The holidays are over and a new year has begun. Just because we are in the middle of winter doesn’t mean we have nothing to catch out there! We have an entire season of possibilities. Trout, reds, flounder, sheepshead, and black drum can all be caught in the bay. Along the coast and just off the piers, winter bonita are cruising just off the shore line and sand bars in the early mornings. Surf, pier, and jetty fishing produce pompano, whiting, redfish, and sheepshead. On the bottom, fisherman can catch amberjack, scamp, red grouper, triggerfish, and vermillion snapper.
Trout are found in deeper water this time of the year. Try fishing around boat docks, bridges, and deep holes in the bayous or channels. Your best baits for trout are live shrimp, pinfish, croakers, and pigfish. Fish these on a Carolina rig or under a popping cork.
Some of the best lures are deep running or sinking plugs, DOA shrimp and Savage shrimp. Fish this very slow this time of the year because the water is cold and trout are less aggressive. Fishing the lure too fast limits the number of bites. A good way to locate trout is to slow troll with a soft plastic shrimptail jig in a deep channel. Switch to live bait after you locate the trout to get the maximum number of bites.
Most of the redfish are caught fishing live shrimp, pinfish, croakers, and pigfish. Reds hang around on docks, bridges, and jetties. Fishing with live bait on a Carolina rig at the bottom will get the most bites. Remember that redfish have to be between 18” and 27” to keep!
There are a lot of bull reds around during the winter months. Find them in the passes, deep channels, and around deep water bridges. These bull reds are fun to catch and release. Troll for them using deep running lures. If your lures have large lips and troll 15 or more feet, you can run them by themselves. If your lures have small lips, you’ll need to add 4 to 6 ounces of trolling lead to get the lure deep enough. If you choose this type of fishing, make sure to net the fish and do your best to unhook them while still in the water while using the net only to control the fish. Use single hooks instead of treble hooks to make releasing easier.
Sheepshead and Black Drum
Sheepshead and black drum look very similar. The first two photos below are sheepshead and the third shows black drum. The biggest difference is in the mouth and dorsal fins. Sheepshead have well-defined incisors sitting at the front of the jaw, and molars set in three rows in the upper jaw and two rows in the lower jaw. Black drum have rounded teeth, and looks more or less like sandpaper in the mouth. The dorsal fin on a sheepshead is much more pronounced and spiky than that of a black drum.
Find sheepshead and black drum around bridge pilings, jetties, and oyster bars. They love shrimp, fiddler crabs, and sand fleas. Because of the shape of their mouth and teeth, fish these baits on a Carolina rig using a small straight J hook no bigger than a dime. This works better than a circle hook.
Many of the flounder move to the gulf at this time of the year, but you can find a few in the bay and harbor areas. For best results, fish with a Carolina rig on the bottom near docks and bridges that have sand bottom with access to deep water and oyster beds.
Best baits are live bull minnows, but flounder belly strip, DOA lures, savage shrimp, and Gulp will work.
The best flounder fishing is just outside the passes and near shore reefs and wrecks. For these flounder in the gulf, bull minnows fished on a Carolina rig produce the most fish. Fish on the lee side (down wind) of the reef or wreck. Unlike snapper or grouper fishing, you don’t want to be directly over the wreck but more over the sand bottom on the lee side of the wreck. Flounder prefer to wait on the sand bottom to ambush their prey.
During the winter months, bonita cruise the surf, just off the sand bar anad along the beaches. You can cast white jigs, white jerk baits, or troll Yo-Zuri plugs for them. Look for birds working to locate them. The best days are cold north wind days.
While most people tell you that bonita are not good to eat, maybe they’ve just never prepared it right. Immediately upon catching, make a cut under each pectoral fin to the back bone on both sides. Cut a ring around the tail but don’t cut the tail completely off. Stand the bonita on its nose in a buck for about five minutes to bleed out. Then, ice it in a cooler in slushy ice. As you fillet the fish, you’ll see that the meat is dark with a distinct blood line. Remove the blood line and skin, then cut into chucks. In a pot, add some oil (maybe a cup), add bonita, salt, pepper, fish seasoning, and cover fillets with water and boil. When done drain and mix up with your favorite recipe just as you would with canned tuna for some tasty fish salad.
