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Winter Retreat

12/23/2009

The same motivation that drives thousands of northern visitors to the Sunshine State each winter also drives Florida's inshore fish into specific refuges. That motivation is cold weather, and while we don't have the blizzards and ice storms of upper latitudes, Florida winters feel plenty cold to year-round residents.

"Snowbirds," as they're called flock to Florida to escape the frosty conditions of Canada and the northern U.S. Local fish, on the other hand, gather in areas of deep, warmer water. Rivers, canals and ship basins are popular choices, but those living anywhere close to a coastal power plant will spend much of the next two months in and around the warm outfall canals.

In this case of secondary benefit, power plants were not constructed to aid fishermen, but the cause-and-effect relationship is undeniable. In the proverbial nutshell: A steady stream of warm water amid chilly surroundings is like a briny oasis for winter-weary fish.

Here's how it works: Power plants draw in seawater to help cool their innards and then release heated effluent back into the environment. This tepid plume – further dispersed by tides and wind – creates a winter resort for practically every species of fish and a bunch of manatees. Buoy lines mark the boundary of public access and security zones, but even with restricted access, power plants will offer consistent opportunity through February.

Within the warm water, you'll find a predictable mix of bluefish, trout, redfish, jacks, black drum, ladyfish, pompano, permit and the occasional juvenile tarpon. Avoiding dangerously cold conditions is top priority, but fish must eat. Good thing for anglers is that food supplies dwindle quickly, so any reasonable offering usually meets with instant response.

On the North shore of the Crystal River, Progress Energy's nuclear and fossil fuel power plant is the most prominent landmark along the sparsely developed Nature Coast. Boaters running out the river channel can easily judge wind speed and direction by the smoke stacks, but once the cold fronts start in late-November invade the Gulf, anglers of upper Citrus County know where the easy fishing awaits.

Capt. Dan Clymer said the local power plant attracts just about every fish in local waters – including one that's starting to reach farther north on a regular basis. "Our resident snook population – the ones that don't go into the river – hang out here."

A grouper trolling expert, Clymer drags big diving plugs along the edges of the Crystal River plant's outfall canal and regularly catches keepers during winter. For other species, bouncing jigs with grub tails or a horn-hooked live shrimp can be very productive.

A long spoil bank formed from the outfall canal's dredging runs along the northern edge of the river channel. Short Point, a couple of miles from the river mouth, is the first spot to safely cut north and then east toward the plan. Clymer suggests working the rocks and oyster bars around the canal's periphery, as the warm water outflow washes these areas.

Southward, Progress Energy's Anclote River Power Plant sits on the north side of its namesake river. The plant sits right across from the boat ramp at Anclote River Park, but the side closest to the ramps holds the intake section. The outfall canal facing Anclote Key is the place to fish.

Bending around a mangrove marsh, the canal offers a deep water habitat with plenty of navigable depth even on low tide. Boaters often sit right against the buoy line and these in-demand spots can certainly offer gangbuster action. However, the canal's entire length holds plenty of potential.

Pier access from Anclote Gulf Park, about a half mile up the road from the boat ramp allows landbound anglers access to the fun. From shoreline vantage points, you can cast into the deepest, warmest water near the buoy line or work the mouth of the canal.

Working jigs tipped with shrimp or casting Doc's Goofy Jigs will turn up plenty of pompano and permit action. Topwaters will produce lots of ladyfish, jacks and bluefish, while free-lining shrimp or pinfish will get the attention of hungry trout, redfish and the occasional snook.

In Tampa Bay, TECO's Big Bend power plant at Apollo Beach offers the same attraction to fish in lower Tampa Bay, but complementing the usual mix, thousands of sharks patrol surrounding waters. These streamlined predators no doubt enjoy the steamy sauna, but they're also the consummate opportunists. Pack a bunch of smaller fish into a concentrated area and lunch is never far from reach.

Blacktips and bonnetheads are the most common species, but you'll find a few hammerheads and bull sharks in the mix. While most are diminutive – about two to four feet – all hold the potential for a memorable battle, especially when other power plant regulars play hard-to-get.

Capt. Art Paiva of Ruskin fishes the Apollo Beach Power Plant each winter and finds varying degrees of cooperation among the big-name species. The sharks' dependability, he said is a valued attribute, particularly during winter. "I can always find sharks at the power plant and they put up a great fight."

Cover the water column by fishing live shrimp under corks, free-lined and on ¼-ounce jig heads. For larger blacktips and bulls, fish cut mullet or ladyfish on grouper tackle or heavy spinning outfits.

Another big target common to the Apollo Beach plant looks something like a shark when seen cruising at a distance, but the cobia brings its own game to the warm water scene. Cobia cruise the warm water outflow, as well as the surrounding flats and eat just about anything you put in front of them. Blind casting with big lipped diving plugs will draw a few strikes, but sight casting with plastic eels on jig heads or weighted hooks is your best bet.

If you like your personal space, you may have a tough time adjusting to the power plant routine, as crowds gather quickly when winter decreases productivity elsewhere. Allow fellow anglers their fair share of the limited space and do your part to avoid tangles – especially when someone hooks a big fish. Patience and consideration go a long way toward ensuring that everyone gets to enjoy hot action during the cold season.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart — Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.