COLD WEATHER FLY FISHING FOR WARM WEATHER SPECIES
Yesterday the temperature was in the 60s and the fish were biting. Of course, the Gulf Coast doesn’t have winter, not really. Average temperatures for January-February are in the 60s with lows in the 40s. Not exactly electric socks cold. But when the weather dips toward the few days below 40 we get each year, water temperatures put bass, crappie and bluegill into slow motion. Cold blooded species reduce their activity with extremes of temperature and bass/bluegill considers water temps in the low50s to be practically paralyzing. You know the fish are there somewhere, and you’re pretty sure they have to eat, but where? Obviously, fish can be caught in winter or ice fishing would merely be an excuse to drink beer. Or maybe it is.
The key to winter fly fishing is patience. Studies consistently show that, as the surface temperature drops, lake fish move to deeper waters and significantly reduced their hunting territory. In some cases, large bass hunkered down in the roots of a tree may show no discernable movement at all for months – which pretty much guarantees they will be fly fishing-proof. As water temperature heats up and cools down, bass and bluegill will move to shallows to feed, then retreat back to depths, then back and forth over a period of months (December - March). Crappie will tolerate colder water than other pond residents and are willing to hunt larger areas. However, any feeding pattern can be disturbed with even moderate water temperature changes, or barometric changes, even with modified amounts of direct sunlight. Because they are looking for the most accommodating temperature and pH, competing species of similar size will generally be in the same proximity, so when fly fishermen find larger fish, they should concentrate on that area.
Because of shrunken hunting territory, a “good” area may be only a few feet across. Normal fan casting is not the approach to take here, and a much smaller target area should be worked. An article on plastic worm fishing once recommended two dozen casts at the same location. That’s just silly. Failure to get a strike is an indicator to move, and no strikes on a good fly at a seemingly good location in five minutes means there are probably no bass and bluegill there or another fly should be tried (but not longer than another five minutes). Crappie can be the easiest fish to catch, yet the most frustrating. Find one crappie and others are almost guaranteed to be nearby, and get one to bite and others will. However, for reasons known only to the crappie, the bite will suddenly stop and catching in that spot is over for the next hour or day.
Modern technology can really help on lakes and ponds. There is one product I really like for fish finding. Results from a Humminbird SmartCast in January-February showed most of the large fish in a 1000' x 50' lake to be located in three small deeper areas. In a similar lake the fish were all congregated in a trough running 200' down the middle of the lake. The key to success here was to fish and move the casting target only a few feet at a time.
If possible, the winter fisherman should try to focus on any apparent structure or vegetation. Small bluegill feed heavily on insects near the vegetation, and bass feed on smaller fish that feed on these insects. Bluegills are creatures of habit, and if you know vegetation is usually in an area in the spring/summer, bass and bluegill will frequently return to that area in winter, although bass prefer snags and underwater obstructions to vegetation. When the fish move out of previously occupied areas, drop-offs and deeper holes are the best areas to fish, often the only place worth fishing. For bluegill, the fly of choice should be an insect replica. For bass or crappie it should be a minnow replica. Bass and crappie are going to want to spend as little energy as possible feeding and one big meal is their preferred option. This is where clouser-esque flies can really be a trip saver. Retrieves should be painfully slow. A “finger strip” is performed by holding the line between your thumb and forefinger, and then tugging lightly on the line with your middle finger, then you re-grip where your middle finger tugged. Use a finger strip-pause-finger strip-long pause-repeat, and the bait should only move an inch or so each strip.
On a bright day in the warmest part of the afternoon a hungry fish might take a surface bait, but the only reliable option for winter bass and bluegill fishing are flies that don’t float. The soft hackle is particularly adaptable to winter fishing. Soft hackle flies have a lot of movement just drifting in the water without a lot of movement of the fly. Just twitched occasionally, the hackles wiggle invitingly (or, to bass, infuriatingly). There is no specific “catch-‘em” pattern, and the choice of colors depends largely on the color of the water being fished. Not many insects are active in the winter, but the nymphs of dragonflies and stoneflies cruise the waters of ponds, feed actively and grow all winter to emerge as adults in early spring. These are larger nymphs and nothing smaller than a size 10 need be used. Of course, fish don’t have calendars and any slightly warmer day might find a mayfly pattern effective.
In general, brighter colors should be used for the body of the fly, primarily white, yellow or chartreuse. The fly can be accented or dressed with contrasting colors by using flash in tails, wire ribbing or contrasting hackle. Bead chain eyes or cone heads are optional, but generally cause the bait to fall too rapidly between twitches for bluegill. On the other hand, bass and crappie almost always hit the fly on the drop and great attention to line movement is demanded.
Another good option is a nymph or larva pattern. Chenille is particularly effective for simple flies, which can be dressed with plastic legs, soft hackle or flash. Flies should be buggy, but should not be so scraggly as to look like a piece of algae on the hook.
Because the fish are not willing to expend any energy to chase down your fly, using a double fly rig is highly recommended. A clouser pattern minnow trailing an insect pattern (or vice versa) will present more fish catching options. More than one large bass has fallen prey to a rubber leg nymph trailed closely by a minnow imitation – as if it were chasing the nymph. Apparently, bass get really perturbed when they think someone is getting a meal they are not.
Warmwater species are not particularly line shy. For winter fishing you want tippet that sinks easily and is relatively invisible. Flourocarbon lines (e.g. Vanish) are a good choice. You can get Vanish in a 6 lb. test at 250 yards for $10 whereas 25 yards of flourocarbon tippet is $5-$7. If you use something more visible than flourocarbon, the key is to try and get a line with a diameter of .010 or less. In ponds a long leader can give you a pretty decent (1 ft/sec) sink rate and a 10-12 foot leader/tippet is not too long.
Winter takes are not bone-jarring attacks. Winter takes are subtle and frequently nothing more than pressure on the line. In shallow ponds a popper dropper rig can be used. In this instance the popper is simply functioning as a cork, but make sure it has rubber legs. The dropper will only go as deep as the line between it and the popper, so don’t be stingy with this part of your rig. You don’t need a “pop” from the popper, so continue using tiny strips. If the popper’s rubber legs twitch and you didn’t cause it, that is a take. Sometimes a fish will gently inhale a fly and your only clue is that the popper legs moved toward the head of the fly (indicating the fly moved backwards). This is a take.
The downside (other than the fact that winter fishing is cold and takes more patience than many of us possess) is that winter fish don’t fight very hard. Warm water species spend most of their energy doing what’s necessary for keeping alive in cold water. There is not a lot left over for a spawn-like rod-bending battle since crappie fight only for the first few seconds. Large bass often act like catfish (or perhaps an old boot), barely moving dead weight on the line. Bluegills are a bit more active, but nowhere near their springtime fury. Just be glad you’re catching anything at all.