For the persistent and patient, the mother lode of trout, reds and sheepshead may be just across the bay, down the channel or up the river.

By Frank Sargeant | Special to the Panama City News Herald

January inshore fishing in the Florida Panhandle can be feast or famine; the fish tend to school tightly in suitable habitat, and to desert the much wider and more random distribution that benefits anglers in more temperate months.

Still for the persistent and patient, the mother lode of trout, reds and sheepshead may be just across the bay, down the channel or up the river. In general, cold weather moves fish off the beaches and into the black water bays, canals, rivers, creeks and potholes, which generally stay warmer in winter due to absorption of sunlight, and also because some are fed by rivers that are partially spring water, which maintains a level temperature despite cold.

Structure fishing in winter

One key to finding winter fish in the bays, rivers and backcountry is to seek out hard structure. Particularly reds and sheepshead tend to hang on concrete bridge pilings, rip-rap, docks, wrecks and other structure, maybe because these areas harbor small crabs, oysters, mussels and barnacles on which both species feed.

Some docks in otherwise shallow water, 2 feet or so, may have prop-wash holes that are 5 or 6 feet deep around the aft end of large inboard powered boats docked there. These are natural winter targets, allowing the fish to ease up on the dark mud of the flats during sunny hours, then slide back into the deeper water under the boat and the dock as the evening chill sets in.

Docks that sit on points or at creek or canal mouths can be particularly productive because they tend to get

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