CALIFORNIA'S ONLY SPORTSMAN'S NEWS SINCE 1953

Feature Article: Winter Fishing

Back to basics: Winter fishing has its challenges

BY RICH LINGOR/Special to Western Outdoor News Published: Jan 17, 2019

It can also be a good teacher of fish behavior and plenty rewarding enough as we bridge the gap ’til spring

Winter fishing presents its own unique challenges to the West Coast angler. Most of our local fisheries are home to several warm water species. The good news about this diversity is that different types of fish react independently to temperature changes and comfort zones can be slightly different for each species. When one species becomes inactive, others may still be in the mood to play.


Throughout the summer, long days of sunshine combined with warm nights build up to create a layer of warmth on the water’s surface. Too much of this warm water can send fish deeper or looking for shade until fall’s cooler, shorter days and longer nights make the surface temperature comfortable again. As the year moves into winter, the cool days and nights accumulate and cause the warm surface water to continue to cool and mix with the warmer layer beneath the upper surface. With enough cold weather, the cold upper layer can become dense and sink through the warm layer. When this “turn over” occurs, it can scramble the preferred depth zones of temperature, dissolved oxygen and even the pH balance of the lake. Until the layers resettle, the fishing puzzle can seem impossible to solve.


finesseFINESSE PRESENTATIONS WITH plastic worms are a winter option that can test from deep to shallow bitters.


The good news is that the sudden change of habitability tends to happen to parts of the lake at different times because of varying topography. Some areas might have more protection from icy wind or have more exposure to sunshine. An additional variable can be current from running water or planned draw-downs to accommodate anticipated seasonal storm runoff. Dropping the overall water level will force the fish to relocate. They are forced to abandon the safe cover of flooded brush and water weeds that held fish in the warmer months. Some of the fish will suspend in open water, while others will relocate to hard structure of rock or more dramatic topographical features such as points, channels, depressions, humps or cliffs.


Once they have settled into their winter homes, their locations tend to be much more predictable and dependable, narrowing the search. As morning frost conditions become the prevailing pattern, afternoon fishing can certainly be the best strategy. Sometimes a warm, sunny day will perk up the activity as the water surface temperature creeps up in the second half of the day, and areas that face the southern sky can hold slightly warmer water – and thus as a result, more biting fish.


Another possible factor in changing water temperatures can be the amount of turbidity. When there are a lot of undissolved particulates, or color, in the water, the particulates tend to absorb sunlight, warming the water. When you encounter these conditions, don’t be afraid to try targeting shallower depths, specifically rocks, bushes and other cover. In cooler weather, the fish feel more comfortable moving up shallower in dirty water, but seem to go back to their winter homes when the turbulence settles. Portions of the lake that are in shadow from large hills for most of the day are likely to hold cooler water. Mountain shadows are more exaggerated by the lower arch of the wintertime sun. Warm rainstorms that get nicknames such as “Pineapple Express” can also affect fishing since they can bring enough warmth to wake up some of the fish. Consider all the variables affecting water temperatures and be closer to solving the day’s piscatorial puzzle.


Once the winter angler locates his prey, he should decide what to throw to entice the fish to bite as well as what particular presentation will be most attractive. Because fish are a cold blooded creature, as the water cools their metabolism slows, taking the activity level, feeding frequency and propensity to respond to the stimulus of feeding opportunity down several notches. The forage base of shad minnows, crawdads and miscellaneous small fish and insects are slowed by the same dynamic. So consider that in chilly water, the fish’s normal food supply is not moving very far or very fast either. This much smaller strike zone and less frequent feeding activity of the game fish challenges the catching part of the fishing equation, but with this challenge comes the benefit of a more stationary and predictable target.


spottedbassoftenSPOTTED BASS OFTEN remain willing to bite when all the other bass seem to be on extended Christmas vacation. They can be surprisingly shallow when it seems way too cold.


Choosing lures that can be fished slowly and deliberately gives the winter angler the opportunity to match the predator’s expectation of minimal movement of their feed. Lures that can fit these winter scenarios include jigs, soft plastic worms or soft plastic assorted creatures as well as vertically jigged metal lures such as Kastmasters or Hopkins “jigging spoons.” Lures in this category mimic the action of the shad minnows that are distressed by the cold water, thus rendering them vulnerable, easy targets for the opportunistic predator. Slower moving reaction baits that produce a throbbing wobble that fish can feel will sometimes draw strikes when weather adds some extra color or reduces water clarity. Large-bladed spinnerbaits and big-lipped, deep-diving crankbaits can be worth a try when the pieces of the puzzle fit. When visibility is diminished, fish may move to the definable edges of shoreline or structure to feel their way around their environment.


Persistence and repeated casts can give the fish a chance to zero in on your offering. Passionate anglers can adjust to seasonal conditions of winter and match their presentations to the environment’s pace. Slowing down your lures puts them in harmony with the speed of the things that fish feed on. Slower lure movement is more in tune with diminished reaction speed of fish in cold water. Fish don’t ambush, attack or chase their prey much in cold water. They just seem to wander up to it and casually slurp it in. Winter fishing success can simply rapidly speed up when you slow down. Some days, to make contact, the right speed is closer to stopped rather than merely slow. Try moving your lure so subtly like it is stuck in the mud. So if you have an urge to get out on the water, give these ideas a try and adapt to the moment.


The holidays are a good time to prepare for spring’s promise of the kind of days on the water that put more color – and more fish – into our dreams. Fresh line, reel maintenance, restocking the tackle box and reliable rain gear are always on the winter checklist. With the New Year sneaking around the corner, a new fishing license is certainly at the top of the list, too. California 2019 fishing licenses are available online through the Department of Fish and Wildlife at www.wildlife.ca.gov/Licensing . They are also available at most of the major sporting goods retailers and tackle shops near you. In the meantime, some of our winter days in the weeks ahead will be just right for simply going fishing...


spoonscanbeSPOONS CAN BE vertically jigged either vigorously or gently pumped to adjust to the activity level of the bass. Tailspins (Little George) or blade baits (Silver Buddy) can put out enough pulse or vibration to draw the attention of deep active fish.

besidestheBESIDES THE UBIQUITOUS drop shot, here are some winter options that can pry sluggish quarry from the winter holiday party hangover.


* * *

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.




IZORLINE