Winter fishing: Pick a fish and catch it here

Just one of many: Captain Raul Montoro holds up a slot-sized snook that was caught and released recently next to a sea wall in Biscayne Bay.
Just one of many: Captain Raul Montoro holds up a slot-sized snook that was caught and released recently next to a sea wall in Biscayne Bay. Miami Herald Staff

Biscayne Bay, Miami’s watery backyard, is celebrated among anglers for its surprisingly bountiful flats fishing targeting the “big three”— bonefish, tarpon and permit.

But those revered game species often flee the shallows during the cold winter months.

Fortunately, the bay’s winter fishery still is productive enough to hold just about any angler’s interest.

“Wintertime is a good time to keep the rod bent and catch a variety of different species,” veteran Miami skiff guide captain Raul Montoro said. “You can find protection from any wind direction unless it’s hard northeast blowing 20.”

At 428 square miles, Biscayne Bay boasts a variety of habitats. In addition to sand and grass flats, the bay is dotted with shallow wrecks, patch reefs, finger channels and rock piles. Even the sea walls hold fish.

In a single day of fishing recently, Montoro and a companion caught and released a slot-sized snook, numerous sea trout, several undersized gag and black grouper, some mangrove and mutton snapper, porgies and jacks.

To tilt the odds, the guide netted a well full of pilchards on the flats near the Deering Bay development — alerted to the bait school by diving pelicans and cormorants.

“The pilchards tend to be in areas where there’s current,” Montoro said. “They could be anywhere from 12 inches to four feet of water.”

Paying attention to the tidal charts clearly enhances the odds of catching fish with the freshly-netted bait. Besides generating current that carries the bait to hungry jaws, tide also affects water temperature.

Montoro said optimum water temperatures for winter variety fishing in the bay are from 69 to 75 degrees. Colder than that, and fish tend to seek the warmth offered by deeper ocean waters.

“I’ve always found it better inside the bay on an incoming tide because it brings in the warm water from the ocean,” he said.

The tide was trickling out when Montoro and a companion anchored near a small shipwreck eight feet deep in the southern bay. They caught and released three or four small grouper and a mangrove snapper using light spinning gear with 1/8-ounce Troll-Rite-style jigs tipped with pilchards, but the bite was very slow — probably owing to water temperatures in the low 60s.

Montoro pointed the skiff north to a wide finger channel where the live baits yielded numerous porgies, a small mutton, and several jacks. Then the pair headed to a residential sea wall where they released a slot-sized snook on a free-lined pilchard and lost another, then tussled with several jacks.

To wrap up the day, they drifted across some grass flats just south of the Rickenbacker Causeway where they released probably a dozen trout to about 11/2pounds. The largest fish hit a pilchard dangled beneath a D.O.A. “Deadly Combo” rattling float, but Montoro got the most bites using a very durable Monster 3X shrimp on a 1/4-ounce jig head plus the Deadly Combo.

“You could catch trout literally all day with one of these shrimp,” he said.

The only wintertime bay denizen they didn’t catch — because they ran out of time — was Spanish mackerel which can be found beside the Fisher Island ferry dock in Government Cut, at the site of the former Bug Light off Cape Florida, and along ledges and patch reefs in the southern bay.

When mackerel show up in good numbers, they’ll bite just about anything — pilchards, shrimp, jigs, spoons or plugs. But despite their notorious teeth, Montoro and other guides eschew wire leader unless the water is very dirty. Montoro said he gets a lot more bites using light mono or fluorocarbon leader tied to 2/0 long-shank hooks.

So, short of a polar vortex, something is usually biting — both for sport and the table — in view of the Magic City skyline.

If you go

To book a trip with captain Raul Montoro, go to shallowtails.com or call 786-390-9069.