By Capt. Steve Soule | www.theshallowist.com
Winter weather has arrived on the upper Texas coast and so comes the arrival of some very different fishing. Colder air, colder water, reduced number of prey species and a different range of comfort zones dictate the location and feeding patterns of redfish and trout during the cooler months.
Finding patterns that hold through winter will increase your fishing percentages, and of the long list of factors involved, I’ve consistently found a few that truly make a difference.
Winter Food Sources
First and foremost, in finding predatory fish in cold water is understanding the primary food sources that they feed upon. Most of the shrimp have either left the bays or will spend the majority of the winter buried in the mud. Crabs similarly disappear from the shallows, moving to deeper waters and also burying themselves in the mud. Many of the small species of bait fish will remain, though they won’t stay in water as shallow as they do in warmer months.
There are numerous species of marine worms and other small creatures that remain in the bay, though we rarely see them other than when found inside the bellies of the fish we catch. So, the primary food sources for predatory fish are the remaining small baitfish, such as mullet, mud minnows and others that hang around the shallows.
Finding fish during winter is isn’t always easy, but understanding the food sources makes a huge difference. Mullet or other bait fish species that frequently swim at or near the surface and jump, are easy targets and help anglers in locating fish. This isn’t uncommon during warming trends. When water temperatures are colder or trending down, baitfish tend to stay closer to the bay bottom and move towards deeper, warmer water, making them much more difficult to locate. Much like every other season, native guides and even seasonal natives can shed some light on the location of the food sources and of course, the predators are usually close by. What I mean by native guides is birds.
Winter Bird Signs
The birds that are good indicators are much different during winter than summer or fall. The gulls and terns that were such great indicators of migrating shrimp over the past few months are typically not the birds to follow or watch for during the cooler months. My focus changes to some larger birds and some that only arrive after significant cooling. Both species of pelicans, brown and white, are voracious fish eaters and will often gang up when they locate large schools of mullet or other baitfish. And if you find large concentrations of bait in winter, odds are good that you will find predators as well. My favorite migratory bird to watch during winter is the Loon. This bird at a distance may look like the common cormorant, but when you get a little closer, its not hard to tell that they are much larger and have a large white patch on their chest. They also make a very distinct crying sound. They are incredibly adept diving birds that can swim fast and stay under water for several minutes. Finding more than one in an area diving is a great indication of schools of baitfish and predators.
I’m always on alert for shore birds such as egrets, herons, and ibis, though you won’t typically see them along the banks feeding unless we have a good warming trend going.
Temperature and Tide Factors
Most fish and marine animals spend their lives following just a few things; food, comfort and safety from predators. Temperature plays a huge role in the location and movement of both bait and predatory fish during winter. Temperature effects the food species and their movements, which in turn effects the movements of their predators. Much like us, if it’s cold, they seek warmth, which is why they inhabit certain areas during cooler weather, yet their range can spread widely when water warms. A great basic rule to understand is that if water temperatures are falling, fish will tend to mover to deeper water and as water temperatures warm, they will return to shallows.
Adding to that, this is driven by air temperature which takes time to impact the water. If temperatures are relatively stable, or the changes in temperature are not dramatic, the fish won’t feel the need to move as much as they will during more notable changes in temperature. There is an added important note, and one that we can feel and use to our advantage. As the air temperatures increase above the water temperatures, shallow water will warm fastest. As soon as this process begins, baitfish will begin to move to shallow, muddy and darker bottom areas.
Another important pattern to remember is that tides will still move fish, and can also adjust the temperature of the water in specific areas. If the air is notably warmer than the water, outgoing tides will carry warmer water out to deeper areas. In colder conditions, the opposite is often the case; incoming tides can wash more stable water temperatures into the shallows.
During the passage of winter fronts, especially those that have north or northwest winds, tides will fall sharply. The extreme low tides of winter tend to concentrate fish into very specific areas. In the marshes, the fish will fall into deeper creeks and bayous. In open water, guts, channels and soft mud near the edges of shallows will be the places to look.
Once you’ve found the fish, keep in mind that they are primarily feeding on other small fish, so use lures that imitate mullet or other bait species. Note the temperatures and the direction they are trending, either up or down. Knowing this will help determine the speed of retrieves when fishing. Like any other time when fishing, it may take some experimenting to determine exactly where the fish are and what type of presentation will work best. The good news is that once you find fish in the winter, they are typically concentrated in good numbers. Also noteworthy, if you find bigger fish, you often won’t find the smaller fish mixed in, and vice versa.
Braving the elements in winter is often rewarded with spectacular catches. Dress appropriately, take your safety and that of any passengers seriously. Dress in layers that can be removed or added as temperatures change, and get out and catch a few fish.