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Capt. Clay Sheward with a chunky 28″ redfish on the fly.
By Capt. Steve Soule
It’s cold, damp and dreary: the kind of weather that makes it hard to find motivation to get up and going. We are deep into daylight savings time, with short days and not nearly enough sunlight to fuel my tank, but somehow there is still some motivation to be found for winter fishing.
The bright sunny days are often few and far between. Cloudy skies and damp conditions seems to dominate our weather patterns between December and February. Where is the “upside” to this? Well, fortunately for all of us fish heads, they still have to eat.
By no means does this cover the entire weather pattern spectrum of winter, but for the shallow water enthusiast, we can start with two basic condition sets that we must learn to contend with: sunny skies or cloudy skies. With these two basic conditions, there are other trends that tend to coincide with them.
Bright & Blue
Sunny skies are typically the trend after the passage of a front, and with the bright skies an initial strong wind flow and tide movement. Sunny skies are great for the sight fisher, allowing the angler to see and target the fish. Aided by the clearer waters of winter, fish can be much more easily spotted in the shallows with bright overhead skies. This is not always an indicator of our ability to catch them, but the ability to see them is the first step when sight casting.
A Stealthy Approach
Light wind, sunny skies and clear water will require a very stealthy approach from the angler as these conditions make fish much more vulnerable and aware of potential threats to their safety. Stop well short of the areas you intend to fish or believe are holding fish and work slowly and methodically until you locate them. Loud noises, boat wakes and other pressure waves that we create can alert fish to our presence. Keep in mind that when you get a bite its definitely time to slow down and work the area more thoroughly. One of the greatest parts of winter fishing is that when you find one fish, you have likely found an area holding many fish.
Dark & Stormy
So, if sunny skies and light wind make for great sight fishing, but likely only happen once every 3-5 days, what do you do when the clouds and cooler temperatures roll back in? You must learn where the fish move as the temperatures and tides drop. It may require a fair amount of knowledge of the area you’re fishing, but falling temperatures and falling tides actually generate a fairly predictable pattern from fish.
It is important to understand about how changing temperatures effect fish movement. As a general rule, during the cooler months, if the air is warming and the water is cold, fish will move shallow as soon as the air temperature exceeds the water temperature. Much the same, when the air temperatures drop below the water temperature during cooling periods, fish will tend to move towards deeper water. Knowing this basic principle will help guide you during the winter months.
Cloudy skies have settled in, seeing the fish is virtually out of the question. Temperatures are cooler and the tides are low; where have the fish moved? Here is when you need to understand the structures in the area. Contour depth changes, reefs, and bay floor make up all play a big role in where fish will move during these conditions.
Typically, open water adjacent to the shallow marsh is the first depth contour change that will allow slight insulation from cooling water. This is also where you are likely to find some added structure like oyster reefs. Look for areas with dense dark mud as it will not only hold many small food sources, but will maintain a slight advantage in warmth as well.
Sunny vs Cloudy Days
There will be other notable differences in these two primary patterns. Periods of sunny skies, light wind and clear water will dictate the use of smaller lures and flies, stealthy approaches and much more subtle presentations to catch fish.
When the skies are cloudy and wind has returned, and especially when temperatures are falling, it often pays off greatly to increase the size of your presentation. This is when mullet imitations can bring huge catches, not just in numbers, but often in the size of the fish. Topwater “dog walking” lures and slow sinking, suspending finesse lures and twitch baits can provide rod jerking strikes that you won’t soon forget.
MirrOlure’s Catch 2000 is a great subsurface bait for winter.
For winter sight fishing my go-to lures would be a dark colored small swim or paddle tail soft plastic rigged on 1/16th to 1/4 ounce screw lock jig heads or a hand-tied Buggs lure. When the clouds roll in, it’s tough to find me not fishing a top water like a Super Spook or Spook Jr., or a She Dog or She Pup. I like natural colors like white, bone and chrome for clear water. Use darker colors for dirtier water or cloudy conditions.
