Winter Inshore Angling Options
As January gets underway, the Texas coast is entering the heart of the winter season. Traditionally, Texas’ coldest weather arrives during January and February. While some saltwater fishermen believe this is a time to stay inside and repair tackle in anticipation of spring fishing, others know there are still plenty of inshore angling opportunities available during even the coldest portion of winter. While some of this fishing may not be exactly what anglers envision when they think of coastal fishing, it can be fun and productive, nonetheless. The one caveat is that during winter, perhaps more so than any other time of year, the weather truly dictates when and how you can fish. But, overall, fishermen who are willing to brave the winter weather can find plenty of cooperative fish more often than not.
Most often, winter fishing and deep water fishing are synamous with each other in the minds of Texas saltwater fishermen. And for good reason – during the cold of winter, the majority of coastal fish in the Lone Star State are found in relatively deep water. In most Texas bays, this means the middle or center of the bay will be most productive, as that is where the deepest water is usually found. Whether it is deep structure such as reefs or platforms, or deep water channels such as the ICW cutting through the bay, the majority of deepwater in Texas bays will be found in open, unprotected water.
The premise that the weather dictates winter fishing applies to open bay fishing in particular. When weather allows, mid bay reefs, oil and gas production platforms, mud humps and other open water structure can be very productive. Channel edges and ledges can also produce plenty of fish under favorable conditions. However, these same hot spots can turn not just unproductive, but downright dangerous during foul weather. So, it is especially important to check weather forecasts during winter before hitting any open water structure.
Unlike the deep, mid-bay structures, shallow flats are generally safer to fish in windy weather. Of course, that is assuming that they are accessible without having to run over rough open water. In most Texas bays, there are shallow flats within a protected run from a boat ramp or marina.
The second consideration for fishing a shallow flat during winter is the availability of fish on said flat. Unlike other times of the year, fish are not on the shallow flats every day during winter. However, when there is a stretch of warm days, the fish will move into the shallow water to feed. The key is timing – hitting the area during a period of rising water temperatures – and location – finding shallow water within a short swim of deeper water. It also helps to find shallow water areas with mucky, muddy bottoms (the mud will retain heat longer, making the water temperature in these areas slightly higher). So while shallow water fishing is not a 24/7 proposition in winter, giving the right conditions, anglers can find surprisingly good shallow water activity during January and February.
Several Texas rivers are well known winter hotspots. While trout are the primary target species for fishermen heading “up river” during winter, these anglers are also likely to encounter redfish and flounder and, in Deep South Texas, snook and baby tarpon. The reason fish are found in these rivers during winter is they offer deeper water than many other areas of inshore coastal waters. As long as these rivers stay salty (in other words, don’t have an excessive amount of rain runoff), there will be a food amount of fish found in them once the water temperatures dip. And, once these fish move into the rivers, they will remain there until either the water warms in the spring or the salinity level drops, making rivers among the most consistent spots to find fish in the winter. Another plus to fishing rivers during the winter is the majority of them sport high banks or are lined with tall trees (or both), affording anglers a wind break and allowing for productive fishing even in some of the worst of winter weather.
Undoubtedly some saltwater fishermen go fishing at least partly to get away from civilization. Fishing in residential canals certainly does not accomplish this goal. But, if the goal is simply to catch some fish, residential canals offers some of winter’s most consistent action. Like rivers, residential canals offer deep water escapes for fish during the winter months. Since they are often connected directly to a bay via a deep channel, residential canals usually see a steady stream of fish moving in from the open bay once the water temperatures begin to drop. Fishing at night under the lights is productive during winter, just as it is during summer. However, unlike summer, daytime action in residential canals can be fairly productive as well during winter. Whether it is day or night, anglers should concentrate on visible structure such as bridge and dock pilings, bulkheads and rip-rap shorelines. In periods of extreme cold, the main channels and channel edges will be the most productive areas.
Like residential canals, shipping ports are hardly an escape from civilization. At times, fishing in port areas can be less than relaxing between tugs and barge traffic, construction work on shore, dock workers scurrying to load and unload, etc. But, some of winter's best fishing can be found in Texas ports, so the results are usually worth all the white noise anglers have to deal with while casting up and down docks, bulkheads and rip-rap shorelines in port areas. Savvy port anglers have also learned to located deep holes created by tug boat and ship prop wash, as well as unmarked structure that has fallen off of ships or rigs moving up and down shipping channels and ports.
Not all winter inshore fishing is located behind Texas' barrier islands and inside bays and rivers. In fact, winter beachfront fishing is highly overlooked and very underrated. Most people think only of bottom fishing with bait when they think about winter surf fishing. However, the January and February beachfront options are surprisingly varied.
Bottom dwelling fish such as whiting, croaker, black drum and redfish are certainly available in the winter surf and can be taken by soaking natural baits on bottom. In fact, there are some truly big black and red drum cruising the beachfront during January and February. But, there are also other species, including speckled trout and pompano in the surf during winter, particularly in the mid- and lower-coast regions. These species can be caught on natural baits, but they can also be targeted with artificial lures on days when the surf runs clean.
What to Throw
There are a variety of natural baits and artificial lures that can be productive during January and February, but there is certainly no need to get carried away with variety. Day in and day out, natural baits such as mullet, shrimp and skipjack (ladyfish) will produce good numbers of fish in the bay, up rivers and ports, or in the surf. In the surf, these baits should be fished on a traditional three-way bottom rig or, if the current is slight, a Carolina rig. In the bay, a Carolina rig works well for mullet and skipjack, while shrimp can be freelined or fished under a popping cork with a long leader.
However, there are a number of artificial lures which will produce good results as well. Anglers specifically seeking big trout will do well to throw jumbo topwaters and soft-plastics, as well as slow-sinking plugs. These baits are especially effective when sow specks are cruising the shallow flats during winter. Fishermen simply seeking numbers of fish and fast action should throw soft-plastic jigs or shrimp imitations when fishing in the bay. Water color generally dictates the style of plastic tail used on a jig during winter. Off-color water calls for paddletail bait, while straight tail baits are productive in clear water. Shrimp imitations can be fished jig-style or under popping corks. When fishing around structure in ports, rivers or residential canals, small, fast-sinking soft-plastic and hair jigs work well. Traditional favorites include a variety of soft-plastic "grubs" -- both split tail and paddletail -- rigged on 3/8 ounce lead heads.
This is not to say every winter day is a good day to be on the water. In fact, there are many more "blowout" days during winter than any other season. However, when the weather cooperates, winter can provide for some excellent inshore angling action. Anglers who opt to "sit out" the winter season will certainly miss out on some of the year's best fishing.