Two of the most common questions I am asked are: “What should I fish for this weekend?” and “Where should I fish?” While these are great questions throughout the year, the most important question this time of year is “Should I fish this weekend?”
Timing is tantamount to success during mid-winter, and recognizing the variables that put the odds of success in your favor is not that difficult. Warming trends spur the bite, while essentially all species shut down a few days after an arctic front when the water temperature drops 15 to 20 degrees. During those times, work on your “honey-do” list so that when the weather is right you can hitch up the boat. And that prime time will come after the temperatures bottom out and start heading back up before the next wintertime cold front. Remember that water takes much longer to warm than air or land, so wait a few days into a warming trend for the best bite.
When you decide that it is time to fish, there are “Four S’s” that I believe you should consider to improve your odds of success. Over the years, these considerations have allowed me to have successful trips when I would have failed using my favorite power-fishing tactics. The four considerations are small, slow, steady and subtle, what I call the four S’s of wintertime fishing.
Small: Almost all anglers have heard the age-old wisdom of scaling back your lure size when the bite turns off. This definitely applies during the heart of winter, and maybe even to an extra degree. While fishing bass tournaments, power-fishing baits and gear is the norm, but during this time of year you will typically finish higher by scaling back the size of your lures. Micro-sized lures will get you many more bites this time of year in the often gin-clear water.
Instead of your favorite 1/2-oz. jig and big crawfish trailer, pitch a 1/4-oz. or even smaller jigs around docks, and consider using hair jigs when the fish are really fickle. Opt for a 4-inch shaky-head worm on a jig head built with a light-wire hook instead of your favorite 6-inch straight-tail worm with a hook strong enough to dislodge a stump. You might have to use a heavy weight on a windy day to keep in contact with your bait, so look for lures that provide the weight without the large, bulky body.
One of my most effective wintertime lures is a small arctic fox hair jig. I pair it with a small, 1- or 2-inch plastic crawfish or even just pinchers that I tie into the jig. Arctic fox hair has much less action than a silicone skirt, and the hair undulates slightly when dragged across the bottom. I catch panfish and bass on that pattern during winter.
Slow: All cold-blooded creatures slow down when it gets cold, whether they want to or not. With we humans being warm-blooded, it is sometimes easy to overlook that fact and work our lure too fast. I cannot tell you how many times early in my bass-tournament days that I caught myself brainlessly working a lure too quickly for the activity level of the fish. Usually, when I slowed down a notch or two, I got bites. If bites are few and far between, it is easy to lose concentration. If you are prone to overworking a lure, use a slow-speed reel to force you to slow your retrieve.
S-L-O-W is the premise behind the Float-n-Fly technique made famous in east Tennessee lakes during winter. This is also being used more regularly on a north Georgia lake, like Lake Allatoona. The approach involves a clip-on float similar to the red and white ones we used when first introduced to fishing. Suspended beneath is a small hair jig. The float keeps the jig in the strike zone, and that is the key to getting bites. You fish the offering above schools of bass, and eventually one will swim up and grab your jig.
I have watched river crayfish crawling between rocks when water temperatures are frigid and could barely tell that they were alive. That is how I fish hair jigs and rubber-skirted jigs this time of year. My favorite is a small football jig, and I barely move it down rocky points or other likely areas. The bite this time of year is sometimes just a “spongy” feeling, so set the hook whenever something does not feel right. Hooksets are free!
Steady: When the mercury bottoms out, fish do not dart all over the place (except when predators are chasing them). The baitfish typically ball up and suspend, and the bass often school up and wait for better times, as well.
Erratic action is not needed and often is a deterrent to getting bit. A slow, steady retrieve will most often get the predator’s attention and give them time to track down and eat your lure. The primary exception during winter is a hard jerkbait, where the twitch gets their attention, but the long pause produces the bite. More times than not, a small twitch and not a giant wrist snap is what triggers them with a jerkbait.
This is the time of year to consider curly tailed grubs for all predators. If you fish a system that allows you to fish an exposed hook, then a curly tailed grub on a jig head is hard to beat for producing bites. In rivers, I scale back to a 2-inch version, while in reservoirs a 3- or 4-inch model the size of the prevalent baitfish should suffice. I use the lightest jig head possible that allows me to get the grub into the strike zone, and I use a jig head built with a light wire Gamakatsu hook for maximum penetration with minimal effort. Often, the fish hooks itself with this setup, and all you have to do is keep reeling.
