I am not sure which is tougher, the heart of winter or the heat of summer. Fishing gets pretty tough during both, and we have clearly arrived at the heart of winter here in Central Texas.
Fish are cold-blooded creatures. Their metabolism rises and falls with the temperature of their surroundings. Currently, water temperatures are at or near their annual lows, and fish are in low gear.
To me, the challenge of finding and catching fish becomes even more challenging in this season, making the pursuit even more interesting. I’m always hopeful that I can find some different bait or some tweak to my tactics,or some other adjustment that will provide incremental improvement over typical results.
I have seen this winter lull scenario play out every year for each of the 28 years I have fished Belton and Stillhouse Hollow laes, and have learned a few things in so doing.
First, I know I need to adjust my expectations. My clients averaged over 122 fish caught per trip in December. That is just not going to happen in January and February. To expect otherwise is to invite disappointment and frustration. I do keep detailed records of every single fishing trip I take so I can run the numbers and see, season by season, month by month, what our lakes historically produce. This lets me know, at a minimum, if I am doing better or worse than my own average.
Next, I need to adjust my location. Deep water of 35 to 50 feet deep is where I will spend most of my time between now and early March. I suspect it is the stability of this deep water which draws forage and gamefish. Deep water with nearby access to even deeper water (such as near the lip of the old river channels running through Belton and Stillhouse) seems to provide the most consistency for multiple species including white bass, hybrid stripers, largemouth bass and freshwater drum.
Additionally, I adjust my presentations and the cadence at which they are presented.
Presentations need to be bottom-oriented and slow. This is prime-time for using deadsticking tactics or, for those who just cannot fish that slowly, slowing down and including long, motionless pauses in their retrieves.
For me and my clients, over the next three weeks at a minimum, we will be deadsticking as a default tactic and using the slowest form of easing with slabs when more active fish and/or better weather conditions are encountered.
To rig up for deadsticking, I use Fenwick Eagle EA70ML-MFS, 7-foot, one-piece spinning rods with Pflueger Arbor 7430 reels (with 4.3:1 gear ratios). I load the spool with 10-pound Sufix 832 Advanced Superline joined to a 2-foot, 20-pound test fluorocarbon leader with a pair of six-turn Uni-knots.
For the lure, I use a white or chartreuse 3/16-oz. Big Eye jighead by Fle-Fly or a 3/8-oz. Neon Moon Eye jighead by VMC. To these I attach Z-Man TRD Minnowz in Smelt, The Deal and Pearl Blue Glimmer colors, Gulp! Minnows in Pearl Silver color or Powerbait Pro Twitchtail Minnows in Smelt color, trimmed to about 3 inches, if needed, and adhered to the jighead with Pro’s Soft-Bait Glue.
Once fish are located, typically by observing gulls or by using side-imaging to find groups of fish, then Spot-Locking atop them, I drop the lure to the bottom while holding my spinning rod’s tip right at the waterline. Once the lure hits bottom, I will manually close the bail and make sure my line is taut without lifting the bait off the bottom. Next, I will lift the bait just 6-8 inches off bottom and hold it there. This is my default position.
I will use my thumper to attract fish to me and will occasionally (perhaps once every 20 seconds) lift the lure about 3 feet upward slowly (taking 4-5 seconds to accomplish this) while closely watching sonar for a follow (Garmin LiveScope excels for this, but traditional 2D colored sonar will work, as well. Down- and side-imaging do not cut it for this application).
If a fish follows, I will continue lifting until the fish overtakes the bait and strikes or until I see it turn away. Never stop a bait while a fish is pursuing it.
When fish appear on the sonar screen while I am holding the lure still, I want to slowly move my bait into position just slightly higher (literally, just an inch or two) than the level of the fish so the bait is hanging right in their field of view. Resist the temptation to move the bait and, instead, just remain still and feel for a light strike so you can follow up with a fast hookset. Hold the bait still as long as fish are present as seen on sonar.
If slabs are more your thing, go as light as you can go (I rely on Hazy Eye 3/8-oz. slabs of my own making) and try a traditional snap-jigging tactic with a full, 3-second pause after the lure comes to rest at the end of the jigging stroke. Instead of snapping the slab upward every time, try throwing in a slow upward lift every third or fourth stroke.
If you find the fish are striking on the slow lift, then do it even more frequently. Always use a stinger hook in the cold months, from October to March, at a minimum.
As days lengthen (which they have been doing since Dec. 23) and as temperatures moderate, things will improve. With Thursday morning’s light snowfall and temperatures in the high 20s for several hours, we lost more heat than we gained last week. Pushing through this tough time will give you confidence that you can still catch fish when the fishing is tough, and allows for variety and the use of tactics which really pay off only during this coolest time of year.