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Walking in a wading wonderland

12/14/2009

ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Christmas features the "must do" saltwater fishing excursions along the coasts of the United States. Between now and year's end, we'll present a bucket list of fishing trips any angler would love to receive.

It's not the easiest, most convenient or comfortable way to fish. It can be demanding, exhausting and pretty chilly. Despite the challenges, winter wading in Florida's Tampa Bay-Charlotte Harbor region can provide some of the most intense action you'll find all year.

Wading works year-round, of course, but one simple principle plays up the winter applicability — access. The chilly months see the year's lowest tides and when cold fronts bring hard north winds, water races off the flats and stays gone for the better part of a day. This leaves fish in isolated areas and makes them prime targets for an ultra-stealthy approach.

It's exhilarating, dramatic — the thrill of the hunt. Once you step out of a boat, your range and mobility decrease. That makes planning and site selection very important. No sense hopping in and out of the boat every 10 minutes, so carefully select your area and commit to a serious search effort.

When the bite's on, you'll be tempted to push farther and farther until you realize you're a mile from the boat. Avoid this by tying a bowline around your waist and towing the boat when working broad areas.

Once you get the vessel moving, the boat tracks easily behind you with minor tugs. Wading anglers may also extend their range and facilitate perilous crossings with a kayak. Sit-on-top models with rod holders are ideal.

When and where

Spring tides — the ones occurring on and around each month's new and full moons — produce the lowest winter levels. When the water drops below the "mean low tide" upon which depth charts are based, vast flats go bone dry for several hours.

Depressions between the shoreline and these outer flats become fish bowls, cut off from adjacent deep water. You'll find peak action on the last half of the outgoing tide and the first of the incoming.

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Backwater bays protected from rough weather attract fish and fishermen, but narrow your search by targeting areas with bountiful feeding opportunities. Look for oyster bars, creek mouths, mangrove points and lots of fertile sea grass interspersed with sandy potholes and troughs.

Perfectly round holes will produce, however, fish love edges — something they can lean against, hide behind and use as ambush points. Kinda like a mugger peeking around the corner of a building for cops or potential targets.

Flats with lots of wading birds indicate abundant food sources — often the same stuff that fish eat.

When the tide drains a vast field of sea grass, the crustaceans and invertebrates hiding within become easy targets for feathered scavengers. Redfish, trout and snook know this chow awaits them on the incoming tide, so they won't be far.

Crankbaits and twitchbaits will tempt fish in open pothole water, but treble hooks become frustrating in what is largely a sea grass environment.

Working artificial shrimp slowly along grass edges is a highly-productive technique, as is hopping 3/16- to ¼-ounce jigs with shad tails, small swimbaits or soft plastic jerk baits rigged Texas style on 3/0-4/0 wide gap hooks with weighted shanks. Darker colors are usually best for mimicking crustaceans, but a gold, chartreuse or pearl body may do the trick when the bite slows.

Seven- to 7 1/2-foot, medium-action spinning outfits with 10- to 15-pound braided line will allow for long casts with optimal sensitivity. Thirty inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader improves strength and stealth.

The mullet factor

Unquestionably, the most promising element of the low-tide wading game is mullet. From mid-November through February, these big-eyed vegetarians gather in bays and estuaries in preparation for offshore spawning spurred by cold fronts.

As they move across shallow grass beds, the mullet stir up shrimp, crabs and baitfish hiding in the vegetation. Snook, trout and redfish mingle with mullet to pick off these easy meals. Locate one of these briny buffets and it's game on.

You'll easily spot the "nervous water" of mullet wiggling nearby in shallow brine, but when sizing up a backwater bay, give a listen before choosing your wading direction. Hear something that sounds like a big water sprinkler? That's a monster mullet school rolling and splashing.

The same soft plastics you'd throw near sandy spots will work around mullet schools, but the herd's rumbling makes their escorting predators more tolerant to outside noises. This means you can get away with splashy topwater plugs even under clear, midday conditions. Giant trout will blast a foamy hole around a MirrOlure Top Dog or a Rapala Skitterwalk twitched amid the mullet.

Just be careful not to spook the school. Mullet get pretty nervous in the shallow water, mostly because of their vulnerability to ospreys, eagles and hostile pelicans. Get too close and a furious wave of white water will pick up and take the equally spooked gamefish with them. They'll eventually resettle, but time and energy are precious commodities for the wading angler.

Rush for the exit

Similar to the backwater game, coastal creeks offer tremendous low-tide action. Daily tidal flushing keeps the place well-oxygenated and shuffles the forage species to keep predators interested. Throw in a major wind break from the mangrove trees and you have a very attractive winter wading scenario.

In major arteries such as Double Branch and Rocky Creek at the top of Old Tampa Bay (the northwestern arm of Greater Tampa Bay), incoming water will scatter fish throughout the backwater labyrinth where access is limited.
Falling tides concentrate your quarry in the main channels and deep holes where they're more easily targeted. During the negative lows, redfish, trout and snook follow the falling water through well-defined cuts and trenches, on their way to the deep channels where they'll await the returning tide.

When the water's leaving, wade to the edge of a main channel drop-off, cast live shrimp or pinfish uptide and let the bait flow with the racing water. In this classic food funnel scenario, reds, trout, flounder, jacks and the occasional snook will rise to gobble meals delivered by the sea's takeout service.

Free-lining your bait affords the most natural presentation, but a fast tide will zip it along too rapidly for predators to spot. Fix this by adding a large split shot above the bait, or fishing it on a ¼-ounce jighead. Let the current do the work, but give your bait a little twitch every five seconds or so to avoid bottom snags.

For a more active approach, look farther inside a creek. When outgoing tides deflect off oyster bars and flare around broad shoreline edges, such redirection spins current eddies into open water. These lines of active water carry disoriented baitfish and crustaceans that predators line up to eat.

Such eddies display distinctly rippled edges and eventually lose steam as they stretch across open areas and disappear into a "dead spot." Actually, the water's still moving — it's just spreading out and losing the visible signs of motion.

Hungry trout and redfish sit on the outside edges of current bends in hopes of picking off passing meals. Inside edges can produce as well, however fish have a longer window of opportunity on the outer boundaries. Strikes can occur anywhere along the eddy, but fish will often watch the flowing food until it reaches the dead spot and then flash into the softer water for an easy meal.

This is a good scenario for ¼-ounce jigs or suspending baits like the venerable 52M MirrOlure. Whatever you throw, the current will do most of the work for you. Just cast into the eddy, let the swift water pull your line tight and wait for a strike.

In this and any shallow water arena, the peripheral benefits of wading complement its strategic appeal. Environmental impact is low, unlike the tragic prop scars cut through fragile sea grass by inexperienced boaters who run too shallow. And then there's the aesthetic stuff. The scenery is stunning and tranquility abounds, as it's often just you, the wood storks, a bunch of egrets and a few roseate spoonbills. Wading is so serene, so entrancing, the only thing that disturbs your groove is that familiar tug.

For wading tips, see Walk the walk