When it’s time to drop below the surface, the Catch 2000 or Corky series are hard to beat. Pink, Texas chicken and chartreuse/gold are my go-to colors. Some interesting fun can also be found with shallow running twitch or crank baits. Again, all I can say is hang on! The strikes can take your breath away.
Putting It All Together
There is so much more to winter fishing than I can possibly cover here, but understanding the basic temperature change and fish movement will get you started. Digging deeper, you will start to notice that barometric pressure also plays a huge role, and understanding tides and structures are like the interlocking pieces of the puzzle.
Don’t let winter fishing intimidate you! It’s like any other time of year and just requires a different knowledge base to create success. As an added bonus, fishing during the clear water and low tide periods during winter may also provide you with the best education you will get all year.
Take this opportunity to learn more about bay floor structures, such as shallow areas, reefs, guts and deeper channel flows. This will help your overall understanding of where and how fish move around the bays.
After 51 years of living in some of the southernmost regions of the United States, its very safe to say that I’m not the biggest fan of cold weather. I have however, many years back, learned that I truly love winter fishing.
Once you can get past the initial shock of cold air and water, even the damp and cloudy days can be some of the best that we will see all year. Let’s take a look at why winter is often so good for anglers and how to capitalize on cold weather fishing.
As summer exits on the upper Gulf Coast, our abundance of baitfish and other food sources begins it dwindle. At first glance, this definitely doesn’t seem like it would lend itself well to better fishing. But if we think back to the dog days of summer, one of the most difficult parts of consistently catching fish would be locating the right areas. But when nearly every place that you would consider fishing is covered with mullet and other obvious signs, it can be confusing. I know it seems strange to think, but less abundant food supply can lead to better catches.
Why, you ask? Well, when there are food sources at every location, it becomes difficult to determine which area has not only the proper food sources, but also the predatory creatures we so desperately want to capture. During the cooler months, less can often equal more when it comes to catching redfish and trout. As food sources dwindle, they also concentrate! The resident populations of mullet and other fish now occupy much more limited areas of the bays, and remaining populations tend to become concentrated in areas of greatest comfort and reliable food sources. To less experienced anglers, this may still sound like it won’t help us locate fish. But as you begin to explore the bays in winter, it becomes evident that if you find concentrations of bait fish and other food sources, you will inevitably find concentrations of predators nearby. On the coldest, and most difficult days, never overlook the slightest presence of baitfish!!
Heddon Super Spook in Okie Shad.
Winter Lure Choices
Now that we have unlocked the key to locating predators in cooler water, we can get down to catching them! Hopefully. Winter is a “pick your poison” time of the year. My personal lure preference are larger mullet imitations for covering open water areas and structure. If I could only fish with one type of lure for the rest of my life, it would have to be a topwater. They prove deadly effective to the patient winter angler. Most won’t have the level of dedication and patience required to fully take advantage. If, by chance you are within the group of patient and you want to see some of the most explosive strikes that fish can provide us with, then tie on a Super Spook or She Dog and be prepared for some fun. Here are a few general rules for topwater fishing:
Make sure that you vary the retrieves!
Don’t assume tight cold water means you have to fish slowly to get bites.
Some days, what you think is slow, isn’t slow enough, so go slower
There are always those days when they trout and reds just don’t want to come to the surface to eat a topwater. Though these days disappoint me greatly, it’s a fact that must be accepted. Coupling this fact with the fact that I’m constantly searching for the bigger fish, I will continue with my larger baitfish patterns during winter. Subsurface finesse baits, such as MirrOLure Catch 2000, Catch 5, Corky original and Fat Boy are some of the most effective winter standards on the Texas Coast, and rank very high on the list of big trout and redfish producers. These subsurface baits, much like topwaters, require a great deal of angler input to be truly effective. But once you’ve mastered a few retrieves, they will astound you with their ability to pry open the mouths of fish in very cold water. The key here is to experiment and vary retrieves and learn some of the many things that these baits can achieve. And of course, just like in the case of the topwater, there are days when slow just isn’t slow enough, so go slower!
