Where The Wild Fins Want To Be: Solving The Water Temperature Conundrum

Florida–Early March 2023

As a young farmboy in Kansas, I was raised on catching freshwater catfish in the Little Arkansas (ARE-Kansas) River near my hometown. It was easy. When the river was up, the catfish went on the feed and liked the live leapfrogs we suckered them with. But the more I chase snook, reds, and tarpon in saltwater (and just about anything that will bite), the more complicated angling seems to have become. Some days my head spins thinking about how the tides, salinity, wind, moon phase, depth, bait, currents, and time of day are going to affect my next outing fishing inshore and in the backcountry of the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands near Everglades City. Periodic cold fronts that have blasted through the area this winter have made water temperature an even bigger factor, often trumping everything else.

In late December and then again in mid-January air temperatures fell precipitously from the 80s during the day into the low 40s for several nights in a row.  That dropped water temperatures into the 50s.  On one trip soon after the December cold snap, I saw literally thousands of Oscars and Mayan Cichlids killed on the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve’s East River.  The piles of dead fish made for vulture heaven. 

Cichlids Bite The Dust

Post Cold Snap Vulture Feast

Fortunately, I saw only a couple of dead baby tarpon and no snook.  However, other angling friends sadly reported seeing dead sportfish in the backcountry as well as manatee.

Cold Front Victim

Mercifully for us snowbirds, a couple of weeks post-cold front, things started to recover.  Inshore the fish had the luxury of retreating into deeper water of the Gulf during the frigid weather, and then the tides coming in from the nearby Gulf warmed things up quickly.  But in the Everglades backcountry where I like to explore, the story was different.  I was surprised to find that a temperature difference of five degrees between 60 and 65 or 65 and 70 in locations not far from one another made a big difference, making fishing a real challenge. The problem was that the temperatures at my launch in Chokoloskee were usually warmer than in the backcountry which made predicting where to go a crap shoot–or even whether I should venture out at all.  Here is an example of the conundrum I was grappling with.  In early January, my fishing buddy Steve Keeble, drove down from Georgia to thaw out and chase some snook.  The water temperature in Chokoloskee Bay was pushing 70 degrees, so things looked good when we plotted our backcountry trip, within the comfort range for snook and redfish according to a handy-dandy temperature table I had cobbled together based on some on-line research.

REDFISH61-90Below 40
TARPON75-90Below 55
JACK CREVALLE70-85+Avoids Temps Below 65
GOLIATH GROUPER73-82+Avoids Temps Below 60
LARGEMOUTH BASS61-84Seeks Deeper Water Below 40

But when we motored into the backcountry in my Gheenoe, we were skunked with nary a bite in one tidal creek where the water temperature was 65 degrees.  I was ready to give up but decided to try another nearby creek, and there we found hungry fish, including a big mama snook that Mr. Keeble adroitly landed after some mangrove mayhem–despite the water temperature being just over 60. 

33-Inch Mama Snook

After some head scratching, we concluded the difference apparently was depth.  The first creek being only three feet deep and the second having narrower channels where the depth was four-to-five feet which gave the fish a sanctuary to retreat to during the earlier cold snap, warmer than the surface temperature.  Now the puzzle was how to predict water temperatures in the backcountry more accurately before I headed out.

A few weeks later Mr. Keeble, back north freezing his derrière off, sent me an email that clued me in on a valuable tool that has helped me gain some insights into the water temperature conundrum—an obscure website with the bureaucratically inspired name of National Data Buoy Center (NDBC).  A part of NOAA (the federal National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), the center bills itself as “the premier source of meteorological and oceanographic measurements for the marine environment”—and it is!  The NDBC maintains hundreds of buoys around the United States. 

Fortunately, the NDBC maintains four information gathering sites near Everglades City within Everglades National Park.  They are: 1) CNBFI-Cannon Bay, (2) LMRFI—Lostmans, (3)WLFI—Watson’s Place, and (4)  WIWFI—Willy Willy.  The Willy Willy site is particularly relevant for my backcountry peregrinations because it is farther away from the waters of the Gulf than the other three and located in a tidal creek rather than a wide tidal river or big bay—not a foolproof indicator by any means, but certainly better than flying blind.

Now before any trip into the Everglades backcountry, I open the NDBC web page, click on the four sites, and get the inside skinny on water temperatures and other data.  Then when I get to the areas in my motorboat I have decided to explore, I check the water temperature and depth displays carefully on my Garmin Echomap to home in on the most likely spots. 

Temperature Tracking Pays Off

If out in my Hobie Outback kayak, I go more rudimentary, dropping a water thermometer overboard (tied to my yak!) for a temperature reading and extend my collapsible paddle to full length to determine the depth. Temperature is also important in freshwater lakes in the Everglades for tracking down bass and cichlids.

I assiduously record this information in the journal I maintain for every fishing trip which allows me to feed it all into the giant mainframe computer I maintain at home that spits out exact spots to fish next time out with 100% reliability.  I wish.  But having this information does often provide a leg up and leads me into the likely areas without a lot of fruitless experimenting by hoping from place-to-place. 

Things will be different during the summer around Everglades City when the shallow backcountry waters heat up rapidly, exceeding the upper comfort limits of many sportfish.  Then the most likely fishing spots will be inshore among and just off the Ten Thousand Islands closer to the cooler waters of the Gulf, but the process of checking the NDBC site will be the same.  Of course, all the other variables—tides, wind, currents, moon phase, etc.—have to be factored into the equation….but that’s what makes fishing, and hopefully catching, such fun and provides anglers with ample excuses to get out on the water and figure it all out. 

Rabbit Key Pass/Lopez River Loop: A Piscatorial Smorgasbord

Late March 2019

After a couple of days last week navigating and casting in the tight, sometimes maddening, quarters of backcountry mangrove tunnels, I’m ready for an easy day of fishing in my kayak.  One of my favorite close-in trips starts at the historic Smallwood Store, just a long stone’s throw from my winter abode on Chokoloskee Island, Florida.  The route wends its way past some productive oyster beds then snakes up channels to cross Rabbit Key Pass before circling back to the Lopez River and back home.  It’s a trip that always produces a grab bag of fish with a good chance at a slam—a redfish, speckled sea trout, and snook, with feisty jack crevalles and high-stepping ladyfish to keep you busy throughout the day.  Let’s go!!



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