Way, way back during the mid to late 1970’s I was always told that really good fishing was just about over once Halloween commenced, and that it was time to hang up the rods and break out the deer rifles.
Many of my good friends actually stopped their freshwater efforts long before then. But as the years rolled on and I began to fish deeper and deeper into the winter season I realized that often the best fishing was just beginning.
To extend my angling season, I focused on species like walleyes, chain pickerel, trout and co-operative panfish species. Then, I discovered that both large and smallmouth bass, along with carp, pike and even blue catfish continued to feed throughout the colder months. My goal was to seek and secure multiple “personal best” catches during the chill.
That was nearly 45 years ago. Since then, almost all of my biggest fish, of almost all species, have been cold water, wintertime catches. Yes, a few exceptions. However, I can safely say that 70% of my largest fish, year after year, are caught when it’s cold and dreary and few venture out.
Fishing in the cold is not for everyone, and I’m not talking about ice-fishing either. This is open-water, winter fishing when water temperatures run from 44 down to 35 degrees and there is no ice coverage. If ever there is a time for weather to play a dominant role in angling success it is during the chill.
Here are three primary factors for catching fish when it’s cold and how you can use them to your advantage.
The wind can do good and bad things for fishing. It can chill us to the bone or concentrate plankton, baitfish and ultimately gamefish of various species. There are some winter insect hatches that occur in areas where ice coverage doesn’t and these, along with phyto-plankton and zoo-plankton, can be pushed and accumulated by wind to shorelines that receive the brunt of incoming winds.
Often, small baitfish feed on these and subsequently gamefish and larger panfish follow, creating a breezy but productive location to hold fish, especially during the warmest hours of a given day.
Wind can also help you cover water and it can be of great aid to a panfisherman utilizing a float or the bass angler drifting along a leeward shoreline. Wind also can dislodge various aquatics and create mudlines which offer great ambush opportunities for fish feeding from murky into clear water.
Although it’s not always the most comfortable situation, a 10-15 mph wind, directly in your face, may be the most productive positioning during a winter excursion.
The very warmest parts of most winter days are when the sun is highest in the sky and beating down during the noon until 3 p.m. time frame. Areas of shorelines, fallen trees, rip-rap, piers, docks or concrete that receive these few hours of sun can warm 3 to 5 degrees warmer than surrounding areas, hence drawing baitfish and gamefish species that are seeking any warmth they can find during an otherwise cold day. Sunlight also warms the surface water a few degrees and, coupled with wind, can be pushed up against a shoreline and create a “thermal bank” that will set off the chain reaction of plankton/bait/gamefish for a brief, but intense, feeding spree.
During the winter, many species exhibit peak feeding activity during the warmest hours of the day and the bite can sometimes last right into the evening hours until sunset. Frequently during my coldwater trips, the very best action of the day occurs an hour before nightfall.
Additionally, the warmth of the sun can not only make you feel a little better on a frigid day but can move fish remarkably shallow despite water temperatures that are 40 degrees or lower.
Incoming rainfall, especially if it is warmer than the current water temperatures, can sometimes trigger feeding activity in many types of water to include lakes, ponds rivers and streams. Even if the precipitation causes roiled or turbid conditions, warm rain is almost always a good thing for most species in fresh water.
When rainfall clouds water clarity, fish tend to lose some of their caution and can be vulnerable to vibrating baits or dark, contrasting lure combinations that become more visible in cloudy water.
At this time, a fast-moving bait like the Rat-L-Trap or a large spinnerbait can be effective on largemouth bass.
Rising water levels can also concentrate fish as well. In lakes or ponds, spillways or culvert outflows can swarm and confuse baitfish and then draw bigger game. In rivers and streams, tight, shoreline eddys will hold smallmouths and walleyes as water stages rise and they can be taken with hair jigs and bucktails, even various live baits.
There are other factors that aid in quality winter catches, such as a mild winter with no “on and off” ice coverage.