Beginning in September, the passage of cold fronts through Central Texas brings our fall and winter seasons.
At first, the fronts are typically mild and spaced far apart. By this late November time frame, multiple cold fronts may be experienced inside the span of a week.
Obviously, anglers cannot control the weather, but by understanding how the various parts of the frontal cycle impact fishing, we can time our efforts to enjoy the best fishing the frontal cycles offer, avoid the negative impacts of cold fronts and adjust our expectations regardless of when we fish during the cycle.
So, what is this cycle? Let us start with normal weather prior to a front’s arrival. In Central Texas, a typical late autumn/early winter day will see winds from the south-southeast accompanied by mild temperatures.
According to Current Results Publishing Inc., our average high temperature for November is 72 and the average low is 50. An average high of 64 and average low of 44 is expected for December.
Cloud cover during this period varies greatly, typically being sparse following a front, and growing heavier prior to a front’s arrival.
As a cold front approaches the area, our local meteorologists all try to use models and observations to predict the timing of the front’s arrival. They do so because violent weather, including lightning, driving rain and/or high winds may accompany that event.
In the hours before a front arrives, pre-frontal warming of the atmosphere may occur as the atmosphere gets squeezed between the weather to our southeast and the incoming weather to our northwest.
In the minutes before a front arrives, the winds typically go briefly slack, then begin to change direction rapidly, first blowing from the southwest, then the west, then changing to the northwest as the front is upon us.
As the front reaches us, winds will quickly ramp up and become gusty. The temperature will drop noticeably and storm activity will often occur, complete with thunder, lightning and rain. Milder fronts may pass through without such storms.
After the front passes to our east, winds will continue to strengthen and blow out of the northwest or north, and temperatures will continue to drop, even during the daytime hours. Barometric pressure increases and skies become clearer and clearer.
Eventually (sometimes in just hours and sometimes in several days) the post-frontal winds will peak and then begin to slow. As the high pressure system which was preceded by the front moves atop Central Texas, the barometric pressure will reach a maximum, winds will be calm, and bright, clear, cold conditions will be experienced.
Warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico will return to Central Texas as the high pressure breaks down, and we will have completed the frontal cycle with the return of winds from the south-southeast accompanied by mild temperatures.
Unfortunately, our fishing textbooks and traditions tend to oversimplify things. How many times have you heard the old adage, “Winds from the west, fish bite best. Winds from the east, fish bite least. Winds from the south blow the hook in the fish’s mouth; but winds from the north, the fisherman goes not forth?”
While there is some truth to those old lines, we need to take a closer look at the weather picture.
My observations formed from 30 seasons on Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes have yielded some useful trends.
In my opinion, the best fishing during the frontal cycle takes place from the time the winds shift to the west and northwest and the violent weather (if it occurs) passes, up until the time the north winds reach peak velocity. When all of this takes place during the daytime hours, and in particular the morning hours, the fish activity will be well above average.
Sometimes, a mild front will pass, winds will increase during the daytime hours, die down a bit during the overnight hours, and pick back up again the following day. That day after the front’s passage will produce above average results, as well.
Other times, all of this frontal activity will take place under cover of darkness, and we anglers will miss out on “what could have been” had the front passed during daylight hours.
Regardless, fishing begins to decline after the winds reach peak velocity and begin to go calm. This is referred to as the post-frontal period.
Fishing tends to be at its worst once the winds go slack and are accompanied by clear skies, bright sunshine, and cold conditions.
Fishing begins to pick up again upon the return of a south wind with at least some cloud cover and an increase in air temperature. Fishing will stay average as long as winds continue from the south, southeast or southwest.
Fishing will pick up with the pre-frontal warming and wind increase from the southwest prior to the arrival of another front. Fishing will then drop off sharply as the winds go slack in the minutes or hours in the transition from southwesterly winds to northwesterly winds. The cycle then repeats itself.
When this cycle takes place multiple times over the course of a single week, as it recently has, we experience a net decline in water temperature.
Remembering that fish are cold-blooded creatures, and that their metabolism falls with the temperature of their surroundings, it is easier to understand why the fantastic frontal fishing of late October would be better than the frontal fishing here in late November. The water temperature is now a full 10 degrees cooler than it was a month ago. Although the relative activity of the fish is greater as a front passes, it is likely not going to be as good as it was when the water was warmer, all else being equal.
We have plenty of solid fishing ahead of us. Even when the water temperature reaches its annual low, fish can still be caught consistently.
Again, the purpose of this article is, in part, to help anglers have reasonable expectations, thus helping them define success depending on where in the frontal cycle their angling efforts are applied.