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Spring fling

3/24/2010

The vernal equinox of March 20 signaled the annual mile marker that Florida's meteorology will soon recognize — spring has officially commenced. Sunshine State weather is a notoriously fickle vixen, but the good thing is that once she makes up her mind, it's usually a decisive advance.

Florida endured one of its most extreme winters on record and that will no doubt delay many of the seasonal movements upon which anglers base their plans. Water temperatures are still a little cooler than we'd like for being so close to Easter, but warmth is on its way and the cork is about to pop. Even if you're not the champagne type, you can look forward to an intoxicating run of angling action.

Now, until consistent spring conditions arrive, expect the fish to play it safe. Lacking the security of stable water temperatures, snook will hang close to their winter retreats inside coastal rivers, creeks and canals. As the cool season relaxes its grip, linesiders will show increasing eagerness to feed — they just won't risk exposure to any late-season cold spells.

The snook took a major hit in January when several nights of freezing temperatures sent coastal shallows plunging into the danger zone. Hundreds of thousands of snook perished during what has been termed one of the worst freezes in the state's recorded history. Those that survived are none too eager to venture far from deep water.

Most snook are staging near the mouths of coastal rivers, creeks and residential canals. Fertile flats adjacent to exterior channels offer feeding and sunbathing opportunities — all within a short sprint back to the safety of deep water.

Note: In response to the massive snook kill, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission moved to keep the harvest season closed through August 31. Catch-and-release fishing remains legal, but anglers should consider decreasing their snook efforts this year to allow the species time to recover and make it through the summer spawn with minimal stress. If you do target snook, use medium to medium-heavy tackle to ensure a quick capture and use circle hooks with natural baits to facilitate a safe release.

Speckled trout also like their water cozy, so look for the specks to lie in deeper grass beds until the sun warms shallower zones. Trout prefer the edges between grass and sandy potholes, tidal cuts near grass beds and the rocky, shell-strewn perimeters of spoil islands, like those of St. Joseph Sound (just north of Clearwater).

In the Homosassa area, Capt. William Toney hunts his trout around the many limestone outcroppings from Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge to the Homosassa River. Rising water works best for him in early spring.

"The rocks absorb the sun's warmth on low tide and they also provide plenty of food like mud minnows, small crabs and shrimp," Toney said. "When the incoming tide covers these rocks, the trout will move in for the warmth and food."

Redfish are a less cold-sensitive, but they still like to stay comfortable. The dark bottom of mud flats and the perimeters of oyster bars will warm up during mid-morning sun and then offer cozy digs later in the day. This common early-spring redfish pattern depends on good tidal flow.

When incoming water reaches a level sufficient for access, look for redfish to push their way into these feeding stations.

In addition to warmer water temperatures, spring fishing gets its kick start from the annual baitfish explosion that's due to occur shortly. Millions of scaled sardines (aka "whitebait") will soon flood the area, and predators will feed aggressively to catch up for recent winter leanness.

Once this happens, anglers will frequently enjoy those two-throw mornings in which you sling the castnet twice and pack the livewell. For now, as the bait migration trickles in, filling a bait well may take a while. Chum with canned catfood or a mixture of wheat bread and jack mackerel to gather baitfish within net range. Keep throwing and you'll pick up little clusters that eventually add up to a day's supply.

Once warm water temperatures align with the main push of baitfish schools, the spring lineup will include kingfish, Spanish mackerel, bonita, cobia, ladyfish and jack crevalle. Re-line those reels, sharpen those hooks and make sure the engine's ready to go. The fun's about to start.

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.