Wednesday afternoon’s guided fishing trip on Belton Lake played out just as the majority of the fishing trips I will conduct on both Belton and Stillhouse Hollow Reservoir will between now and mid-March.
Fish on our local lakes are in winter mode, and their locations and behaviors will remain consistent, and therefore predictable, over the next three months.
Wednesday, I was joined by Belton residents John and Elaine Wyckoff and their three grandchildren, 16-year-old Dacia Rodriguez, 13-year-old Malia Rodriguez, and 9-year-old Gabriel Rodriguez, all Belton Independent School District students and the children of Marcus and Kelly Rodriguez. Weather had forced a cancellation of an earlier trip we had scheduled and Mr. Wyckoff was minded to continue the postponement until the kids were on spring break in 2017.
The Wyckoffs treated these same three grandchildren to a fishing trip on Stillhouse back in March, during which Malia landed the current Stillhouse catch-and-release record for the Junior Angler category with a fish that measured 16.75 inches. During this trip, John and Elaine chaperoned, but did not fish. Mr. Wyckoff expressed his desire for himself and Mrs. Wyckoff to fish during the next trip they scheduled.
Hearing this, I suggested that we take another look at a trip conducted over the winter. Wintertime fishing typically involves fishing vertically right beneath the boat and in fairly deep (30-to-50 feet) water.
Because there is no casting involved and because the lines hang directly beneath the boat, this scenario is ideal for multiple anglers fishing simultaneously, and is therefore very kid-friendly and family-friendly.
We agreed a winter trip would be ideal if the weather would cooperate, so I looked at the NOAA extended forecast and found an ideal set of conditions this week in which the winds turned southerly following the hard cold front that came in on Dec. 17. Wednesday afternoon’s weather not only promised the high temperature for the week, but also winds around 12 mph and some high, thin white cloud cover — all ideal for fishing in the winter.
As we set out on Belton Lake intending to fish from 1 to 5 p.m. I began looking for bottom-hugging white bass, largemouth bass and freshwater drum in 30-35 feet of water. I noted that the surface temperature of the water was right at 56.8F.
After just a few minutes of searching, I found what I was looking for, revealed by both traditional colored sonar and by DownScan Imaging on my Lowrance sonar unit. As they typically are in cool, deep water, fish were tightly bunched together and located nearly belly-to-the-bottom.
I put the boat into a hover over top of these fish using the Spot Lock function on my trolling motor and, once the motor worked its magic and held us motionless, instructed everyone to open the bails on their spinning reels. This allowed their lures to drop down to the bottom and to be worked as we had discussed and practiced back at the dock when we first met up for the afternoon.
The results were instantaneous. Malia got the first fish, then Dacia was on, then Gabriel was hooked up.
By the time I’d released these first three fish, Gabriel had on another fish, and John set the hook on his first. And so it went, with this scenario playing out over and over again at each spot we searched, until my crew of five had boated a grand total of 138 fish by the time the sun set and the fish quit biting.
The catch included a half-dozen largemouth, a dozen drum, a few hybrid striped bass, with the balance consisting of white bass.
There are several keys to winter fishing, the most important of which is timing the weather. The tail end of a warming trend and the front end of an incoming cold front are the key times to be on the water.
Calm, cloudless days are to be avoided.
The next key is lure selection. My go-to lure for winter fishing is the 3/8- or 3/4-oz. silver or white Red Neck Fish’n Jigs Model 180 slab rigged with a Hazy Eye Stinger Hook attached at the line tie.
I cannot stress enough the importance of a stinger hook. As the water gets colder, the percentage of fish hooked primarily by the stinger will increase to 50-60 percent.
Nearly 100 percent of the largemouth bass caught as a bycatch while targeting white bass and hybrid stripers are hooked in the mouth on the stinger with the treble hook found on the outside of the mouth when they are brought to net.
The final key is presentation. Most anglers simply fish too quickly in cold water. Using the Minn Kota Spot Lock technology, I simply hold in one place until a bite is over and I fish very slowly and methodically while holding in this one place.
With the water temperature still in the mid-50s there is plenty of family-friendly fishing yet to come!