Understanding February pier fishing is the key to successful catches this month.
You Must Brave the Chill to Catch the Thrill!
Mid-winter weather along the north-central Gulf of Mexico coast is mild by most inland standards, but chilly water and fast-changing conditions can challenge even seasoned anglers. Though February pier fishing typically has the coldest air and water temperatures of the year (often down into the 50s), there are several resident fish species that can warm up even cold winter days.
The drum fish species: redfish and black drum, gulf, southern and northern kingfish (locally known as “whiting” and “ground mullet”), along with sheepshead, bluefish and pompano are the bulk of target species this month. They do provide anglers with a variety of methods and venues which are sure to please most anyone with just a little extra preparation and patience.
When the water is this cold during February pier fishing, even these resident fish species often move at a slower pace because of their cold-blooded nature. However, they also respond to brief ‘warm up’ periods when the sun shines brightly and slightly raises the water temperature of their shallower haunts like around piers and jetties. These localized ‘warm zones’ can add just the spark needed to initiate short-lived feeding binges. Being prepared by knowing what weather and tide to expect and bringing the correct tackle, rigs, and bait to suit the situation is the basis for success February pier fishing.
February pier fishing from shore bound venues most often comes in three basic approaches: bottom fishing large dead baits (cut fish or crab or whole shrimp) to target bull redfish and large black drum. Bottom fishing smaller dead baits (pieces of shrimp or beach ghost shrimp) for pompano, whiting and other bottom dwellers. And drifting or suspending live shrimp to target sheepshead, pompano, and speckled trout. This last method is best performed by 7-foot rods and light spinning gear when drifting small live shrimp in situations of a light wind and current. Or utilize medium heavy tackle if employed in locations like near the end of the beach piers in deeper water when targeting sheepshead suspended on the pilings. Reserve rods longer than 8 feet for fishing from shore and try to match the line weight into the range of the intended species and conditions.
As well, weights and hook sizes should correspond to the intended species and kept ‘light’ if undetermined. This not only gives the angler more opportunities to get bites from the more numerous smaller fish but still gives them a good chance of landing the occasional larger specimen that may bite on a small bait. Remember, there are usually no obstructions along the sandy beaches for even a large fish to wrap around and break off.
Braided lines are often a good tool to use in any situations where casting distance, line capacity or bite sensitivity are in play. The angler can always use a trace of clear monofilament or fluorocarbon as leader material, but steel is almost never needed this time of year unless you specifically target bluefish or sharks. And even these can usually be landed on the properly sized gear when colder water quells their aggressive biting nature. Anytime you ‘miss’ bites, however, try downsizing the terminal tackle and bait size or at least give the fish a little more time to eat the bait.
Winter-like conditions restrict the movements of forage species as well and bait like live shrimp, sand fleas, hermit crabs and finfish (like mullet and menhaden) are more difficult to find locally. Consequently, anglers often turn to frozen versions of these baits. Still ‘fresher’ is better (and firmer) and that contributes to how well a bait stays on the hook. By contrast, these same extreme conditions of cold air and low tides make gathering beach ghost shrimp much easier. Though boots or waders are now needed along with a ghost shrimp pump, an angler can often ‘slurp up’ enough of these “saltwater crayfish” in an hour to fish with all day. They even work quite well after being frozen in a quart plastic bag with seawater.
penaeid’ shrimp still work to some extent, especially when “fresh-dead”. But even these are not nearly as effective as ghost shrimp. These winter fish like them that much!
Almost as good is the synthetic bait Fishbites, especially in the brighter colors (orange and pink) in the shrimp, flea or crab flavors. But pay attention to the formula too. The blue bag is formulated to dissolve in water above 68 degrees. While the red bag is recommended when water temperatures dip below that. Either can be cut into customized strips to fit the situation and target species.
On the Quest
Often during February pier fishing, it seems the fish species available become scarce around the more easily accessible fishing venues. Perhaps the available ‘resident’ fish are caught out of those spots because of more anglers or just in response to frequent angling pressure. The beach fishing piers and beaches near cities seem to suffer this more than areas which are more secluded or difficult to reach. Taking the time, expense and effort to get the most attractive bait available (i.e. live shrimp or ghost shrimp) can greatly increase your likelihood of success.
“Sheepshead can become especially ‘finicky’ in February. Mostly so when the water is calm and clear.”
Sheepshead can become especially ‘finicky’ during February pier fishing. Mostly so when the water is calm and clear. Perhaps because so much of their diet consists of algae which grow well under these conditions. Plus, they don’t have to expend additional energy like they do when chasing live shrimp or crabs. Still, they are a frequent winter target species, and this quirk just adds to the enjoyment of catching them. Especially on light or even ultralight tackle.
At least the quest can get us off the couch and outside into fresh air and sometimes even sunshine. There we can enjoy some wonderfully uncrowded venues during these great days outdoors!