There are two types of anglers. The first are those who spend occasional summer weekends out on the boat or wading around low, warm rivers. They catch a few fish but mostly they just enjoy the calm, quiet recreation of angling. They’re the type of anglers who say things like “I don’t care if I catch anything, I just love being out here!”
When summer ends, these fair-weather fishers simply stop fishing. As the first frosty days of autumn arrive, they put their gear away and move on to more seasonally-appropriate outdoor activities, like hunting, leaf-peeping, or searching the farmers market for winter squash.
Then there’s the other type of angler. These are the folks who, instead of planning fishing around their free time, plan their free time around fishing. They’re the ones who never let snow, rain, heat, nor gloom of night stay them from the water. Dedicated and obsessive, these anglers live a seasonal existence, chasing whatever fish species is available to them while living among cluttered piles of fishing gear they never put away because they aren’t quite done with them yet.
Yet even these diehards dread the coming of late-fall and early winter because it means the arrival of the cold-water time. During this period of transition between open water and ice fishing season, the frigid water temps and brutal weather can make the fishing slower than a drunk snail climbing uphill. Many dedicated anglers won’t even bother with it. Instead, they’ll wait for conditions to improve, spending their free time wandering around the aisles of their local tackle shop or staring maniacally at their child’s goldfish bowl.
However, if you’re a true hardcore angler, there is another option–sucking it up and going fishing. Just because the water has gotten cold doesn’t mean the fish won’t feed. Fish must eat to survive, which means that with true grit and know-how you can still catch them. In fact, some of my best days on the water have been when I’m chipping ice out of my rod guides while standing waist deep in a numbingly cold river or lake. So, without further ado, here are my top tips for dedicated anglers when the water gets cold.
Dress for Success Perhaps the most important lesson for cold-water anglers is dressing correctly. Not only will it keep you comfortable when fishing in the cold, but it also keeps you safe in what are often hypothermic conditions. Start with a solid base layer, including long underwear, thick wool socks, and an insulating long-sleeve shirt to contain body heat around your legs, core, and arms. After that, don mid-layers that you’re comfortable in but still allow you to move freely. Your final layer, including your jacket, gloves, and hat, should be completely waterproof. Nothing drains you of warmth quicker than being wet. Additionally, you should invest in a good pair of waders, even if you’re fishing from a boat, and carry a backup set of extra warm clothing in your vehicle for when you get off the water. Do everything you can to ensure that you’ll stay warm, dry, comfortable, and safe throughout your fishing day.
Lighten Your Fishing Equipment Whether you’re fishing for tiny panfish or giant muskie, cold water fishing is all about finesse. You want to be able to fish slowly and purposefully and be able to detect what are often subtle strikes. So, fishing in cold water usually calls for a lighter action rod and reel than you would normally use. Pick a rod that allows you to maintain control of your lure or fly at all times, strung with a light line that can’t be detected by finicky fish in low, clear water conditions. Ultra-light rods are great options for panfish, bass, and trout and medium-action rods will work just fine for larger fish such as pike, steelhead, and muskie. If you’re a fly angler, try dropping down a rod size or two from what you would normally fish with, such as going from a 5-weight to a 3-weight or a 10 down to an 8.
Change Your Fishing Spots One of the most important things to remember when fishing in cold water is that the fish have probably moved. All those spots in the rivers and lakes that you absolutely hammered during the summer will likely no longer produce. You will have to seek the fish out. Cold water slows the metabolism of many fishes so they’ll often move to areas that require less energy to hold and feed.
Finding these cold-water fishing spots can be difficult as they vary greatly depending on what species you’re after. A good general rule to follow though is to simply to find the warmest water. Using a boat equipped with the right electronics, you can locate active fish by trolling around fishy looking spots and concentrating your angling efforts in spots where the water temperature is merely a few degrees warmer.
If your boat isn’t equipped with temperature gauges or you are fishing from shore, there are still some general places to get started. Creek mouths, sunlit flats, underwater springs, industrial plants, and bays sheltered from the wind will all generally have warmer water than the surrounding areas and are great places to check out. Additionally, in lakes and large rivers, warmwater species such as bass, walleye, pike, and muskie will move into sections of shallower water from 7 to 15 feet immediately adjacent to deep drop-offs and heavy structure. In rivers, fish like trout and salmon will often move into the deepest, slowest-moving pools. Sections of water where they can hold along the bottom and feed without exerting a lot of effort are prime lies right now. Start your cold-water fishing expeditions by seeking out these spots.
