With the passage of two strong cold fronts this week, our water temperatures have now dipped below 55 degrees at both Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes.
I fished for white bass during last week’s warmest 66F afternoon on Tuesday, to this week’s coldest 31F morning with a windchill of 24 on Thursday. This allowed me to get a unique perspective on how weather and water temperature impact the mood of the fish. By mood I mean the overall willingness or reluctance of the fish population to exhibit feeding behavior.
I have often written here about how stability in our weather creates consistency in fish behavior; conversely, instability in our weather leads to a lack of consistency.
Our winter months have about as much instability as our spring and autumn seasons, but with the water already chilled, the impact of this instability becomes much more noticeable. Unstable weather in the form of cold fronts makes a fishery which is already tough due to low temperatures even tougher.
Remember, fish are cold-blooded creatures, so their metabolism rises and falls with water temperature.
In cold water, fish do not need to feed nearly as often as they do in warm water. They generally move more slowly, feed less often and travel shorter distances in comparison with their behavior in warm water conditions.
I will often hear well-intentioned anglers say something like, “We are going slabbing for white bass today.” This means such anglers have already determined how they are going to fish without considering the conditions nor what the fish may require in order to be tempted to bite.
The wiser approach is to go prepared for relatively inactive fish (which will be encountered a vast majority of the time from now through the end of February), as well as for fish which are demonstrating more aggressive behavior (which will often occur in short-lived spurts from now through the end of February).
As I prepare my own tackle for guided trips this time of year, I have two sets of rods aboard. One set is rigged up with my Hazy Eye Slabs equipped with stinger hooks. I opt for white-colored slabs which are shad-shaped (not long, cigar- or minnow-shaped), and which weigh either 3/8 oz. (for experienced anglers and/or calmer days) or 5/8 oz. (for less experienced anglers and/or windy days).
The other set of rods are rigged with my Maindelle’s All-Purpose Lure (MAL) in either white or chartreuse.
The slabs are used if the fish are slow, which is well over 80% of the time in the winter months. The MALs are used during brief periods of frenzied feeding, before which, and after which, I will be using the rods equipped with the slabs.
As I view each day’s set of conditions (and having done this for 30 years now on these two reservoirs), I pretty much know what to expect. If we have stable weather, a warming trend, favorable wind speed and direction and perhaps a bit of cloud cover, fishing is going to be very good and usually at the mid-point of the morning and again at the mid-point of the afternoon, the bite will really take off and allow for the use of a faster retrieve with a lure designed to be retrieved (in my case, the MAL) .
Otherwise, even on a day with ideal conditions, I will still rely on the slab for a slower presentation before and after these peak feeding times.
The title of this article is “Allowing fish behavior to drive your presentation.” With all of the above now understood, let us take this task head-on.
Allowing fish behavior to drive your presentation implies that an assessment of fish behavior must be done by the angler. Here is how I accomplish this:
First, I consider the weather. If we have had a warming trend, with southerly winds for several days, fish will be more apt to bite than they will under rapidly changing weather conditions.
As I find fish on sonar, especially on side-imaging, I will study how they are grouped together. If the fish are tightly grouped together and are holding up off the bottom such that there is target separation between the fish and the bottom, these fish are in a feeding mood.
On the other hand, if the fish are so close to the bottom that there appears to be no space between their bellies and the bottom (on down-imaging and/or traditional sonar), these fish are going to be much tougher to catch; they are present but not feeding.
Regardless, I will Spot-Lock on top of any groups of fish I discover (not on individual fish, as these are typically not white bass) with my trolling motor. I will then drop a slab down to them. Once it reaches bottom, I will raise it upward to watch for fish response, if any. If the fish ignore the lure, I will immediately opt for my small Hazy Eye Slab and will work for these fish with very slow lifts off bottom. I know I will have to attract a great number of fish (perhaps 20-30) to catch just one under such conditions.
How slowly should you lift, you may ask? I cover the space between the water’s surface and an 11 o’clock position with a steady, upward sweep of my rod tip in about six seconds.
If the fish pursue, but only half-heartedly and not quickly enough to overtake the lure, I will again opt for the small Hazy Eye Slab and will work for these fish with slow lifts off bottom. In this scenario, I may get a response from one in every 12 or 15 fish which flare up off bottom to follow my lure.
If the fish launch quickly off the bottom and overtake the rising lure before it gets 3 to 5 feet from bottom, I know I am dealing with more aggressive fish and will still use small Hazy Eye Slab, but will work it with a faster, steady rate of rise (about four seconds to cover the span mentioned above). I will catch as many as I can, as fast as I can because I know this feed will typically not last long and I want to take full advantage of it.
As I fish for these aggressive fish, if I note that the fish are becoming more aggressive and/or fish are beginning to rise up off bottom and stay suspended, and/or if fish which move in from around the boat show on sonar to be suspended, I will switch over to my MAL as these fish will be just about as aggressive as wintertime fish get. In this scenario, the MAL will outperform the slab.
Additionally, any time sonar reveals fish feeding throughout the water column beneath fish-eating birds like gulls and terns, I automatically assume these are very aggressive fish and will select the MAL to fish for them.
So, to summarize, the weather (past and present) will give you your first clues as to what to expect on the water. Sonar will then give you up-to-the-minute input on what fish are doing at that point in the morning or afternoon feeding cycle. Gauging fish response to your presentation will then be your final hint as to whether you need to go slowly or moderately with a slab, or whether you need go quickly with an MAL.