While February brings some of the wilder winter weather to the rest of the country, the Keys are spared the brunt of the cold. What we are not often spared is the wind that accompanies the cold fronts. Even between the fronts, the prevailing winds will often blow 20+ for weeks on end. With this wind in mind, staying inside and especially in the backcountry will allow for considerably more days on the water. If you are anything like me, with a severe case of Fishing ADD, staying off of the water for that long is an impossibility.
The bite in the backcountry channels, basins and deeper flats can be notoriously finicky. Snapper who were voracious one day can have zip lip the next day. Basins that teemed with trout one day can be devoid the next. Doing homework and having a backup plan for your back up plan can save an otherwise slow day. For me, targeting trout and snapper in the mullet muds is the perfect back up plan.
When looking for trout, the classic mullet mud is a giveaway that there is feeding going on in an area. The mullet are largely herbivores that root out algae and plants from the silt bottom. This feeding activity displaces small fish and crustaceans from their hiding places and into the waiting mouths of several species of predator. Muds can be from a couple of hundred feet long to acres upon acres and acres of light colored water. Trout, snapper, ladyfish, jack crevalle and blue runners are just a few of the species found feeding in the muds.
While all of the mentioned fish will gladly eat a shrimp, so will every pinfish, lizard fish, squirrel fish and other bait stealer that swims. To combat the need to replace bait every cast, we use artificial lures to keep bait in the water longer and to withstand the constant onslaught of the bait stealers.
One favorite in the Lower Keys is the jig head and plastic tail combination. While the rubber jig tails are not impervious to the nibbling of the stealers, it cuts down on the need to rebait. There are an infinite number of jig combinations; jig head shapes, colors, weights and hook styles. When you get to the tail selection it really gets overwhelming. Tails come in three basic configurations; shrimp, fish and worm. There are other specialty tails such as crab and crawfish. Add to the decision making color combinations and size and things get confusing. I have narrowed my selection down to the shrimp shapes.
Technology has come a long way in the science of fish attractants. Many popular lures come with scent built right into the rubber. Others have developed spray attractant to be applied to the outside of the bait. Gulp Lures have developed the science of infusing the scent right into the rubber. By keeping a tub or tray of these jig tails in the boat you are never out of bait.
Selecting the combination of jig head weight to go with a particular tail will change with the conditions. A fast drift due to high wind, across a deep flat, will require a heavier jig head to get the lure into the strike zone, than will a slow drift on a shallow flat.
Speaking of drifting, that is how most trout and snapper are caught in the Keys. Of course some are caught on bait while anchored to the bottom but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. When you find a mud to drift through simply go the up wind end of the area and drift through with your jig trailing behind about seventy feet or more. Sometimes when the current and wind are running perpendicular to each other you have to calculate the best drift to keep you into the strike zone. While trout are found throughout the mud, they tend to bite best near the outer edges while I tend to find more ladyfish in the heart of the mud.
While jigging techniques vary with each angler, I have found that a more robust sharp short twitch to be most effective. I like a cadence of twitch, twitch, give it a rest. Just keep repeating the cadence until you connect with a fish on the twitch. Here also is where you fine tune your jig head weight. If your jig is visible near the surface go up in weight until it stays down on the drift. If you are getting into the bottom frequently you need a lighter jig head.
Unless you can afford a flyover of the backcountry to direct you to the muds, you will just have to explore the back country looking for muds between flats, in the basins and even in the channels. While the muds will move frequently, you will with time develop a list of likely places to search.
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