Fish During Feeding Time Rising before the sun and making your initial cast into the first light of a new day is both romantic and productive during the summer, it’s an almost-pointless exercise when the water gets cold. Just like when you reluctantly roll out of bed on a winter morning, wanting nothing more than a hot cup of coffee and then to wrap yourself in your blankets again, fish are slow to get when it’s cold. It’s often better to sleep in and head out to the water in the late morning or early afternoon.
During cold periods, fish will become more and more active as the sun rises higher and the water warms up. This usually means that you will start catching more fish later in the day. Additionally, fish living in cold water will have an almost daily window when they “turn on.” Usually in a period that can last between 30 minutes and 2 hours, the fish will feed heavily and sometimes consume all their required calories for the day during that small length of time. Hitting these feeding times is vital to having a good day on cold water. Though they usually occur sometime between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., there is no perfect way to predict it. Therefore it’s vital that you not only spend as much time on the water as possible but also to note the time of day whenever you catch a few fish, so you’ll know when it’s time to really fish hard the next time you’re out on the water.
The exception to this rule is certain cold-water-oriented salmonids like steelhead and lake trout. Many steelhead populations only enter rivers in the frigid winter, and they seem right at home in water that would kill a wader-less human in a matter of minutes. Likewise, deep-living mackinaw may actually become more hungry and aggressive as the temps plummet. In pursuit of such fishes, the early bird still may get the worm—or at least the best hole on the river. Few angling events draw a crowd quite like a steelhead run.
Fish with Smaller Lures As cool as those big, flashy lures and flies you used all summer are, in cold water they’ll more likely to scare the fish away than to catch them. Fish are cold blooded and in cold water their chief concern goes from feeding to conserving energy. They simply aren’t up to chasing down and smashing large prey like they are in the summer and early fall. So, instead of tying on that heavy swimbait or giant gaudy streamer, try thinking small.
Though they will still work for the occasional monster, if you’re after big numbers of fish in cold water, it’s best to put aside those big spinnerbaits and crankbaits. Instead try using more petite inline trout spinners like the Panther Martin and smaller suspending jerkbaits like the Rapala Husky Jerk. Small soft plastics like the and the Lunker City Slug-Go and Mister Twister Curly Tail rigged on a light jig head hook struck through the head of the bait are also a great option for cold water fishing. Modest-sized spoons like the Little Cleo and the Swedish Pimple can be used to flutter and jig along the bottom and are fantastic cold water options for almost any species.
Fly anglers in search of trout should put away the large foam dry flies and big streamers and instead fish petite flies like midges and small black stone flies drifted under a strike indicator. These bugs are not only prevalent in the water during cold snaps, but they are often the only food source available. If you want to fish streamers, I suggest small Spey-style patterns like the Pocket Rocket and the Skiddish Smolt which can be slowly stripped, dead-drifted, or swung downstream in the current.
Fish Low and Fish Slow No matter what species you’re chasing or what kind of equipment you’re using, “low and slow” should be your mantra in cold water. Fish in cold water are sluggish and spend most of their time holding close to the bottom or suspended in warmer pockets of water, only feeding on easy-to-catch prey right in front of their faces. You’ll want to stick to techniques that allow you to capitalize on this behavior. Spin fisherman should focus on techniques like jigging along the bottom and slowly twitching lures like jerkbaits. These are incredibly efficient cold-water techniques because not only can they be used to work lures slowly, but they also allow anglers to drop or sink a bait or lure right off a fish’s nose. If you’re fly fishing, stick to techniques like bottom bouncing, nymphing under indicators, and swinging small streamers. All three methods allow you to present small flies slowly with the use of proper mending technique and at the correct depth by adding the right sink-tip or amount of split shot to your leader.
Have Patience When it really comes down to it, fishing in cold water is about patience. It’s about sticking it out and suffering through whatever obstacles the weather and the fish throw at you. The truth is, though you may have a banner day on occasion, most of the time fishing in cold water periods will only produce a fish or two as reward. But those fish might be the biggest you’ve seen, and you’ll likely have all the water to yourself. It’s a reward well worth the effort. If you don’t think so, well then perhaps you should put your rod away and check out your local farmers market; I’ve heard great things about their squash.
Feature image via Kubie Brown.