As our most recent cold front roared in on a north wind gusting over 35 mph at times Thursday, I wrapped up my half-day trip just before those high winds struck, but after the wind had shifted to the northwest and after temperatures had begun to drop.
As the winds shifted from southeast to northwest, the fish fed hard, permitting us a catch of 81 fish before the high pressure moved in and shut the bite down.
As I left Belton Lake, the surface temperature was around 52 degrees. Given the cold nights we have had since, I am certain our local reservoirs’ surface temperatures will dip into the high 40’s by early next week.
When cold-blooded creatures like fish are surrounded by such cold water, their body temperatures fall to that same temperature and their metabolism decreases. Their need for food decreases as well. Fish feed less frequently and less aggressively in such cold water.
Remember, the primary forage in our reservoirs is shad, which are also impacted by the cold. They, too, slow down, feeding and moving much less frequently than in warmer conditions.
During this cold water period, I keep only two kinds of lures rigged on my clients’ rods: slabs and deadsticking baits.
The slabs are employed during the infrequent periods of feeding when birds give away fish location and/or when fish are seen within four feet of the bottom in a feeding posture as observed on sonar.
Deadsticking baits get the lion’s share of the duty as I find bottom-dwelling fish unwilling to respond to a vertical retrieve or as I find fish suspended at mid-depths also unwilling to respond to a vertical retrieve.
I have several deadsticking baits I have come to rely upon, and they vary with forage size. For imitating small forage under 2½ inches, I use the Rapala Jigging Shad Rap in sizes 03 and 05 and in the pearl color. For imitating shad 2½ to 3 inches in length, I use the Redneck Fish’n’ Jigs 2EZ deadstick jig in white color. For imitating shad over 3 inches in length, I use any of a variety of shad-shaped soft plastics rigged on an unpainted jighead in natural shad colors or in chartreuse colors. The Lunker City Fin-S Shad, the Berkley Gulp! Minnow, and the Zoom Super Fluke Jr. all do well in this application.
All of these baits have one thing in common: They hang horizontally, parallel to the bottom of the lake.
To use these baits in a true deadsticking fashion, the angler simply suspends the bait about 5-6 inches above the level of the fish, as observed on sonar. The vertical movement of the boat caused by wind and waves, the horizontal movement caused by the trolling motor, and the natural tremor of the angler’s hands all provide sufficient, minimal movement of the bait such that no additional imparted movement is necessary.
When a fish strikes, typically a single “thump” is all that is felt. This sensation must be responded to with a quick, solid hookset.
Limpsticking is a term I have coined for a variation on deadsticking which begins with a deadstick presentation but adds a very slow upward lifting motion of the bait if, after 10 seconds or so, a fish clearly seen on sonar fails to respond to the deadstick presentation. By “very slow upward lifting motion,” I mean 5 to 6 inches per second for a total of about 3 feet covered in just over 6 seconds.
If a fish fails to respond, I drop the bait back, deadstick for another 10 seconds, then limpstick again and repeat the process until I catch the fish or it disappears from sonar.
This is finesse fishing at its finest and, in order to maintain feel for such lethargic fish in deep water, thin braided line is a must. I like Sufix 832 braided line in 20-pound test with a 2 to 2½ foot fluorocarbon leader of 20-pound test tied to the end.
All of this deadsticking and limpsticking is predicated upon finding and keeping fish showing on traditional colored sonar, often referred to as “2D” sonar. In an age when such sonar is often dismissed as “old school” and where down- and side-imaging is preferred, colored sonar fills a niche that such newer technologies cannot, thanks to the shape of the beam of sound which colored sonar sends out.
That cone-shaped beam covers a great amount of area directly beneath the boat where deadsticking and limpsticking take place, whereas down-imaging only covers a thin “slice” of water beneath the boat.
Without solid colored sonar use and interpretation skills, these techniques will prove difficult to master.
If you know your sonar skills are lacking, consider contacting me to do some on-the- water sonar training on the equipment you own.
Based on the detailed logs I have kept on the fishery at Belton Lake and Stillhouse Hollow for the past 26 years, these two tactics will likely continue to produce fish through at least the last week of February when few other tactics will.