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February usually offers the lowest water temperatures of the year, and coastal fish are in full-on winter mode. Trout fishing can be very good in cold weather, but don't expect to find them on the flats. Instead, look for areas of nearby deeper water where trout seek refuge when it's chilly. Along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) this can mean that the dropoff from the flats into the dredged ICW is holding fish in four or five feet of water or even deeper. But in some areas trout move into the deep, sheltered waters in dredged canals or the deeper tidal creeks. For example, a lot of trout from Jug Creek Shoals and from the flats north of Bokeelia move into Jug Creek itself, and into the canals which lead off the creek. This happens in other creeks and canals throughout the region as well.

Canal fishing is also a good bet for jumbo black drum this month. These brutish fish, some exceeding 50 pounds, are schooled up in spawning mode. There are hotspots for drum in the Punta Gorda and Cape Coral canals systems which hold fish year after year. You might find drum by spotting them slowly finning just beneath the surface, though these surface fish usually will not bite and your best strategy is to fish on the bottom beneath them. Usually, the absolute best drum bait is half a blue crab, though they like clams, and they will eat shrimp. Lay your bait on the bottom and wait for a drum to sniff it out. Not all the drum hang in the canals; they can also be found around the fender systems of most of the highway bridges on the Peace, Myakka and Caloosahatchee rivers.

Sheepshead are hugely popular with SW Florida anglers during the winter because they bite well in blustery water and aren't put off by water that's silty from windy weather. And it doesn't hurt that they pull hard and are great on the table. Pre-spawn sheepshead are gathering around just about every structure along the coast including docks, rocks, bridges and reefs. Shrimp catch plenty of sheepshead but fiddler crabs and sand fleas are usually better baits if you can get them. Remember that the bag limit has been reduced to eight per person this year.

Gulf fishing in February can be split into options: nearshore and offshore. Nearshore fishing within sight of land on natural rock ledges and artificial reefs out to about 50 feet of water is usually about as sure-fire a deal as there is in the winter fishing world. Expect enough mangrove snapper, sheepshead, grunts, throwback grouper (and maybe a hogfish or mutton snapper or two) to keep rods bent and anglers smiling.

Further offshore, starting in about 65 feet of water, the fishing focuses on flat rock natural bottom and the species mix changes as sheepshead and hogfish become less likely, replaced by lane and vermilion snapper and legal-sized red grouper. Just stay inside the 20 fathom line since grouper is closed outside the line this month.

HUNTING February is the last full month of quail season in SW Florida and hunters can take advantage of the cool, dog-friendly weather this month to cover some ground while looking for coveys that are coming back together after having been rousted earlier in the season. If public-land hunting is your thing, there is one I last small game weekend at the Babcock Ranch Preserve Feb. 2-3, and hogs can be taken during small game season there.

BEST BET

February is not a peak month for inshore saltwater fishing in SW Florida, so it's really cool that it is one of the very best months for freshwater fishing and that not one, but two species are going strong: bass and specks. This is a good month to take a trip to Lake Okeechobee where a memorable day can be had by spending part of it pitching soft plastics at bedding bass and the other part by tossing tiny jigs for specks. Southwest Florida anglers can access these fisheries at Clewiston, Moore Haven or Lakeport.

SOUTHWEST SCENE

FEB. 1: Red grouper, black grouper close for waters outside the 20-fathom break

FEB. 9-10: Florida Sportsman Expo, Lee Civic Center, N. Ft. Myers

FEB. 12: Punta Gorda Isles Fishing Club meeting, 7pm, PGICA building, Punta Gorda

FEB. 14: Englewood Fishing Club meeting, 6:30pm, Rotonda West Community Center

FEB. 23-24: Youth turkey hunt, Fisheating Creek WMA

There's a youth turkey hunt this month, and spring season south of State Road 70 starts Mar. 2.

By Ralph Allen

www.kingfisherfleet.com

(941)639-2628

Caption: Lyndsey Lewis and her 9-plus-pounderona plum-with-emerald flake Senko from a Ft. Myers lake.
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Title Annotation:Southwest
Author:Allen, Ralph
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Feb 1, 2019
Words:782
Previous Article:Shallow Out, Deep In.
Next Article:Life in the Dead of Winter.
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