Another type of bait or lure that can prove exceptional during the cooler months of the year, and is equally effective in the hands of a dedicated angler, is the “Twitch Bait.” What I’m referring to here are floating or suspending lipped baits. The big brand names that we all know in this category would be Rapala, Bomber, and more recently Yo-Zuri, along with a host of others. This category of lures has been around for many years, and can be just as effective as the others mentioned above. They can do so many things once the operator has taken the time to explore various retrieves. When you’re just getting started with this category, just varying speed with steady cranking can be very effective. Of course, like every other lure type, there are so many options with start and stop, fast twitches, and definitely lots of pauses.
Cold water, though it can provide us with some devastating and explosive attacks from our favorite predators, can also frustrate us with horrifically slow and subtle bites. On these days, learning new retrieves is often the trick that can take a day from zero to hero. Fast, slow, in-between speeds, starts and stops, and often long pauses can lead to some of the best catches when water temps plummet. Winter’s coldest days are the ones that make some of the best anglers shine. These are the days where the average angler just gives up, but for those who possess patience and persistence, and of course, who are in the “right” areas, be prepared for some serious photo ops.
If you just aren’t ready for the “grind mode” and patience isn’t your thing, that’s okay. Soft plastics, such as “rat tail” or “swim tails” will still produce well. Bass Assassin Sea Shads or MirrOLure Lil’ Johns offer less angler input and will typically produce much better numbers when fished though concentrations of baitfish. These are perfect for the drifting anglers and can work just as well for a wade fisher. To be honest, the Sea Shad has become one of my staple baits for sight fishing year round. A small profile with a swimming tail is effective in so many situations. Add to this, these baits require very little beyond just a steady retrieve to catch fish consistently, making them great for those just getting into lure fishing.
Last but not least, of the fun things about winter fishing is the water clarity and potentially extreme low tides. Though for many of us these can make for tough fishing days and potential new oyster rash on our prized fiberglass fishing crafts, they also combine to give us some of the best bay learning and exploration days of the year. Get out there and take advantage of the clear water and low tides. Learn some new areas and expand your understanding of the areas you already fish. Take your time when exploring; make sure that you look for structure. Try to gain a better understanding of the tide flows in these new areas. Don’t get in a rush. Try some new lures and new retrieves, and don’t forget that some days, slow just isn’t slow enough.
This year has been one of the most inconsistent years, with regards to weather and conditions that we haven’t seen in a long time on the upper Texas coast. With flooding rains, high winds, high tides and just generally different conditions, fishing hasn’t been as consistent compared to recent years.
For those new to fishing the upper coast, I’m sure it seems like a very difficult fishery. For those with years of experience, it has taken a lot of work and effort to keep up with fish in shallow water. We have grasses growing that don’t normally grow, due to heavy rainfall. Our shoreline erosion is accelerating to an alarming rate with the constant high tides. Water clarity has been greatly reduced when compared to recent years. Fishing the marshes and shallow shorelines has just been plain challenging.
In an inconsistent year, being prepared and having the right gear in tip top condition can make all the difference.
With all of this change and challenge, every opportunity counts. The gear that we use, the lures that we fish and the way that we rig can help us capitalize on limited shots at fish.
Let’s start with the fishing rods. For spinning gear, my preference is a 6-7 foot medium to medium-light rod. The rod should have enough power, or backbone to battle the fish we target. Redfish, even the bigger ones, don’t make incredibly long runs, but they will try to get to the cover of shorelines and almost always try to go under the boat near the end of the fight. Be prepared with a rod that can help you prevent this.
Conversely, the rod tip still needs to be light enough to allow casting with 1/8 or even 1/16 ounce lures. Your reel should have a capacity of 150 yards of line, but don’t overdo this with a large, heavy reel. Lightweight is better. I have switched to braided line on all of my reels. For my spinning reels, I use 6 pound diameter that has a break strength of 20 pounds. The diameter of these lines helps with casting and the strength provides more than enough to battle the biggest marsh reds we see.
