by Captain Steve Soule’
It’s a beautiful thing when we can get water and air temperatures this low this early in the year, even more so when forecaster are calling for more cold and rain. For those who love the solitude of pounding West Bay or any other bay that isn’t likely to be affected by salinity drops and cold water, this is our year! Those of you who primarily fish bays that are prone to salinity drops will have some serious weather watching to do this year. These salinity drops are more dramatic during the winter months because the salts will not dissolve as readily in cold water, so typically we’ll see the formation of a fresh layer above a more normal salinity level. This fact, along with the fact that the higher salinity water will often hold a slight warmth advantage over the surface film plays a strong role in where fish will hold.
Water temperature seems to become one of the coastal anglers’ biggest concerns this time of year and everyone who read this publication read a full dose of some of the better known deep water winter holes last month. There’s no question that if the water gets cold enough these places turn on big time, but I want to tell you that there is more to winter fishing that just deep water. I guess that you could look at it like this, when it’s cold and drizzly some of us would rather stay home where it’s warm and dry while others would gladly endure the elements for the chance to feed a trophy. Trout are much the same; some groups would definitely prefer a deep hole with stable water temperatures and abundant dining. Other groups would stay and prowl their favorite flats and only drop deep in the most extreme cold. For that matter some never go deep, fish kills of past freezes make this point very evident. I guess it boils down to personal preference for both angler and fish to fight the elements or run for cover and warmth.
So, knowing that there are populations of trout both deep and shallow and probably everywhere in between, how do you decide where to go. Again, much of this decision will be based on your personal preference, though past experience should certainly play a role in the decision. I’m a prime example, for the last five winters I’ve fished a particular stretch of shoreline with unrelenting pressure. It has been a personal choice that has paid off with some impressive catches, but more than that it has taught me a lot about how certain populations of trout react to changing conditions. I fish this area anytime that the conditions allow and have learned to buck much of the conventional wisdom and myth that surrounds us about when trout feed. There is no question that changing conditions (cold fronts) will change a trout’s behavior.
There are a few notable generalities that typically apply in relating trout movements to frontal movements. During early, pre frontal conditions that atmosphere goes from stable with moderate barometric pressures into a trend of increasing clouds, warming temperatures, decreasing pressures and an onshore wind flow. During pre frontal periods look for fish to be in shallower water or suspended higher in the water column in deeper water. The last two days before the front passes will usually be good top-water days and faster retrieves will be readily accepted with sinking lures.
Frontal passage is the next stage and is the most difficult to predict. This is often a period of rapid change and therefore often difficult to fish. Just before the front actually passes the wind speeds will typically peak, the pressure bottoms out and cloud cover or rainfall is usually at its maximum. As the front passes everything seems to reverse winds shift to northerly, barometric pressure starts rising rapidly and temperatures drop sharply. This combination often triggers an urgent need to feed, followed by movement deeper and more stable waters. If you’re on the fish when it hits it can often be fast and furious, if you miss it you might think that there wasn’t a fish in the bay. This is definitely top-water prime time, but be prepared to switch to slow sinkers because it may not last long.
The final stage is post frontal, where pressures continue to rise before stabilizing, air and water temperatures drop, often for two or three days and cloud cover blows out leaving clear skies. The first day is the day to look for fish to start stacking up in the deeper holes. Keep in mind that deep is definitely a relative term. What’s deep for me may still be shallow for someone else, and the same goes for groups of fish. Look for slow retrieves near the bottom to be effective as the fish adjust to the shock of high pressure and cold water. By the second and third day the pressure will settle back to a more normal level and stabilize while the temperatures gradually increase. Look for increased feeding activity as the fish rise in the water column and slowly return to the shallows.
That’s the abbreviated version of a coastal cold front passage and some generalities that apply. Once we’ve gotten through a few and noted some of the patterns about how they affect the areas we fish, you’ll find that it becomes much easier to locate fish, and hopefully spend less time doing looking.
There is another factor that plays a major role in the success of the winter angler, the presence of bait. I don’t think that this can be emphasized too much. If the bait isn’t there the fish won’t stay around either. Trout know that they must eat to survive so they spend their lives following the movements of their prey. This time of the year we all talk about seeing bait, even small groups before we stop to fish an area. This is critical in finding fish but sometimes it seems impossible to accomplish. I’ve got some quick advice on the subject: fish in areas that you know hold bait or an occasional jumper that would have been overlooked even a slow planing speed.
Mullet will often hold deeper in the water during the winter months making an area look devoid of life until the area is looked at more closely. This time of the year I’ll catch a lot of good fish on day when I’ll see only two or three mullet jump, yet time spent watching the depth finder will reveal an abundant supply of bait.
Well, that’s enough for now, pick you preference, take your time and be prepared for some of the best winter fishing we’ve seen in several years. Stop by and say hello at the Boat Show, I’ll be hanging around the All Star and Meeks Marine booths, or if you’re interested I’ll be teaching a seminar on coastal fly-fishing with my fly school partner Bill Gammel on the first Saturday of the show. Hope you have a safe and happy holiday season and that your winter is full of fishing.