The toughest fishing of the year is December through February, with water temperatures at their lowest, into the 40s and 50s. Most baitfish and shrimp, with seatrout in tow, move into the lower estuaries, river mouths and along the beach. Plenty of trout also are found along drop-offs of the Intracoastal Waterway connecting inlets and rivers.
Still, some of the best fishing for the biggest winter trout can be found during the coldest weather. Last December, good friend Mike Hayes of Jacksonville, my son Eric and I had a banner day out of St. Augustine. The air temperature was 40 at dawn, and a 15 mph wind made it nippy. By working drop-offs along the ICW with ¼-ounce jigs and 4-inch Cotton Cordell Red Fin diving plugs, we tallied 40 fish, with many trout pushing 4 pounds, plus some bonus redfish to 5 pounds and flounder to 3 pounds.
Those fish were holding along an ICW drop-off in six to 12 feet of water. But there are times in winter — usually during low tides in backwater mud-bottom tidal creeks and bays — where trout to 5 pounds and more feed in water just two to four feet deep. Jigs and slow-swimming plugs score well, and local anglers troll with electric motors and blister trout. Kayakers towing tandem grub jigs also catch lots of winter trout in six to 12 feet of water.
March to April is big-trout time. Every year trout over the magic 10-pound mark are caught, and most of them are released. Smaller fish are better on the table, and lunkers are more valuable as spawning stock. Shallow coastal creeks feeding the ICW give up plenty of heavyweights, as do the inlet jetty rocks at Fernandina Beach, the mouth of the St. Johns River, and St. Augustine. Deep water near bridge abutments also produce giants in spring. Eddie Cabler of Jacksonville, who makes Sureset jigs, caught and released three trout last April weighing 10 pounds or more. Guide Jeff Crabtree also has caught many northeast Florida trout over 10 pounds, as has Chris Holleman.
From May through September, bait stocks skyrocket, and with higher temperatures, fish scatter, often moving 30 miles and more up the St. Johns River, for example. Dawn, dusk and night fishing are most productive, anywhere bait is abundant. Hard-running tides are best, and deeper water — eight to 12 feet — is a key factor in locating trout. Submerged shell bars, important for holding feeding trout, also produce good catches of redfish and flounder. Almost any dock throughout the lower St. Johns River, St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach, and along much of the ICW, can be choice for summer trout, especially at night when lights draw bait.