If you need to fish around cover, small swimbaits are perfectly suited for slow, steady retrieves. I use weighted swimbait hooks with a wire screw on the nose and an extra-wide-gap hook. Match the hook size to the size of the swimbait to provide the most natural swimming action. With this setup, you can swim it right through heavy cover and rarely get hang up.
Subtle: Using subtle colors will help you succeed during the heart of winter. Think about the last fish you caught in super-cold water. Chances are very good that it was pale. During this time of year, everything is pale… minnows, bluegills and other panfish, and even the bass.
If pretty much everything in the water is pale, then it makes sense to me to match that color scheme. Winter is a great time to bypass the firetiger colors and opt for shads, pale greens and light browns. This is not to say that a bright, gaudy color will go fishless, but the subtle colors have produced the vast majority of my winter fish over the years. If you want a little more color in stained water, use a lure with just a splash of chartreuse, orange or red.
A couple of other minor “S” considerations include “South” and “Sissy.” While you can catch fish on Clarks Hill, Lanier or many of our other north Georgia reservoirs in the winter, you can boost your odds by heading south to waters such as Seminole in the southwest part of the state or Paradise Public Fishing Area near Tifton. With the additional 10 degrees or more water temperature, the bite stays decent all winter.
Whether you call it a “Sissy Stick,” “Fairy Wand,” or a handful of other derogatory names (that you likely came up with after getting beaten by folks using them), spinning outfits are the way to go this time of year when finesse is critical. It will not take you many casts using an 1/8-oz. jig on your favorite Revo baitcaster before you stow it and tie the lure on a spinning outfit. Control of light lures is unmatched with these combinations.
My favorite is my All-Star 7-foot medium-action ASR rod and Pflueger Supreme reel, and I often spool it with fluorocarbon line as light as 6-lb. test. The drag system on high-quality spinning reels is excellent, which allows you to use lighter line and fight fish without breaking off.
If you cornered me and forced me to give you my four most productive lures for mid-winter over the years, I would say a curly tail grub, a small swimbait, a jig and a 4-inch straight-tail worm. Until a few years ago when the swimbait craze hit, I used curly tailed grubs rigged on jig heads almost exclusively during mid-winter.
My favorite colors are shades of pumpkin or watermelon. Swimbaits have taken that top spot on days when the fish are moderately active, and Keitech 3.8-inch Fat Swing Impact models rigged on weighted extra-wide-gap hooks are my favorite. I like the Tennessee shad and gold flash minnow colors best. Football head jigs have produced best for me the last couple winters, and jigs are my go-to bait for big bass. Green pumpkin and brown hues with matching plastic crayfish have produced best. Four-inch straight-tail worms, like the Bass Assassin Lit’l Tapper rigged on shaky heads are hard to beat for numbers of bass in mid-winter. My favorite colors are hunch punch and watermelon candy.
Winter is the season that separates the better anglers from those who just like to wet a line. With these tips in your arsenal and an eye on the weather forecast, there is no need to winterize your boat any more. Use these four S’s to catch more fish this winter.
Editor’s Note: Capt. Bert has been designing custom lures to catch everything from bass in north Georgia lakes to tarpon on the Georgia coast for the last 26 years. To get him to customize lures that will work in your waters for your favorite species, call him at (912) 287-1604 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saltwater Fishing’s 4 S’s
The four S’s do not apply only in freshwater. I have had success with this system when fishing for seatrout. This is the toughest time of year to get a seatrout to open its mouth, and I usually fish for other species. I remember a few years back when a big event was on the calendar during early February and we had to take a group of anglers fishing around St. Simons Island. The weather prior to the event was as bad of conditions as you could have for mid-winter fishing… the water temperature dropped into the mid-40s (that is getting close to lethal temperatures for seatrout).
The day of the event was moderately warm and calm, so we could go wherever we wanted and use any approach we desired. We knew where some trout were, but getting them to bite was the trick. Our most effective presentation was to rig up tandem 1-inch spoons with 1-inch curly tailed grub trailers (I usually use them for fliers and crappie). We presented the miniscule offering by trolling with the tide and letting our lures sweep by the trout sitting in the holes. This do-nothing approach put a dozen fish in our boat on a day when most folks did not catch anything. That likely is the only time that our seatrout have ever seen a 1-inch grub.