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Winter Brings Big Fish to Southeast U.S.

Water temperatures and migrating baitfish often determine the bite.

Sur l’eau
Winter Brings Big Fish to Southeast U.S. | Mercury Marine

It’s a winter condition that’s nearly as predictable as the holiday shopping rush at your local mall: Boats fishing out of ports in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and the Carolinas encounter some of their biggest fish of the year of various species, including:  

  • Bull redfish out of Mobile Bay, Alabama and Venice, Louisiana 
  • Striped bass out of Chesapeake Bay, North Carolina 
  • Giant king mackerel on South Carolina’s Outer Banks and along Florida’s Gulf Coast 

It’s a schedule that Capt. Arik Bergerman of the Caliente Fishing Team in St. Petersburg, Florida, arranges his life around each December, January and February. He knows his 39-foot Yellowfin with quad 350hp Mercury Verado outboards will often cover hundreds of miles of water in a single day in search of those big fish.  

“This time of year until spring, we’ll see the arrival of big fish following the bait,” Bergerman confirmed.  “Wahoo, sailfish and big kingfish like to winter with their food supply, and in certain areas – depending on the currents – this is when you’ll find the biggest fish of the year.” 

Bergerman has the results to prove it: He and the Caliente Fishing Team have racked up multiple Top 5 finishes in late fall/winter tournaments, including first-place checks in at least one Southern Kingfish Association or Wild West Kingfish Series each of the past several years.  

That’s no small feat in the hyper-competitive world of offshore tournaments held in the Southeast. 

“That’s where the best fishermen come to compete; they know where the big fish live,” said Bergerman. 

Winter currents drive fishing opportunity 

As is the case with virtually every species of freshwater and saltwater fish, kingfish and other pelagics have preferences for certain water temperatures. They’ll tolerate extreme temperatures when the food supply is plentiful. Still, that food supply – consisting of blue runners, ballyhoo and threadfin, for example – also has a strong preference for “comfortable” water temperatures and will almost always migrate accordingly.  

Kingfish and sailfish, for example, move from the upper Gulf of Mexico along the west coast of Florida in the late fall. At the same time, the Gulf Stream and the cooler waters of the Labrador Current keep the pelagics (including bluefin tuna) in the Carolinas until the onset of winter. But when the Loop Current – an area of warm water from the Caribbean Sea that enters the Gulf between Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba – pushes east, bends south along Florida’s coast and up the Atlantic Seaboard, bait and predators move with it. 

“When the Loop comes close to us and the bait moves in big schools, the wahoo, sailfish and giant kingfisher migrate closer to shore along with them,” Bergerman said.  

Big fish sometimes demand big runs 

In the vernacular of anglers such as Bergerman, “closer to shore” can be a relative term. While some fisheries produce excellent fishing right off the beach (Gulf redfish being one of them), the speed of the Loop Current can also reposition fish on a day-to-day basis. And that translates into mileage on the big motors, sometimes in big seas. 

“Fishing out of Key West, sometimes you have to run 70 to 80 miles one way to the (Dry) Tortugas (Islands),” Bergerman said. “The Loop moves so fast that you have to move with it to find where the bait is. Sometimes we run 200 to 300 miles in a day in rough seas, and it’s not out of the question to cover 500 miles in a day. There’s a reason why I have quad 350 Verados: When you have a fast boat with dependable motors, you have more time to fish. It’s pretty simple math.”

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