The winter storms we just endured were, in a word, unprecedented. Texas simply has not seen weather so cold for so long in recorded history.
According to the meteorologists at KWTX, we endured 206 hours of continuous, below-freezing temperatures which concluded around 1 p.m. Friday. This far exceeded 1983’s previous record of 150 hours.
As we take back to the waters when local roads and boat ramps are once again passable, we will be fishing in conditions no one has experienced in this area ever before.
I keep meticulous records on every single fishing trip I take, and these records date back to 1992. The lowest surface temperature I have ever encountered while guiding clients was 46F. That occurred following five days of sub-freezing weather in early February 2011.
Using my notes, I have at least a starting point for where to go, what to use and how to use it as I begin taking clients out once again. I want to share some of this with you so perhaps your own learning curve need not be so steep.
The first fundamental to appreciate is that fish are cold-blooded creatures. Their metabolism is driven by the temperature of their surroundings. In cold water, our warm-water fish species will move less often, move shorter distances, feed less often and digest more slowly than in warmer water.
Thus, my tactics will be the slowest tactics I employ all year. For those of you familiar with ice-fishing, what I will essentially be doing until the water temperature nears 50F once again is ice-fishing on open water.
I will be using the Spot-Lock feature of my Minn Kota trolling motor to hold as still as possible. I will rely on a combination of 2-D or “colored” sonar for the sake of its wide beam-width looking downward in a conical fashion, and Garmin LiveScope to look right, left, ahead of the boat and behind the boat to see if fish are nearby, but outside the downward looking cone of the 2-D sonar.
Fish will likely be found in the deepest water they will hold in all year. Sixty-plus feet is not unheard of. I will be searching over the old river channel for both bait and for suspended schools of gamefish.
Oftentimes in the winter, multiple species of gamefish will be caught while fishing one small area — largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, white bass, hybrid striped bass, crappie, drum and blue catfish.
Although I never leave the courtesy dock with clients aboard without having a set of rods rigged up with slabs, those slabs will likely not be my first choice in such cold weather.
Instead, I will be stealing a page from the ice-fishing book and employing a lure designed for that sport — the Rapala Jigging Shad Rap, in size 05, and in the pearl color. Unlike other such ice-fishing lures, this one is shad-shaped, not minnow-shaped, and it outperforms those minnow-shaped baits 3- or 4-to-1 for our southern, shad-eating gamefish.
On a third set of rods I will have jigheads (my preference is the VMC Mooneye jighead) in as small a weight as I can get away with for the wind and water conditions I am experiencing — typically 3/8 oz. is about right. To that jighead I will carefully affix either a 2½-inch Gulp! Minnow in watermelon pearl, a 7-centimeter Berkley Powerbait Pro Twitchtail Minnow in smelt color, or a 3½-inch Zman TRD MinnowZ in ‘The Deal’ coloration, cut to length to match the forage.
I will make sure the bait is rigged straight and appears natural — no bends or kinks.
Finding fish will be a challenge, but, typically once they are found, they will be present in large numbers and will be loathe to move.
Once found, I will employ either a dead-stick or a limp-stick tactic. A dead-stick tactic involves simply holding the bait very still, just slightly higher (perhaps 6-12 inches) than the fish appears on sonar until such a time as the fish reacts — either by turning away, or making a grab at the bait.
A limp-stick tactic starts off the same way as a dead-stick tactic, but involves a very slow raise of the bait at a constant speed, covering approximately a 3-foot vertical distance in a span of about 6 seconds. If any willingness to follow is displayed by the fish, I will continue to use this tactic over the deadsticking tactic.
One thing to ensure when using the jighead/soft plastic combination is that the knot holding the jighead to your main line is cinched tightly so as to make the bait hang horizontally, thus parallel with the lake’s bottom. Visually check this at the side of the boat, make adjustments as needed and recheck after each catch.
When ice-fishing on open water, you will want to be prepared for the bite, as you will typically only get one thump, similar to that of a crappie taking a crappie jig. That thump requires an immediate hookset or you will have missed your opportunity — and you likely will not get a lot of opportunities to begin with.
My go-to rod and reel combination for this style of fishing is a Fenwick Eagle EA70ML-MFS, one-piece medium-light spinning rod, 7-feet long, with a Pflueger Arbor 7430 reel which has a 4.3-to-1 gear ratio.
I spool up with the lightest line I will use all year — Sufix 832 Advanced Superline, which is a braided line, in 10-pound test. To this I affix a 20-pound test fluorocarbon leader as a stiffening segment to help avoid tangles. The fluorocarbon also cinches better to the jigheads to help keep them hanging horizontally.
The no-stretch braid is sensitive, and the small diameter of this lighter line allows presentations to get deep more quickly than when having to overcome the drag of larger diameter lines.
One other change I make to my approach in this cold weather is sticking around longer on top of non-biting fish than I would under warmer water conditions. Fish will be hard enough to find — once I find them, I want to give them a chance to turn on and feed, knowing that such feeding will take place for only a short time and those short feeds will come infrequently until the water warms once again.
At a time when our peers on the coast are facing fish kills due to the frigid water, I am thankful we still have an intact fishery here. The impact of the cold on our threadfin shad population, which, according to the literature, do not tolerate water temperatures below 42F very well, remains to be seen.