From the time of prehistoric humans, natural freshwater springs have symbolized life. At this time of year, when Gulf water temperatures plunge, they often are the difference between life and death for some fish species.
Ground water bubbling from the various streams along the Hernando County coast stay around 72 to 73 degrees. That’s pretty chilly for a swim but consider that to snook and other vulnerable inshore species of fish, 72 is downright toasty in winter. For many of our fish, when Gulf temperatures dip into the low 50s, the warmth around these springs also can be the difference between life and death.
Springs being fish magnets all through winter, it’s no surprise they attract about as many anglers as they do fish.
One local hotspot of spring-water winter fishing is Jenkins Creek, opposite Linda Pedersen Park just south of Weeki Wachee, on Shoal Line Boulevard. Luckily for anglers, there just so happens to be a fishing pier there, The spring is above the pier on the park side east of the roadway, but warm spring water bubbling out of the spring runs out of the creek toward the Gulf, where the pier sits. It’s a natural ambush point for fish moving off the Gulf and into the area in search of warmer water. Snook, trout, redfish, mangrove snapper, sheepshead, flounder and black drum are among the species routinely taken in December and January, when water temperatures are at their lowest.
Another hotspot in winter is Bayport Park, at the mouth of the Weeki Wachee River. Anglers will be disappointed that the portion of the park at the mouth of the river, where they fishing can be the best, the Bayport Pier, is closed this season due to reconstruction. The good news, of course, is that by the next winter anglers will have a brand new pier to fish from. For this year, the best fishing opportunities at the park will be the canal that runs along the east side of the park up to the boat ramp. Because of the relatively warm 72-degree river water flowing just off the canal, the spot will be a natural for fish looking for a little warmth.
The spring at the head of the Mud River, which dumps into the Weeki Wachee from the north, is another winter hotspot. It is accessible by boat, with many launching at the historic Mary’s Fish Camp, just downstream from the spring.
Mary’s, by the way, is a popular winter fishing spot for hook-and-line anglers fishing for mullet. It’s a specialized type of fishing, as mullet are vegetarians, but the folks at the fish camp are more than happy to tell you how it’s done and they have everything you need at the bait shop.
There are various small and lesser-known creeks that offer some good opportunities for December fishing, including Hammock Creek, in Aripeka, where several small springs are situated on fingers of the creek east of the two bridges at Palm Island. The best fishing is by boat for those who work up the creek to where the spring lie, but both of the bridges on Aripeka Road are good bets this time of year, as the water flowing out of the north and south branches of the creek provides a few degrees of warmth at both structures, which have wide walkways from which anglers can safely fish.
“The colder it gets the more important the creeks become to our fishing,” said Capt. Josh Fritz, a longtime Hernando guide who grew up fishing the local waters.
Finding the smaller springs that can make the difference between a good day of fishing and a washout can be difficult for those who haven’t lived and fished in the area for years. One sure way to find them, and perhaps one or two in canals or creeks accessible by foot, is to get out early in the morning when the air is cold and look for parches of steam rising from the water. For those who’d rather poke around the internet from the warmth of home, check out the spring locator map at http://www.floridasprings.org.
Remember that finding a fishy spot in winter is only half the battle.
If using artificial baits, be sure to slow them down and work them deep, as cold fish are in no mood to chase down their food. A good bet is to leave the plastics and plugs in the box and go with live shrimp, the king of all saltwater baits in winter. Rig them under a float or free-lined on just a hook.