Snook, Sheepshead Rolling On The Rivers
Written by Tampa Tribune   
Sunday, 28 November 2004 10:42
It's not often that anglers can expect fish to come knocking on their door, but within the past few weeks, that's the effect as snook ...?

... sheepshead, redfish and other species begin their annual migration into coastal rivers.At this time, saltwater fish travel into areas that are completely fresh and live there for several months, waiting for water on the flats to warm again in the spring. It's not uncommon for snook to roll five miles inland and show up in waters shared with largemouth bass. Exactly what triggers the movement is not certain, but the strongest migration usually seems to come around one of the stronger moon tides of November, particularly if inshore water temperature is below 70 degrees.

When the fish arrive, they're hungry and dumb, and fishing can be remarkably good. Topwaters fished around docks and riprap shore do the job on young snook to about 5 pounds, while the lunkers are more likely to be caught in deeper holes on large swimbaits or live pinfish, tilapia or large shrimp.

Within a few weeks of having lots of offerings thrown at them, the fish become more cautious, and by late December, fishing in the rivers usually falls off. The fish are still there, but they're wary enough to eat only live baits. Some anglers also do well by fishing at night around lighted docks; live shrimp, plastic shrimp and small flies work well.

Sheepshead are another great target during the cooler months. They're less tolerant of fresh water than snook, but thousands of them move into the first mile or two of many rivers, as well as into residential canals and dredge holes. They hang around barnacle-encrusted bridge and dock pilings, oystery sea walls and rock-walled dredge cuts.

Sheepshead rarely take artificials; a thumbnail- sized piece of fresh cut shrimp on a size 1 hook is the most common successful offering. Some specialists harvest fiddler crabs, tube worms or green mussels for bait. The latter, an exotic invader on Tampa Bay, has proven particularly appealing to 'heads, and the tough muscle stays on the hook better than shrimp. Sheepshead rarely venture far from rock, shell or concrete, so the baits are presented right against cover and just off bottom. Many anglers up their success rate by scraping barnacles or oysters off the pilings, creating a chum line that puts 'heads in a feeding mood.

Sheepshead are among the tastiest fish in coastal waters, though their sharp spines make them a little risky to clean. Some specialists nip off the spines with kitchen shears, then fillet as with other fish.

Small reds also gather in the rivers and canals at this time of year, and readily grab jigs, plastic shrimp, or any type of live or cut bait. They're rarely over the minimum 18-inch size limit, but can be extremely abundant, making for fast catch-and-release action. Like sheepshead, they often prefer rocky habitat. Reds are also noted for ``sunning'' on cold days, moving into water barely deep enough to cover them to warm up in the midday sun.

Ladyfish and jack crevalle also join the mix, usually staying just inside the river mouths through the winter. They typically announce themselves by attacking bait at the surface. For those who want string-pullers, tossing a jig anywhere near either species results in an instant hookup.

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