Follow these simple guidelines to catch more chilly-weather fish
1. Forget the flats
So you found a lot of fish in a skinny water hotspot earlier in the year, and you’re sure they must still be around? Sure, the water temperature has dropped into the high 60s, but judging by the number of fish you saw, there’s no way you won’t scare up something, right? Don’t bet on it. Good fishing trips are defined by the time you spend in productive water. Hit a grassflat in chilly weather – especially once the water temperature has been on the low side for a few days – and you’ll likely spend your time casting at open, clear – and empty – water. An important caveat here: If a warming trend has preceded your trip, give the flats a look. A few degrees in temperature change can lead more cold-tolerant gamefish (like redfish and trout) up onto the flats to bask in the sunlight and look for food.
2. Find deeper water
Now don’t take this tip too literally and start heading offshore. Most gamefish are still fond of structure, even when they seek greater depths. Larger specimens can sometimes be caught on wrecks in the colder months, but a greater percentage seek out deep water inland, often as far back as they can push. Why do they seek deeper water? Because deeper sections often retain more stable temperatures, which offers greater comfort and – if temperatures drop dramatically – a greater chance of survival. Not every deep pocket holds warmer water, however. Look further inland for quiet, still channels that are protected from the wind. These spots will do especially well when temperatures are dropping or consistently cold for days on end.
3. Get jiggy with it
When fishing the aforementioned deeper holes, a jig or weighted softbait should be your weapons of choice. Jigs allow you to plumb the depths of numerous spots, covering a lot of water to find fish that are willing to bite despite the cold. Jigs are especially effective on lower tides when water is concentrated in deeper sections. How should you fish a jig in this situation? Read the next tip.
4. Slow it down
A fish’s metabolism slows as the barometer drops in a sort of forced hibernation. Baitfish and other forms of forage food are scarce during the winter months, so fish are acclimated to finding a warm spot and using as little energy as possible while they wait out the nasty weather. Accordingly, most cold-weather fish will not expend a lot of energy chasing down a lure like they might in the warmer months. Regardless of your lure of choice, remember to take your time on the retrieve. A slowed-down offering is more likely to be attacked for two reasons: 1) cold fish won’t have to spend a lot of energy to catch anything, and 2) baitfish are cold in the winter, also, and they tend to move at a less frantic pace.
5. Try residential canals
That is, in an effort to find cold-weather fish, it can be worth your while to fish residential canals, especially those that are further inland. When the weather gets real chilly, fish often abandon even the deeper inshore holes and push their way back into canals. Why? Because these man-made avenues offer water that is protected from the wind – wind that can further lower water temperatures. Canals also offer structure in the form of docks, and deeper water in the form of dredged areas. Residential areas are often overlooked, but they can be lousy with cold-weather fish. If you can find a spillway or warm power-plant outflow further inland during the winter months, your odds go up even higher. Don’t overlook docks that have been dredged especially deep to accommodate larger, deep-hulled vessels such as yachts and sailboats.
6. Consider creeks
Winter-time creek fishing can be fantastic, at times. On cold winter days when the sun creeps out and starts to warm the water’s surface, big gamefish can be found sunning themselves in the shallows of backwater creeks, flats and bays. Depending on the temperature, their attitude can range from almost comatose to all-out aggressive. And though jigs are the classic winter-time lure, if you can find a bunch of hungry fish that have been warming in the shallows for a few hours, you can experience some incredible action on topwater plugs.
7. Sleep in
Most fishermen set their alarms early, fumbling to prepare their gear in darkness and squinting through bleary eyes as they drive to their destination of choice. However, fishing in the colder months is often better later in the day, after the sun has had a chance to warm the water. If the weather report calls for cold temperatures but steady sunlight, sleep in and try to time your trip so that you’re working productive water in the warmer stages of the afternoon.
8. Watch for warming trends
Quite often cold fronts come back to back, so a day or two of warmer temperatures often isn’t enough to warm the water considerably or encourage more activity. However, a few consecutive days of warm weather between fronts can have a dramatic effect on fishing. Fish that have waited out a cold front are often voraciously hungry, and willing to pounce on practically any offering. Keep an eye on the weather reports for a few back-to-back days of sunny weather, and try to time your trip so that you get on the water late in the warming trend and before the next front arrives. For example, snook anglers rave about summertime fishing, but a warming trend in the middle of winter can provide the best fishing of the year.
9. Avoid the wind
Wind can have a profound effect on water temperature. For instance, a shoreline that is repeatedly pounded by the winds accompanying a cold front is going to provide lower water temperatures than a protected shoreline, and be much less hospitable to chilly fish. Look for areas that are calm and protected. If the front has provided cold weather for days, look for calm, deeper water. If the front has abated and the sun has warmed the water – but the wind is still blowing – look for fish soaking up the sun in shallow water protected by trees or other structure. I will confess this truth: the longer I fish for snook and redfish, the less I see the wisdom in fighting the wind, especially winds that accompany a cooling trend. Wait for a warmer day – or at least a sunny day – and stay at home when Ole Man Winter is howling.
10. Lights mean action
As mentioned above, fish have an affinity for residential canals in wintertime. Knowing that, the savvy angler frequents these canals by day – and especially by night. At night, wintertime fish can often be found stacked under dock lights, basking in the moderate warmth and capitalizing on the scattered crabs, shrimp, baitfish, etc. that are attracted to the artificial light. If water temperatures dip into the 60s, fish can even be hard to find under dock lights. But as the water warms, one of the first places they can be found in good numbers is under a bright light in the wee hours of the morning.