Another method of cooking comes from Jamaica. Fillet then blacken it with Caribbean fish seasoning. This is definitely stronger than some fish, but really tasty.
Pick out an area of natural bottom or large wreck. Mix a batch of chum and use some for a chum bag and some for chunking into the water. Use a few pieces of bonita or mackerel for bait. There are plenty of sharks all year if you just want a good tug on the line and some adventure!
Scamp grouper are generally found at 75’ to 400’ depths. These prefer natural bottom, but will congregate on some wrecks. Fish with a Carolina rig with 1 ounce of lead for every 10’ of depth. It’s best to use live cigar minnows, pinfish, or frozen northern mackerel for bait.
Amberjack are generally found around wrecks at 50’ to 400’ depths. Unlike grouper, they tend to like large wrecks rather than natural bottom. Live cigar minnows, hard tails, pinfish, and vermillion snapper are preferred baits. Use a Carolina rig with extra long leaders, up to 20’ when fish are picky. Amberjack also love butterfly jigs and large swim baits.
Red grouper, unlike most bottom fish, seem to bite better on what we call trash bait. Trash bait can be anything from a frozen northern mackerel to a butterflied vermillion snapper. Live baits typically don’t work as well for red grouper. Unlike other grouper, red grouper tend to be very lazy. Also, we catch them in much shallower water, normally 50 to 100’ depths.
Trigger fish are one of the more tasty fish and fairly easy to catch. Use a 2 to 3 hook bottom rig with circle hooks no bigger than a nickel in size.. The best bait is squid, northern mackerel, or bonita cut into 1” chunks. Fresher is better. Trigger fish can be caught on wrecks or reefs in 50’ to 175’ depths. Another bait is Fishbites or Gulp!
Vermillion snapper aka mingo snapper or beeliners are another one of the better eating snappers. In my opinion, they are much better than red snapper and can be caught all year. They normally range from 1 to 3 lbs, but in this area we catch them up to 5 to 7 lbs. If these little guys grew up to 20 to 30 lbs, no one could care about red snapper.
Use a 2 or 3 hook bottom rig with circle hooks no bigger than a nickel in size. The best bait is squid, northern mackerel, or bonita cut into 1” chunks. Fresher is better. They can be caught on wrecks or reefs in 50’ to 175’ depths. Fishbites or Gulp! are another effective bait.
Rockfish or Squirrel Fish
These little guys don’t get much attention, but if they grew bigger they would be regarded as one of the top fish in the gulf. Rarely do you see one over 2 lbs and most people consider them as trash but are one of my personal favorites for the dinner table. When you fillet one, the meat is not more clear than it is white and sparkles when you cut it across the grain. Catch them just like you would fishing for vermillion snapper or trigger fish.
Surf, Jetty and Pier
Pompano, Whiting, Redfish
At this time of year, there are few pompano and some good numbers of whiting and the occasional redfish in the surf. From the jetties, it’s mostly sheepshead and redfish. From the piers, a few bonita and sheepshead.
Catching pompano, whiting, and redfish from the surf can provide many relaxing hours of fun in the sun as well as some excellent dinners. While pompano are the glory fish of the surf, whiting are a favorite gulf fish and rank right at the top of the list. All can be caught from the pier casting white jigs and white swimbaits. The bite is best at first light and especially on cold, calm north wind mornings.
Sheepshead tend to hang out on the jetties and pier and the best baits are live fiddler crabs and live shrimp fished on a Carolina rig right next to the pilings or rocks.
Redfish patrol the jetties and shallows at the pier and prefer live shrimp for bait.
Kings, trolling or pier
Spanish Mackerel, trolling or casting
Cobia; spot cast, pier, or boat