If you prefer bait-casters or casting rods, the set up is very similar. I prefer casting rods in the 6’6”-6’10” range. Again, they should have a very light tip section to allow you to cast well with lightweight lures, but maintain enough power lower in the rod to maneuver fish as they get near the boat. Reel capacity again, should be around 150 yards or a little more, but light weight is key as you will be holding and casting all day when fishing in shallow water. Again, use braided line, for abrasion resistance and durability. On my casting reels, I have found that 8 pound diameter, with a break strength of 30 pounds, seems to work very well. For a very experienced caster, the lighter line mentioned for spinning reels might work, but I have found that it will break more readily if you get a backlash. Don’t forget that you need to pick a reel with a very smooth drag system to handle the “burst” runs of bigger redfish.
If you prefer to fly fish, you should pick a medium-fast to fast action 8 weight rod with matching line. I almost exclusively use floating, weight forward fly lines designed for saltwater fishing. This can get a little technical on the Texas coast; we see more temperature change than most other redfish habitats. Generally speaking, the lines designed for tropical species are great in our summer temperatures, but will leave a lot to be desired in the cooler months. Most of the lines designed specifically for redfish work well as the coring material used is not as stiff and won’t cause excessive coils in the cooler seasons.
So, use weight forward saltwater or redfish taper lines matched to your rod. In other words, if you buy an 8 weight rod, use 8 weight line. Our leaders should be 10-16 pound tippet strength and of an abrasion resistant variety. Our redfish aren’t very “leader shy” like in some heavily pressured, clear water fisheries, so I tend to fish heavier leaders here, on the upper end of the range of what I mentioned. As for the fly reel, pick a reel designed for the weight line you are using. Most will have way more line/backing capacity than we will ever need fishing for redfish, but it will make for a great travel rod when you head to the tropics for longer running or more powerful fish.
The Things We Throw
Norton Bull Minnow in Roach
When it comes to shallow water redfish lures, I keep the selection fairly simple. A small variety of spoons and soft plastics will work day in and day out for catching not only redfish, but trout and flounder as well. Because I’m primarily sight fishing, I rarely utilize a cork and prefer to fish soft plastics on a lightweight jig head.
Bass Assassin Lures 4″ Sea Shad in Slammin’ Chicken
Presentation is everything with this style of fishing. I rig with 1/4 ounce or less, typically 1/8, screw lock style heads, and utilize smaller swim tail or paddle tail designs in the 3-5” range.
For colors, I prefer the darker shades in most situations, especially in the marshes. Dark colors silhouette better in dirty water and have worked well for me for many years. Here’s my short list of colors; purple, dark blue, and “Texas Roach.” You may want to keep some light colors like white or bone on hand, but I’ve been very consistent with the darker shades. I especially like the blues and purples for the hint of crab coloration they provide.
Retrieves with soft plastics can be steady, as the tail vibration will help fish locate the lure. I often impart a bouncing or “jigging” action with the rod tip to help make the lure more visible in the water column.
Looking at spoons, I prefer to use weedless spoons in most situations, though in slightly deeper water, or when water is “off color,” I will use a sprite style or treble hook spoon. In very shallow water, under a foot, spoons don’t really require much added action on the retrieve. A steady and constant speed without added rod tip movement works very well.
The trick is to find the speed range for the spoon that you have tied on. You want to see that spoon wobbling or rocking from side to side, without turning full rotations. This retrieve gives the most vibration without causing line twist that can come back to bite you later in the day. You will find that this speed can be slowed to nearly a crawl, or sped up by adjusting the angle of the rod tip up or down. The key is to maintain the wobble.
When it comes to color choices for spoons, gold is my standard. I fish weedless gold, 1/4 ounce spoons more than any other, but occasionally need a 1/8 when fish are very shallow and spooky.
A Few Quick Tips On Maintaining Your Gear
All lures should be rinsed with clean fresh water. Rods can be rinsed as well. For your reels, I recommend that unless they get splashed or dunked in saltwater, they should only be wiped clean with a soft cloth dampened with clean fresh water. Excessive spraying of water can often force salt and dirt deeper into the reel which will cause problems later down the road. If you rinse down your fishing rods, take a moment to wipe them off after with a soft cloth to remove the water. Not all rod guides are designed to withstand saltwater, so the wipe down will help remove any remaining salt.
Good luck and tight lines! Don’t miss out on what the shallows have to offer this fall and winter.