High awareness for low water

One of my favorite seasonal occurrences brings both blessing and curse to the coastal shallows. When winter's extreme low tides drain the flats to barely a shimmer, anglers need to pay close attention to their environment in order to maximize the good things and avoid the bad.

Using one of my local haunts as an example, we see the same discouraging mistakes happen every year. Trout and redfish pile into the deep holes and troughs on the east side of Anclote Key and inexperienced anglers end up adding a few more slashes to the area's sensitive sea grass.

They're called "prop scars" -- those ugly narrow trenches dug by propellers spinning in water that's way too shallow for such things. Sometimes this happens when boaters suddenly realize they've run out of water. You hear a loud gurgling behind the prop and notice the telltale cloud of mud and shredded grass blades. At this point, it's too late for "oops."

Other times, boaters may sneak into the backwater area and fish comfortably, only to find the outgoing tide has drained their exit when they try to leave.

The tidal trap presents a potential problem throughout the calendar but winter months demand greater awareness. The cold season brings the year's lowest tides and the hard winds of frequent cold fronts can push shallow water even shallower. The strong tides of new and full moons produce the most dramatic lows.

At Anclote Key and throughout the Gulf Coast backwaters, random bottom depressions will hold enough water to support fish through low tides. The trick is getting in and out safely and responsibly.

Respecting this seasonal truth and learning to work with the conditions will help you catch more fish, while avoiding environment damage.

Know the area

Consider these points: First, local boating/fishing chart will show you the area's depth ranges, so that'll give you an idea of which spots will drain first. Use this to plan your approach and departure.

Second, tides rise and fall every day, so sufficient water going in won't stay sufficient forever. Lastly, nature offers signs. If the water looks like it's covering a porcupine's back, that's the tips of sea grass -- a clear indication of meager depths.

Likewise, watch for the "Gulf Coast depth finders" -- blue herons and great egrets (the tall white ones). If these birds are standing in the water and you can see their knees, it's way too shallow for running.

Most importantly, a straight line may be the shortest distance between two points but it's not necessarily the safest. Bottom contour meanders, so you'll often have to pick your way into the shallow water sweet spots.

The approach

Running the big outboard motor into shoreline shallows is never a good idea because it spooks fish and frightens shorebirds that spook even more fish when they take off and fly low across the area you want to work.

Trolling motors will get the job done, but be careful not to bump bottom. At slow speeds, the damage is usually negligible, but that big boil followed by dozens of streaking wakes was your school of redfish blasting out of town.

Switching trolling motor speeds can also ruin the game. Inshore fish like trout and reds can be remarkably tolerant to intrusive sounds, as long as they remain constant. Sudden changes in pitch put them on high alert, and often send them packing.

Push poles require more work, but they offer quiet propulsion with the option of "staking out" -- planting the pole's tip in the bottom and tethering the boat with a rope.

Proper poling and staking out inflict no environmental damage, but striking rocks or shells can alert wary fish to your presence. Tapping a push pole on the deck will also ruin your shallow water stealth, so lay a towel, bath mat or sweatshirt under each end of the pole to minimize the scraping sound that can occur from incidental bumps and bounces.

For ultimate approach stealth with minimal environmental impact, shut down your outboard and ease into the target area on a wind drift. As you move shallower, you'll need to trim up the engine, but keep it tilted downward and angle it as needed to help steer your drift.

The right baits

Just like the approach, "slow and patient" applies to shallow water fishing during winter. Fish will perk up during warm, sunny mornings, but cold water will make them lethargic. Shrimp on jig heads or hooked through the tail and weighted with small split shots will tempt anything with an appetite. Just keep the crustacean over sandy spots, or your bait will hide in the grass.

Artificial shrimp lures are also effective when slowly hopped across the edges of sand and grass. For optimal versatility, rig a soft plastic jerk bait on a 1/8- to ΒΌ-ounce jig head or a weighted worm hook. Experiment with colors and retrieve patterns until you determine what the fish want.

When you're done fishing ease out of the area quietly and safely. Leave the environment unscathed and you'll return to the same good fishing next time.

David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "FISH SMART-CATCH MORE!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.