Over the weekend, I was sitting around a fire with a bunch of folks I’ve known my entire life, through fishing and hunting. We were talking about New Year’s resolutions and how we never keep them, until our family friend Jamie Brandon said he was resolved to make the most out of each season.
By that he did not mean winter, spring, summer or fall. He meant fishing and hunting seasons, and the times when the fish are running. I piped in, saying, “That’s what I love about sportsmen; we might as well call January ‘ducks,” February ‘sailfish,’ and so on."
We all talked about what we’re going to focus on fish-wise in the next 12 months. Here are my 2014 outdoor to-do “resolutions,” for the first half of the year. Come see what I’m on to!
Florida offers some of the most public hunting access per capita in the nation, and some of the most underrated waterfowl hunting in North America. The regular season ends Jan. 31, and there’s a two-day youth season in early February. January is often the best month to hunt, because winter storms will have pushed most of the migrating populations south into Florida and the Caribbean. Top late-season marshes include those in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, those along the southern portion of the St. Johns River, basically from Cocoa south, and in the Everglades, including Lake Okeechobee and the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. If you’ve never duck hunted out of an airboat, you need to come experience it here.
Sailfish are hands-down the most exciting fish to catch offshore in the winter. The populations are tremendous, thanks to sound conservation strategies. Whether you’re trolling or dangling live baits from a kite, you will see the purple sail light up and knife through the waves as the fish pursues the baits. Once hooked, these fish take immediately to the air, make long runs, and fight all the way to the stern. Sailfishing has literally never been better off the East Florida coast. You can find an excellent captain out of any marina between Fort Pierce and Key West. Where I live, in the Stuart area, we are officially the Sailfish Capital of the World for good reason: Sailfishing rocks here. But it’s hard to beat Miami Beach and the Keys for epic sailfish action.
Release on a lunker bass on Lake Okeechobee. Even the guys who fished it in the 60s are saying that the “Big O” is fishing better than anyone can remember. I’ve fished it for more than 30 years and I’ve never been so excited about a bass fishery. Florida-strain largemouths will try to spawn all year round on the new and full moon phases. But the March spawn coincides with the shad spawn, which gives the adult females as well as the young of year bass an opportunity for an easy, nutritious meal. The big sows move in an out before and after spawning, feeding with abandon. It’s hard to say which part of the lake is best. You can fish out of Belle Glade, Clewiston, Moore Haven, Lakeport, or Okeechobee with about equally good odds of landing a 10-pounder.
I like to be a homebody the first month of spring, and stick to my home waters of the Indian River Lagoon. This is the month when the biggest sow trout of the year are caught, and snook season is open while the fish are feeding rampantly ahead of spawning season. The world record spotted sea trout, which weighed in over 17 pounds, was caught near Fort Pierce. But the Indian River Lagoon is about 130 miles long, and you can catch lunker trout from Titusville to Jupiter. Most of the snook action takes place from Sebastian southward, although plenty of fish are caught in the northern end of the lagoon in years when we don’t get any freezes. Redfish are also readily available throughout the system.
It’s a long run, about 40 miles to the edge off St. Augustine, but worth every mile if you want to catch the biggest wahoo and dolphin of your life, and maybe a yellowfin tuna. A few years back, Mike Dixon and I made the run and I caught a 73-pound dolphin. I'll never forget that fish. Give Jodie Lyn Charters a call and they’ll put you on fish for sure. Of course, St. Augustine is a great city to come back to after a long day of fishing. Plenty of fun and history for the whole family.
Go tarpon fishing in the Keys or in Everglades National Park. I would not feel like I’d lived that year if I had not pursued tarpon with a fly rod from the vantage of a flats skiff in the shallows. But there are plenty of other ways to target the Silver King that accommodate all skill levels.