On The Hook: Winter’s vanishing fishing opportunities

Bill Walsh

Things, weather-wise, have been radically different here the last three years. I’m positive that that observation is shared by full-time residents as well as seasonal visitors; and also by those who enjoy the great sportfishing opportunities here.

Bottom line: There has been virtually no winter here for those three years.

For the non-water enthusiasts, residents and visitors alike, it has been a virtual panacea. Everyday, after a tad chilly start, has been like summer afternoons at the Shore basking on the beach. So be it. That’s why this is such a great place to be in winter.

But out there on the briny, it’s a different story. Those ice-cold mornings and frigid, windy afternoons with rod in hand trying to capture our famous winter sheepshead along the waterways and docks is a waning enterprise.

File:  Lake Trafford in Immokalee.


Why? That very prevalent species here in prior years trigger spawn and heavy feeding in rhythm with water temperature. When the water temperature is in the mid to low-60s they are in feeding and in spawning overdrive. That was then.

Now, water temperatures mid-February hovered in the mid-70s and the species confused reaction was to spawn off tempo and then vamoose to deeper cooler water.

That’s a problem we’ll probably have to grind into the fishing opportunity equation in years to come; unless of course, the trend reverses itself.

But all of that brings back recall of a charter event, some years back when things were different, that I’d like to share.

Our players in this little vignette were four winter residents of the same beach condo, that for years hooked up and played as a golf foursome once a week, usually at the Hibiscus course up on U.S. 41. And then a couple years back decided to broaden their recreational horizon by adding a twice per month charter fishing trip to their seasonal agenda.

When asked, I put a program together for them with selected good tide days and times and they bought on to the deal with twice a month trips from December until early April.

The very first year we had excellent winter fishing conditions and whether we went backwater or nearshore these four guys did great on the catch. Most always, with the four of them going at it non-stop for three to four hours, there were always a dozen or more sheepsheads to be cleaned and filets provided.

If you’ve ever had the “challenge” of cleaning a sheepshead, you know the agony that occurs when the dorsal spikes rip into your hands. Many days, the four of them would hang by the marina cleaning table and count the spikes that got me. Great fun, huh?

Now, the game plan with all these filets was for each angler to freeze them carefully, as they would be the main course for the Annual Supreme Fish Fry for the entire condo population at season’s end. There was a lot of banter during the trips as to what hero’s they would look like feeding the condo horde. They couldn’t wait to hear the oohs and ash of the grateful residents.

But factors influencing fishing can change in a millisecond and as we entered the homestretch of the season in March that year; that’s just what happened. The week before the winter weather stopped dead in its tracks. The air temperature went from the sixties to the low eighties for the whole week. The boat thermometer registered the water temp at an unseasonal 75 degrees.

On the last trip, the cockpit conversation was about “one more good trip”. They needed about 10-12 more big sheepshead keepers to insure the Fish Fry would be a success.


We made it out nearshore to the Walton Reef just off Caxambas Pass which had been our “Honey Hole” all winter. Set up in calm, good tide, conditions and all four had at it. Fifteen, 20 minutes and no sheepshead at all; just undersized mangrove snapper. We moved around the reef twice. Still no sheepshead and there was silence all around. No panic yet but a high level of anxiety. Thoughts drifted back to the condo where all residents were salivating for the well-advertised fish fry.

The results on the sheepshead did not change even though we tried two more locations. The warmth had secured the spawn and sent the fish scattering into deeper offshore water.

Now, on the radio, I contacted a couple other charters with inquiry as to other nearshore action. One report of good action was received regarding Spanish mackerel and bluefish showing up on the Capri Barges.

“Let’s go. What are we waiting for?” was the simultaneous cry.

“Guys, have no problem making that run but you’ve got to understand that mackerel and bluefish filets “ain’t” sheepshead. Some say the strength of fishy taste of these two could make you’re eyes water.”

“Captain, after a couple beers and a glass or two of wine, whose going to know the difference, Lets’s go!”

And go we went into a fishing melee of slashing mackerel and voracious bluefish taking jigs without any bait on them. And all they caught went in the cooler to their profound glee.

Our charter ended just a tad past schedule but they were all excited that they had made their goal with more than enough fish.

I must have filleted for over an hour that early afternoon as the foursome whooped it up at Jack’s Lookout. They all had smiles on their face as they departed the marina.

Couple weeks later a couple of them contacted me at the marina and were returning some tackle I had lent them.

“So how was the fish fry?”

A subdued response “Kind of a bust; wives found out we had mackerel and bluefish and wouldn’t let us use them.”

“What did you do?”

“We bought frozen tilapia at the supermarket.”

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Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolmarco@cs.com.