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Here in south Mississippi, the months of January, February, and March aren't considered prime fishing months by the majority of masses of fishermen that enjoy angling in these Deep South waters. Yes, there are always a consistent number of anglers that will pursue the highly-touted speckled trout in coastal rivers and bayous, but over all, the numbers of anglers on these waters are down at this time.
Much of the reason is due to colder temperatures and cold fronts consistently pushing down, and it just seems those conditions send many anglers in to the wintertime doldrums. However, there are other fun-filled alternatives besides fishing for the likes of speckled trout, and that includes black drum, a tasty cousin of the redfish, as well as structure-loving sheepshead, another fine eating fish often called "bay snapper".
You see, when the first cold front blows through, generally in early November, and the warm coastal waters begin to drop in temperature, sheepshead begin their migration back into the protected bays and black drum start to gang up in good number too. Both species are structure loving fish and throughout the winter months provide excellent action on light tackle.
Each of these species loves to dine on immature oysters on the bottom or attached to other structure, but a fresh dead shrimp, or especially a live one, is deadly on either fish.
As a fishing guide, there are a few ways that make my method of fishing for these fish more successful, and that's going with a 100 yard top shot of Power Pro braided line over Yo-Zuri Hybrid fluorocarbon 10 lb. test. Since these fish love to dwell in and around barnacle-encrusted structure of all sorts, the braid stands up well to these fish.
In the winter months, most structure near a deep channel is a likely place to find both of these fish. Thus, any of the Highway 90 bridges and railroad bridges crossing the Bay of St. Louis, Back Bay of Biloxi, and the Pascagoula River are excellent areas to seek these bottom dwellers.
For the more adventurous anglers, wintertime fishing at Mississippi's barrier islands can deliver excellent shallow water sight fishing for big sheepshead and black drum, too. Since these isles are anywhere from 7 to 11 miles off the Magnolia Sate's mainland, picking the right days to fish these waters is important.
Generally, after a cold front pushes through the weather gets quite nice, and that's an excellent time to make a trek to the isles. As for the black drum, bay boats equipped with trolling motors are idea vessels for stalking the big fish. Big fish? Yes most of the fish prowling these bars kissing the Gulf of Mexico are in the 20 to 50 pound class.
The massive outer bars off both Cat Island and Ship Island are top-notch areas to seek winter drum, so be sure to sport a good pair of polarized sunglasses when in search of these powerful fish. These big brutes will swim in singles and pairs, but you'll generally encounter big schools of 50 to 100 fish or more, and that's when the light tackle fun begins.
Oh yeah, expect to see large schools of bull reds during these winter months, too, and that makes for a really nice outing when you can encounter both on the same day. When casting to the hefty drum, a simple yet effective rig is 3 feet of 30 pound test Seaguar fluorocarbon leader material tied to a 5/8 ounce jig head. When the fish are spotted a big shrimp is threaded on the jig, and then tossed in the path of the bottom prowling drum.
Best results will always occur when you can get the bait to the bottom well before they see it coming because the splash of the jig will spook the fish at times. On calm days these big drum can often be seen pushing water on the surface, as well as their big tails sticking out of the water as they root for crabs and mantis shrimp.
As for the bull reds in those gin-clear shallows, that same rig will work, but you can also put on a soft-plastic bait like a Cocahoe Minnow, Salt Water Assassin, as well as a Berkley Gulp Shrimp or Shad for quick strikes. Colors like electric chicken, chartreuse, black, and white are good choices. Also, you can sweeten up the jigs by placing a piece of shrimp or cut mullet on the hook, and that bit of natural scent and taste will often lead to more aggressive bites on both the reds and drum.
Last winter, especially in February and March, the drum and reds were all over the barrier isle's flats and bars, and my clients simply stood on the bow armed with spinning tackle and jigs as massive dark schools of reds and drum worked their way along the bars and gullies.
At times they would be all around the boat, with the reds looking like mutant gold fish, a situation definitely owning up to the old saying, "Like shooting fish in a barrel!" For me, well, it was extremely enjoyable to see four anglers hooked up at the same time with big fish stripping drags in all directions. Definitely frantic moments but ones that we'll never forget.
Sheepshead In The Shallows
During the month of March the bay dwelling sheepshead will begin their migration offshore to spawn, and before most of them head offshore the bridges at the mouth of the bays are loaded with fish. However, by the end of March massive schools of the big sow sheepshead are swarming around the barrier isle's flats and outer beaches.
When they first start showing up you'll see huge schools of them on open shallow bars, but eventually the fish will take up residence around stumps, pilings, rocks, and wrecks in the shallows. Last season we were blessed to be able to fish a couple of such events, and to see literally thousands of the big sows in the shallows was an incredible sight. Most of these fish were 5 to 10 pounds, and in the spawning mode their faces were lit up in a brilliant turquoise hue.
Needless to say, it was easy pickings and once again live shrimp was the bait of choice. Our rigs consisted of spinning gear loaded with 10 lb. test clear monofilament, no swivel, a 3 foot length of 20 to 25 pound test fluorocarbon leader, and a 1/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook.
Also, there were times when a split shot would need to be added to the line 3 feet above the hook and that was when the current began to move at a faster rate. The shrimp were hooked either through the base of the horn or through the third joint from the tail.
Tossing the lively crustaceans into the melee of big sheepshead was quite a spectacle. Although they were in the height of their spawning ritual, they still took time out from procreating to chase down the live offerings.
Situations like these provide excellent opportunities for fly fishermen, as well, and although they can be tough to get to hit a fly at times, with this many fish your odds of hooking a couple of fish highly increases.
Of course, there were a few times when the sheepshead got quite finicky and wouldn't even take a big live shrimp. That's when we went to simply tying a small size 1 hook directly to the main line, no leader or swivel at all. The line was clear 10 lb. test Yo-Zuri Hybrid fluorocarbon, and the shrimp were offered in a smaller morsel.
The smallest live shrimp were then used but best results came from shrimp pinched in half, and the head section impaled on the hook. Go figure, but yes, the bite will often change during the course of a day, thus different strategies need to be employed.
Bottom line, black drum and sheepshead are often underrated but they do provide fine table fare, and are formidable gamesters when pursued on light tackle.
In Mississippi waters there are no limits on sheepshead and black drum, but if you encounter redfish the limits are 3 fish per angler per day, a minimum total length of 18 inches, with only one fish allowed over 30 inches in total length.
Well there you have it, a few extra options for recovering from the wintertime
blues, and keeping you on the water until the warmer spring months once
again greet south Mississippi. So until the warmth of summer thaws our winter
chilled bones Good fishing!