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Chills provide sight-fishing challenges in Florida

MIAMI _ Despite cold fronts chilling Florida waters every week or so, some anglers are determined to catch fish any way they can. For those purists dedicated to sight-fishing, the cold poses a big challenge, but it also can present opportunities.

A shallow-water guide who knows a thing or two about sight-fishing for redfish and sea trout in chilly conditions is captain Nathaniel Lemmon of Edgewater in northeast Florida. Lemmon, 33, routinely deals with water temperatures ranging from the low 40s to the low 60s all winter in the Mosquito Lagoon and northern Indian River Lagoon. He recently proved his mettle in 50-degree waters, notching double-digit releases of small- to medium-sized reds and trout up to 5 pounds in two days of fishing from Oak Hill north to New Smyrna Beach.

Local knowledge of flats topography, bait and tackle preparation, and an ability to "read" cold fish were the keys to Lemmon's New Year's weekend success.

Internet fishing reports frequently wax poetic about easy pickings on schools of 200 or more redfish on the flats following cold snaps. Lemmon said he believes those fish don't really revel in togetherness; instead, they school out of necessity for warmth and safety. As soon as waters warm to their comfort level, he said, they will scatter to chase bait.

"Fighting each other for food doesn't really work out," he said. "They have a better chance to eat if they're swimming alone."

These reluctantly schooling fish will behave one of two ways, Lemmon said. They will either eat like starved mongrels or refuse your every offering.

"If you've got fish in a schooling mentality and you pull something across that looks like a baitfish, they are going to be competitive," he said. "But in water between 40 and 45 degrees, they are going to be in lockdown; they are not going to bite. I've had a school of 200 fish that we were hitting them on the head. They wouldn't even nose the bait."

Spotting edgy schools in cool, clear, calm water, Lemmon typically anchors his skiff as far away as his anglers can cast to avoid spooking the fish. Retrieval can be fast or slow, depending on the quarry's response.

Finding the flats deserted is not uncommon during a big chill. In that case, Lemmon scouts nearby creeks, the Intracoastal Waterway channel and sandy or muddy depressions in the shallows. These deeper areas, he said, provide a thermal refuge for the fish_along with oyster beds, which store heat during the day during exposure at low tide.

Redfish might be all but invisible in deeper water, so Lemmon recommends fan-casting these areas with a variety of baits and lures. Trout, he said, will be wherever you see bait such as mullet and shrimp.

If you need help locating bait, watch the birds.

"Look for egrets and herons standing around," Lemmon said. "If I see 10 egrets and herons standing on a shoreline, that's where I'm going. They're not standing around for nothing."

Diving pelicans are a "dead giveaway", he said, along with hovering and diving osprey.

Lemmon said it's important to carry a variety of baits and tackle for different coldwater scenarios. At a minimum, an angler should carry an outfit rigged with a jig that mimics a crab or shrimp, such as a Berkley GULP or a DOA; a plug rod with a shallow-diving lure that mimics a mullet such as a Mirro-Minnow; and one rigged weedless with no weight that can hold a soft jerkbait, swimbait or a chunk of fresh mullet or crab.

"Don't get hung up on using one thing," Lemmon said.

Lemmon said rising at 4 a.m. is seldom necessary during cold snaps because the fishing tends to improve later in the day as waters warm. If catching tailing redfish is your passion, then mid-afternoon could be prime time.

"Most of our redfish tail in the grass, which is typically going to be your shallowest spot," he said. "They're looking for shrimp and crabs.

"One or two degrees (in temperature) could be the difference between them sitting and deciding to eat."

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(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.

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