Using Summer Tactics for Winter Trout
Most people think winter is nothing like summer. While it is true these seasons are opposing, in the realm of coastal fishing, they are much more similar than they may at first appear. It is easy to think of them as different -- after all, one is cold while the other is hot. However, they are both similar in the sense that they are seasons of extreme temperatures. And, fish generally respond to extreme heat and extreme cold in much the same way. As a result, much of what fishermen do and where they look for speckled trout in the winter is very much the same as what they do and where they look for summer trout.
WHERE TO LOOK
Again, when looking for winter trout, anglers should look in pretty much the same areass as they did during summer. The biggest adjustment will be to the times of day fish are found in those areas. Remember, fish are always looking to be comfortable. In the summer, when the midday flats are scorching, fish aren't likely to be found there. Instead, they hit the flats during the cooler periods of the day and hang out in the deeper, cooler waters during the midday heat. In winter, it is just the opposite. Since fish are trying to warm up, they will hit the shallows in the middle of the day, when the temperature is at its highest. During the cooler periods of the day, they seek the more stable temperatures at depth.
Another difference between winter and summer is the influx of Gulf water. During the summer, the Gulf water pushing into the bay on an incoming tide is cooler and often attracts fish. The opposite effect occurs during winter, when fish are trying to avoid a sudden temperature drop from incoming cold water.
The other major difference to be mindful of is bottom composition. Sand retains less heat than mud. During summer, that's a good thing. But, in winter, fish use muddy bottoms like an insulated blanket. So, regardless of water depth, winter fish will most often relate to mucky, muddy bay floors.
With those differences in mind, anglers can easily adapt summer spots and tactics to winter fishing. Here are a few rules of thumb when choosing locations.
Shallow Flats - That's right, you can still catch fish in skinny water during the winter. However, timing is everything. Fish will often be on the flats during the midday hours, after the shallow water has had time to sufficiently warm.
As is the case during summer, anglers should key on flats close to deep water. Unlike spring and fall, when fish will travel great distances in knee-deep water, winter sees most fish holding close to the relatively warmer, deeper water of channels and holes. So, most shallow water activity will be concentrated within a few hundred yards of a channel or deep flat.
And, as mentioned above, muddy bottom is always a plus during winter. Some of the most consistently productive shallow water areas during the winter season are the narrow flats which lie between spoil islands and channels.
Deep Pockets - As a rule, Texas bays are fairly shallow. But, almost every bay system has a number of deep holes or pockets of deeper water somewhere within their confines. These holes may be formed naturally by currents or from some artificial means such as dredging. Regardless of how they formed, these deep pockets provide refuge for fish during the coldest portions of winter.
Quite often these fish will be holding on the bottom, as the deepest water often is the most stable and less vulnerable to wide temperature swings. However, anglers should be aware that fish may also be suspended at various depths within the water column. The key to finding the fish in deep holes is finding the thermocline, or layer of water that is warmer. A thermocline can occur at different depths for a variety of reasons. Whenever a thermocline is present, water within the thermocline will warmer than the water either above or below it. Although there may be fish scattered throughout the water column, the greatest concentration will always be found in the warmest layer. So, rather than dropping baits straight to the bottom, experiment with different depths until you find where the fish are holding.
Channels - Like deep holes, channels, whether natural or manmade, offer refuge from the winter chill for many fish species. Again, the timing will be opposite of summer fishing patterns. Anglers should fish in the channel early in the day, while the fish are still staying warm in the security of the deep water. Then, they should concentrate on the channel edges later in the day as the water warms up. And, as is the case with deep holes, there is often a thermocline present in channels. Find the thermocline and you will find the largest concentration of fish. Also, don't overlook the shallows right along the edges of the channels, as these are the first shallow water areas fish will move into as the water warms.
TACKLE & TACTICS
As winter settles over the Texas coast, fish behavior changes. No longer are fish aggressively tracking down and striking baits and lures with rather abandon. Rather, they become more subdued and try to take advantage of an easy meal when the opportunity presents itself. Anglers need to adjust their tackle and techniques to take advantage of this change.
Typically, the most aggressive feeding activity during winter will occur during the middle of the day when the water is warmer. Fish are no different than humans in that sense - they are going to be more active when they are more comfortable. During the cooler morning hours, fish may still feed, but will typically be much more lethargic.
Tide is still important in winter, but during this time of year it seems as if temperature takes priority when triggering feeding activity. During the warm part of the day -- from mid-morning to mid-afternoon -- fish will usually feed regardless of tidal movement, but will do so more vigorously if the current is moving.
Winter is a season when a surface bite is possible almost any time of the day. But, the retrieve needs to be slow and the bait needs to be large in order to consistently get fish to strike. Basically, fish are lethargic and lazy during the winter and don't want to move far to get a meal. And, when they do go for a bite, they want something worth eating. So, plugs needs to be worked in a manner that makes it hard for them to resist. This means a slightly slower retrieve and making repeated casts in an area to make sure every inch of water is covered.
Slow-sinking plugs and plastics are also good winter-time producers. Again, the baits need to be presented in a way that make the fish feel as if the payoff is worth the effort.
Anglers also need to be aware of the drastically changing water conditions during winter. Just prior to, during and right after a front, the water will usually be rough and dirty, calling for noisier plugs in either bright or dark colors to be seen (bright contrasts well against a dirty water background, while dark colors offer a good sillouette or profile). However, on the calm days between fronts, Texas bays experience some of the clearest water conditions of the year. When the water is ultra-clear, anglers are best served throwing subtle or natural color patterns. In fact, under these conditions, clear lures often draw the most strikes.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS
A final key to success for fishermen during the winter is comfort. It may sound simple, but being warm on a cold winter day makes it easier for an angler to concentrate on the task at hand -- making good casts, precise retrieves, and feeling the slightest tap of a pickup. The best thing to do is dress in layers in order to be able to adjust to the changing temperatures of a winter day. Shed unnecessary layers of clothes as the day warms and add layers as the evening cools. Make sure you are wearing enough clothing to be warm, yet be careful not to add bulky layers that will make casting, retrieving and hooksetting cumbersome.
Winter fishing can certainly be productive. However, anglers need to remember that fish, like fishermen, like to stay warm as winter temperatures drop. So, the key to fishermen consistently finding fish during winter will be finding the areas they go to get toasty when the water cools and dressing appropriately so as to not get too cold themselves.