Carolina Fishing: How to Locate and Catch Winter Saltwater Fish

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Many Carolina anglers put their rods and reels away in December, but winter can be a fine time for inshore saltwater fishermen who can stand the cold. The keys are knowing what fish are out there, how to locate them, and how to fish once you do.
For the casual bottom angler and the surf fishermen there are targets out there, though they might not be easy to find. Fish are schooled up tight, meaning it isn’t hard to miss out on them if you are at the wrong spot at the wrong time. Some of them also tend to be more active at certain times of the day and night.

The bottom fish are red and black drum, silver perch and spot. All of them can be caught on simple cut shrimp, which is easy to fish now the bothersome little pinfish have sought warmer waters. They are active on moving tides and far more likely to be found around hard structure such as piers, bridges and docks than on sandy stretches of beach.

Catching winter saltwater fish

Black drum orient themselves to places where shellfish cling, and nice-sized fish perfect for filleting can be caught throughout the winter into spring. Despite the chill, black drum will hit better at night. During the day you might not know they are there.

Many more people fish for speckled trout or redfish than for black drum in the colder months, and these anglers often take a ride out to the jetty for trout or target huge schools of reds in shallow water. Experienced locals have a stronger advantage in the winter since finding the fish is the key: location is everything. You don’t want to waste a lot of time riding around from place to place in the cold if you aren’t catching fish.

Trout and redfish anglers will mostly be throwing lures, probably including some they get for Christmas. Fishing these lures this time of the year is an exercise in patience. If you cast them out and retrieve them quickly, as you might in warmer seasons, you won’t be bothered by the annoyance of netting fish into the boat.

Even predatory game fish are not expending much energy chasing down prey, hovering mostly still in spots where food will be brought to them by the current. They won’t get chased down your lure even if you’re sitting right on a school. It takes a great deal of patience to slow down and fish correctly, as most of the hits will happen when the lure is falling slowly back or sitting still.

Unlike black drum, there will be some days when lethargic trout and redfish won’t hit until the sun warms things up a little bit. They’ll be feeding on minnows, shrimp and crabs and hitting lures that imitate these baits.

Today’s trout and redfish lures are perfectly suited to the winter months, as brands like the Gulp! line of baits and the various shrimp-imitation lures add lifelike feel and scent to traditional patterns. Since the movement of the lure plays a far less important role in cold weather, feel and smell are very important.

Other critters are abroad in the winter as well. Pelicans and other birds will be feeding on minnows in the clear cold water, while dolphins will seek out redfish of their own to eat. Skates, rays and small sharks may hit your bottom baits in the surf or around the bridges. Skates are especially hardy and are out there all through the winter.

Game and food fish are out there too, but it takes some of your own hardiness and dedication to find them. If you do start catching fish, remember they are schooled up tight and likely to be concentrated in a small place, at least while that tide lasts. Whether it is trout and redfish on warmer days or black drum on cold nights, ringing in the new year with a nice fresh fish dinner is still a possibility.