March is one of those transition months for many anglers along Eastern Tampa Bay and Northern Sarasota Bay. March can bring stellar warm, calm days.....or miserable blustery days. The bottom line is, you never know what you are going to get. What you can take some solace in, is that April is right around the corner.
For anglers using artificials, matching the hatch as best as possible, is key. The bait that is prevalent on the flats is on the small side. Because of that, I rarely use a soft plastic jerkbait or hard twitch bait, longer than 4 inches. The smaller the better. The fish that I target (redfish, trout, snook....in that order due to the snook closure) are still trying to regain their metabolic rates after one of the coldest winters on record. Because of that, crustaceans and small bait fish are on the menu for these guys. My two "go-to" baits for this time of year is a Mirr-O-Lure Mirro-Dine and 3" DOA Shadtail (Golden Bream) rigged on a 1/0 Mustad 1/16 oz. Power Lock Hook. The water is ultra clear, so I am still using 15 lb. fluorocarbon for leader material.....and as always.....connecting my baits to the leader with a loop knot. Another "go-to" bait is the 1/4 oz. DOA Shrimp (Carbonated Rootbeer). Sight casting to reds with a DOA Shrimp is almost a guaranteed hit. This is the ONLY time of year when I will carry live bait on my skiff. I will sight cast live shrimp to cruising or laid up reds and bonnethead sharks out on the flats of Tampa Bay.
Being a predominately fly fishing guide, March is usually a great month due to the clear water and extreme low tide conditions. Unfortunately, the wind does not always cooperate so finding cover along lee shorelines with clear water is the number one priority. This is a great time of year to test your accuracy on one of the flats most challenging fly quarries, the sheepshead. Sheepies are tough because they are sooooo spooky and you have to be able to see when they take the fly so you can set the hook. Poling a skiff is a must. It is the only way you will close the distance to get within sight casting range of these guys. Be sure to look around the sheepshead as well. I have been finding that redfish have been cruising with the sheepies looking for the same forage. I have actually sight casted a sheepshead only to have a redfish come and take the fly instead. 6-8 weight rods,with corresponding floating fly line, are the standard and with the clear water conditions, your tippets need to be scaled down to straight 12-16 lb. test. Just about any crab or shrimp fly pattern will take either a red or a sheepshead but here are a few of my "go-to" patterns: Dorsey's Kwan, Borski Slider, Borski Fur Shrimp, Merkwan, Flats Toad, Lantham's Crab, and the TK Special.
When fly fishing or sight casting artificials and live shrimp, I prefer working a mid-morning incoming tide after an early morning low. The sun exposure on the low tide flats will heat the water and activate all the creepy-crawlies that live in the mud. I also pay close attention to the bird activity on the flats. The spoonbills that are foraging in the mud on low tide are eating the same stuff the reds and sheepshead will be feeding on after the tide rises. The snowy egrets, that have their yellow legs in the water, are feeding on small bait fish that reds, trout and snook will be feeding on once the tide rises a bit more. But the one bird I look for the most is the great blue heron. He IS feeding on exactly what reds, trout and snook will be feeding on. Whether or not I fish near him depends on where the water is compared to his butt. If more than half of his legs are exposed, I need to wait just a bit longer until the tide rises some more, OR, fish the deeper areas in front of him. If I see a heron and his butt is touching the water, I fish all around him. The great blue heron is dead giveaway that bait is very nearby, which means the game fish will be close behind.
The one thing you can do that every other living thing does when it is cold.....is SLOW DOWN!! You will be amazed what you can observe when you take the time to really see what is going on and apply it towards your angling experiences.