Dock Fishing in the Winter Part I
These series of articles underscores what many of us think is the most challenging and entertaining category of winter inshore action on saltwater -- fishing residential docks!
The mud in the backwater where residential docks have been built by the thousands in and around the bays and intercoastals is black and thick. When the water's cold, it holds warmth. That warmth attracts fish. Redfish and snook, in particular, populate the docks with big trout -- some of the biggest you'll find all year -- often hanging at the deeper mouths of the canals holding the docks. Part 1 of this how-to series of articles has a section attached to it that we pulled out of the book "Skinny: How to Fish Shallow Saltwater" that I wrote with Captain Mel Berman. We hope you enjoy this bit of cold-weather reading.
Residential docks aren't easy to fish, but can produce big fish to the brave of heart. Try not to yell obscenities when you get broken off. Trust us. You will.
Fishing docks in the wintertime -- for me, at least -- is one of the most challenging and productive ways to find fish in the bay. And while there's no question that you'll find it easier (almost too easy at times) to catch big redfish under docks in the wintertime, the snook you find with them tend to lurk there all year.
When I wrote the book "Skinny: How to Fish in Shallow Saltwater", dock fishing played a big role. Captain Mel wasn't that much of a dock guy; he liked fishing in any form, anywhere, and under pretty-much any circumstances. Invitations on guide boats weren't hard for him to come by, and docks are a little bit too much work for a four hour trip.
All that said, I got in a chapter about dock fishing -- positioning the boat, where the fish sit, bottom structure, nighttime fishing, skip casting, and more. Reading over the chapter before I put it up there reminded me of a friend of mine I miss really bad. A guy named Captain Mel Berman.
One other thing before you read the document. On page 17, the book suggests you use a "hand-done" chart as opposed to digital/satellite images, because they provide easier-to-read depth statistics. Download a free program called Google Earth. It provides the old-fashioned charts we suggest -- but in an incredible and beautiful digital format that works perfectly on your iPhone, Android, or "Crack-berry".
Docks and Man-made Structure
“December dock fishing” is a phrase popular with just about everybody that fishes skinny water in Tampa bay and anywhere there are residential areas with canals and docks behind the houses. Captain Mike Plastic, a friend and fishing companion, gets credit for coining the term. Interestingly, it was probably a cold October that first time he mentioned it, saying ‘let’s go fishing’ (common from the mouth of Captain Mike). I said it was too cold, to which he replied ‘haven’t you ever heard of December Dock fishing?” “It’s not December" I said. “It’s cold, isn’t it?” was his timely and – by the end of the day – correct snappy answer.
When we say “docks” we’re not always talking about the ones that you tie a boat too. This Spillway and access walkway is the same as a residential dock; it holds bait the same way, and attracts predators the same way.
It doesn’t have to be December to go dock fishing; the fish go under docks whenever it gets cold. Water temps around maybe 62 degrees. Redfish, their cousins the ‘puppy’ drum, second cousin the speckled sea trout (yup, another drum), snook, and the ubiquitous saltwater catfish hunker down underneath residential and commercial docks.
Docks can be thought of as ‘houses’ where fish live, because their actual structure creates a roof. The roof is the deck of the dock or walkway. Underneath the roof is the house.
Because of this house analogy, there are two things to remember about dock fishing. If you make noise on the outside of the house whoever or whatever is inside is going to run out. In this case, they’re going to run away from the dock. Be quiet.
Fish docks on higher tides. The more water that you see under that roof, the more room there is in the house. The higher the tide, the bigger the house. The bigger the house, the more fish there are living in it. Tidal flow is important BUT it is NOT as important as the amount of water that’s present.
In a lower tide, there’s only room for one or two target snook underneath this dock. It’s a perfectly viable dock, but as the house gets smaller, the room inside diminishes.
When the tide’s low there’s less room in the 'house' for snook (and others) to live.
The more room there is in the 'house', the more fish can fit in it
For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to talk about residential docks, because there are a lot more of them in skinny locales than there are commercial docks. Marinas, which sort of fall in the middle of residential and commercial, are prime candidates for catching big fish in cold weather, but there may be restrictions, and certainly armed boaters – so do be careful. Remember, being nice, friendly, and respectful of others’ properties is key.
While some people aren’t exactly overjoyed that you’re fishing behind their house early one morning, just be quiet, polite, and keep down the curse words when a powerful redfish makes a fool out of you and peels off 50 yards of line while running out from under the dock you’re fishing to the one next door wrapping your line three times around the dock you’re on while he’s departing. Overall, people that have waterfront houses don’t mind if people fish around their docks if they’re nice and respectful and quiet. On the other hand, they don’t really have the right to tell you not to fish there. The water’s public regardless of the privacy of the neighborhood it flows through. This is true for rivers as well as all saltwater, but not true for lakes which can -- by being surrounded by houses – be made purely private.
Why fish are found under docks
Docks are like decks; they are a series of boards that rest on joists or cross pieces which in turn are attached to pilings. Pilings are large round timbers pressure-treated to avoid rot (although the process slows and doesn’t stop deterioration of the wood) that are sunk into the bottom. Barnacles love dock pilings; that’s part (but only part) of why fish pile up around them in the wintertime.
Docks get warmed from the sun. They're often found in canals, and canals are muddy, not grassy, by nature. Dark mud attracts light and is warmer than bright sand; the water underneath those rooftops called docks is a little warmer than the surrounding (open) flats and large bodies of water. We’ve seen thirty snook just sitting in 12 inches of water with their bellies on the skankiest-smelling, darkest, slimiest mud in the Bay. And they were happy fish, just waiting to warm up so they could resume their hunting.
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