Wild Side Column: Winter fishing in the salt marsh
A vast expanse of salt marsh extends from Apalachicola, Florida, south along the Gulf Coast Big Bend to where we are spending the winter in Cedar Key. These marshes occur between the low and high tide levels.
The dominant plants in Florida salt marshes are needle rush (Juncus), growing along the higher marsh areas, cordgrass (Spartina) in the frequently inundated areas and sawgrass (Cladium) that grows along the upper edges of salt marshes. These plants are tolerant of brackish water and salt spray from the sea. From Cedar Key south, mangroves start to dominate the intertidal zone.
Salt marshes occur along low-energy coasts where shallow water, barrier islands and oyster bars protect the shoreline from strong wave action. The salt marshes further protect areas landward by trapping sediment and anchoring the coastline.
Salt marshes are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, producing high amounts of plant biomass. Salt marshes support an abundance of oysters, clams, crabs, many species of fish, ducks, wading birds, pelicans, alligators, raccoons and feral pigs. Bottlenose dolphins hunt tidal creeks, herding schools of mullet in the shallow water. You can hear them breathing from a distance.
Many freshwater creeks flow into the salt marsh from the delta of the Suwannee River to the north of Cedar Key and from swamps into Wacassassa Bay to the south.
The tidal creeks are very sinuous, being subject to reversing tidal flow. During winter, the shallow Gulf waters cool off. Fish like young red and black drum, mullet, sheephead and spotted sea trout move into the tidal creeks to find warmer water. Manatees swim up rivers to find springs where they keep warm in the 72°F groundwater.
I paddle on tidal creeks to find red drum and sheephead in holes where they are concentrated during low tide during cold spells. Arriving at low tide, I launch the canoe and scoot the boat over high spots in the creeks to reach a deep hole. The salt marsh is beautiful in the morning as the sun rises, clapper rails call, and a variety of birds fly over.
Launching a canoe or kayak onto a tidal creek at low tide is good practice to avoid being stuck up a creek when the tide goes out. The black mud will suck your boots off. The sand flies and alligators would love to eat you.
We fish with shrimp under a bobber or fish on the bottom trying to avoid the snaggy oyster bars. As the tide rises and flow reverses in the creek, the fish sometimes feed aggressively. The limit on red drum in northwest Florida is only one per day between 18- and 27-inches total length. Sometimes we catch our limits quickly and other mornings we stand on a sandbar, watching life in the salt marsh and hoping for a bite. A tasty redfish for dinner is a bonus.
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