layers of socks, and I waddle off like a duck and, in most cases, get ‘er dun. Did I mention that long casts are out of the question when you might be mistaken as the Michelin Man? All those layers definitely hinder my arm movements, but at least I’m warm.
My motto has evolved into “it’s better to have too much clothing than not enough,” and it only took hundreds of fishing trips where I froze my butt off to figure that one out. Yep, I am a bit slow, but at least I admit it.
So what have I been catching? A lingering chest cold for starters, but on the fishy side of life, I sure have been eating a lot of flounder over the past few weeks, and many of them have been absolute doormats. Surprised? I’ll be the first to agree if you are because, around here, flounder are a rather rare by-catch.
Believe me when I tell you we have just as many flounder as places like the Outer Banks of N.C. or points farther north, but to consistently harvest them is something I have spent years trying to perfect. Gigging them at night is the best bet for loading up on flatties, but on hook and line, there are just too many other types of fish out there that nail a live finger mullet before a flounder even has a chance to scarf up your offering. It was that realization a few years back that finally rung a bell with me. Why not try for them when the water is cold and all those other bait-stealers are sluggish. It worked!
You might not catch a cooler full of flounder, but more often than not, the ones you catch are large enough to feed an entire family.
Deep-fat fried with a light tempura-style batter and served with remoulade sauce, there is no better eating-fish that swims. That delicate white flesh melts in your mouth, and because it is such excellent table fare, I’ll stand on a dang iceberg if I know there is a chance of catching one or two.
But there is one piece of advice I’ll impart, and that is being patient. Let them lay there and eat the mullet, and don’t try and hook them until they begin to move off. Should you get them to the surface, have a landing net ready, because a greased pig can’t touch the slime and head shakes of an angry flounder.
So what else can you catch if you brave the cold? Of course, there’s finicky redfish that are schooled up as they do every winter and some fat sea trout. But if you go for the trout, they are waiting to ambush prey in deeper water than usual, sometimes 15 feet or more. Using screwtails, DOA artificial shrimp or paddle tails, work them slow, and when a trout hits, simply reel faster and faster to hook them. The old “rip their face off” method just doesn’t work when the water chills down.
Finally for the bravest of the brave, there’s offshore fishing. Bottom fishing is great this time of the year, but to be really toasty, go buy one of those goofy knitted face masks where only your mouth and eyes show — unless of course you have a boat with an enclosed helm and a heater, TV and hot shower on the way home.
Just last week, Harry Morales, Will “Catfish” Thompson and others ran to the Gulf Stream aboard the Manatee Mac. The water temperature was in the mid 70s and they went three for seven on wahoo. Winter Gulf Stream trips are a blast, but there are really only three species you should target: wahoo, blackfin tuna and yellowfin tuna.
So don’t get down in the dumps by thinking there aren’t any fish to be caught this time of the year. Pick weather windows and go! Layer up, layer up some more, remember Chap Stick and give it a shot. That crisp, clean air is invigorating, and if done right, you’ll come home with big ol’ smile and some mighty fine vittles.