First, it got cold for us guys, starting with that first January weekend. Creature comfort tanked and we or the customers cancelled fishing trips one after the other. Even had one customer call me and cancel a trip a week early, saying, “Going home to Michigan; just as cold there and it’s $300 a night cheaper.”
And as the cold, cold nights continued, the water temperature continued its downward spiral – 59 one morning – 56 the next, and it just kept going until the weekend of Jan. 9 and 10. On the ensuing Monday morning, the temperature on the water inlets at the marina were 47 degrees. No one I know can remember the water ever being any colder here in Southwest Florida.
Now, as the day’s temperatures warmed later that week, all of us got thinking of doing outdoor stuff... after all, it’s Florida weather again. Right?
Not so fast ! Remember, it took a week for that water temperature to tank – it’s going to take longer to get back to normal. So, what happens in the interim? With that as a backdrop, let me share a trip we finally made later that week that showcased what happens when sub-tropical marine creatures fall subject to abnormally cold conditions.
As had been the case since that first weekend, I called a customer that was booked with an update on conditions, giving them a chance to opt out. As I explained that although the days were warming, the water temp was just skirting 50 degrees and I hadn’t run a trip for 10 days and really had no experience fishing these super-cold waters.
I expected a cancellation. Instead, the customer, from the upper peninsula of Michigan, pleaded to make the trip. “I have two teenagers who are heading home tomorrow for two more months of slush and frozen windshields. We’d really like to go, regardless” We confirmed the trip for the next morning.
The morning was cold, but warming quickly by the time 8:30 a.m. rolled around. The three of them showed up in short sleeve shirts and shorts – just like a summer morning in the UP. Asked them to take the time to go back and get some warmer clothes. “It may be in the 60s here, but it’s 50 on the water.” They returned with a array of swaddling clothes and off we went.
We all noticed a strange aura about the water as we idled out of the marina and no-waked down the river. The water was crystal clear. You literally could see everything on the bottom in 10-15 feet of water. There were fish swimming in circles just a few feet below the surface; there were fish of all species just lying on their sides on the bottom; there were fish up on the surface gulping for air in obvious distress.
After the first 15 minutes of this scene , I thought seriously about making an about-face, but the faces of those kids and their tomorrow’s journey to slush and ice said we ought to give it a try. We’d try to find a place where the water was a bit warmer.
First, we moved into the Capri Pass, with brilliant clear water and a good incoming tide. We slapped a shrimp tail on jigs and the three UP-ers were all smiles as they cast into the shimmering morning water.
Twenty minutes later they were still casting, but no smiles. No one had even a bump or lost a bait. Wow – not even a catfish. I switched them over to bottom rigs with the same shrimp tail and had them bounce the rigs off the bottom as we drifted with the current. We go another 15 minutes and the once smiling faces are now frowns. No bumps here, either.
We go to Plan B and anchor up by the T-groins at Hideaway Beach. We’ll go for sheepshead, who are notorious cold water fish; surely they’ll be slow, but active. As we set the anchor, one of the boys yelps “Look at that. Those big fish are going around in circles!”
Sure enough, there are five or six big snook, just cruising around in circles a foot under the surface. Excitement reigns as the boys ready to toss a shrimp at the linesiders even as I explain that the snook in that circling mode are in distress and aren’t about to feed.
They toss and wait and nothing. “Guess the captain was right.”
We turn our attention to some sheepshead and pray that those beautiful snook make it. Nature sure is cruel to itself sometimes. We cast the same shrimp tails on the same lindy type rigs right up against the rip-rap and hoped for the best. Ten minutes into the wait, one of the boys piped up with a question “Are those sheepshead black-and-white striped?”
“Yes,” I respond, “Why do you ask?”
“There is a whole school of them sitting over there,” he says, pointing to a spot not 10 feet from the boat. There they were, big sheepshead, just sitting vertically and barely moving, huddled in a cluster. As per our previous snook endeavor, the guys threw shrimp to the catatonic fish, who totally ignored them. For them, the concern was surviving the cold; not chow time. We’re an hour and-a-half into this adventure and we not only don’t have any fish, we haven’t had a strike. Whoa!
Decided to take them up in the backwaters next, where the shallower water may be a tad warmer and maybe we can get something going. As we reach the top of Addison Bay the water is so clear that you can discern just about every creature, nook and cranny on the bottom. What we saw would break any angler’s heart. The bottom was littered with horizontal fish, motionless on the floor of the bay – immature Goliath grouper, sheephead, ladyfish, snapper and on and on. Nobody said a word. They, nor I, had ever seen anything like this before, even in the worst of red tide episodes.
This was not a day to remember. Told them this trip was on the house and would rebook a trip for them come spring break. We turned the boat for home and prayed for the fish.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.