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Fishing | Now’s a good time to test your luck by heading upriver

By CAPT. GEORGE TUNISON - Fishing | Feb 16, 2024

Capt. George Tunison

With winter, most of our inshore fish, snook, reds and trout, tend to run on the small side with some exceptions like an occasional slot-sized redfish. These days, time spent in deeper water areas like creeks, canals, holes or marinas will up your angling success. These deeper spots offer more thermal comfort than all-night north wind-chilled flats.

If you’re fishing your usual chilly Matlacha and Pine Island spots with little success it’s time to change your game plan. Surprising how many locals don’t venture upriver in winter to fish where you’ll find big snook, reds, trout, jacks, even tarpon and others a little more limber and hungry than their colder coastal cousins.

One problem, even though most already know better, it’s hard for most wintertime artificial lure anglers to actually slow down their retrieves to match the cold conditions.

Learn to crawl! A great winter “crawling” lure would be a GULP Shrimp on a 1/4 ounce jighead – inched along the bottom a foot at a time with some long pauses thrown in to let the scent disperse. Fly anglers can fish sink-tip fly lines and weighted flies in deeper water marinas to get flies on bottom for inching retrieves. Think keel fly designs with the hook riding upwards for best results.

Trophy snook hunters will find the area’s warmest waters, bringing with them a truckload of patience, and be fishing larger cut bait on bottom with circle hooks. The Cape’s miles of wind-protected canals hold big snook all winter and schools of sheepshead as well so save gas and fish locally, but if you seek even warmer waters, now’s a great time to check out the Caloosahatchee.

The I-75 Bridge/Orange River area would be a good place to start, then keep moving eastward as it only gets warmer as you go. We have snook and redfish all the way to Lake Okeechobee so you’ll obviously have unlimited shoreline and various structures to explore with little fishing competition along the way. As you move east into warmer waters, slowly fished suspended twitch baits and soft plastic shrimp imitators are good choices if you’re tired of soaking bait.

This time of year the faster action happens on nearshore reefs out to the 100-foot zone and beyond when the weather allows safe trips. This year the best sheepshead catches have been close to the coast reefs and structures while moving deeper provides shots at porgies, grunts, big mangrove snappers and red grouper. Any floating debris and, of course, trap floats and markers along the way could host a hard-fighting, as well as delicious, tripletail and is worth inspecting with a live shrimp or its plastic cousin.

If offshore isn’t your thing and you’re looking for a nice change of fishing scenery then pack up the boat or arrange a charter a little south of here in the beautiful 10,000 Islands area. If you’ve never fished there, be advised this is a great place to ruin your prop, lower unit or maybe your hull and also get very lost, so a guide definitely makes safety, time and money sense. I forgot to mention that winter also means fewer bugs in one of the buggiest places I’ve ever experienced in all of North America. When you go, take head netting, sprays and potions, as well as sensible clothing, including socks and gloves. That being said, the 10,000 Islands, Chokoloskee, Everglades City area offers some great winter fishing for a large variety of species, including sight-fishing small to large tarpon in shallow bays, sharks, lots of redfish and a quickly rebounding snook population.

Fishbooker.com lists several guides working the area’s waters. This is a great time to scratch this trip off your bucket list before the bugs arrive.

Another fun winter trip is exploring the many fishing opportunities along Alligator Alley where largemouth and peacock bass roam.

Capt. George Tunison is a Cape Coral resident fishing guide. You can contact him at 239-282-9434 or via email at captgeorget3@aol.com.