Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Subtle finesse tactics that will trigger bites from all freshwater species in open water from December to early March.
Many anglers in the northeast will put their fishing gear away come Thanksgiving time. The holidays keep us off the water, as does football season, and some plain just dislike being cold. Keeping focus on the tiny bait at the end of your 6# test leader and watching your hi-vis line for the slightest nudge from a fish can seem torturous in winter conditions. The action can be very slow, sometimes non-existent. There is something about it though, when you get bit in sub 40 degree water, that makes you feel like you did something "right". Figuring out what element or combination of elements that were "right" is more crucial at this time of year (December-March) than any other. When fish of all species go into winter mode, their metabolic rate is slowed dramatically. Fish will feed less frequently, less aggressively, and their strike zone is the smallest it is all year. Your choices of bait color, bait size, line, and retrieve speed can either trigger strikes, or completely turn fish off. Finding the correct combination of all those things to fine tune your presentation can be like cracking a secret code. One thing to keep in mind at this point in the season, is that fish can be very spooky. I try to use the most natural colors I can get away with depending on water clarity or cloud cover. Fish will sit and examine a bait for a good while before deciding to bite, or not bite. You also don't want a heavy bait that comes crashing into their holding area. That too will spook them. I try to get away with the lightest leader I can, usually 4-12 lb. fluorocarbon depending on the presentation and how hard I swing on fish according to what bait is at the end of said leader.
Lure choices will vary species to species, and in shape, size, material, color, fall rate, action, etc. Overall, smaller presentations are the way to go for triggering bites at this tough time of year. Small is a relative term, so to clarify, I'm typically using baits no longer than 3.5", and as small as 1". At times, maybe a standard sized skirted bass jig or jerkbait of 4-5", but typically smaller stuff. Baits that have some movement at rest (when you aren't physically moving the lure) will get more bites, but it all depends on fish mood. Some days, bass and crappie are willing to give chase or strike a quicker moving bait, but those days are few and far between in the cold water period.
Retrieve speeds will vary too, but not drastically. A slow crawl along the top of an eelgrass bed or on the bottom is about the fastest you'll want to move. Sometimes deadsticking your bait on the bottom or suspended over a school of fish is the key to getting bit. Remember, these fish don't want to move horizontally for any great distance, or at all. In fact, fish prefer moving vertically to hunt in the winter time if they must move to feed. A lot of bites come from just letting a bait sit on the bottom, doing absolutely nothing with it. Even when fishing a finesse style swimbait, I will sometimes stop my retrieve and let the bait sit on the bottom, especially if I've just missed a fish or have caught fish in a specific spot. These fish are cold and slow moving, it can take time for them to swim over and check out your presentation sometimes.
As for line choice, I strictly use braided line as my main line (PowerPro or J-Braid 5-10# test hi-vis yellow), and fluorocarbon leaders (Seaguar 6-12# test). I don't care how cold it gets, I will use braid until it freezes. Nothing else has the strike detection like that of braid, and there is no sense fooling around and missing bites when battling unsavory winter conditions. The lightest hits you'll get all season will be during the winter. The hi-vis yellow line allows you to "line watch" a bit easier. Sometimes line watching is the only way to detect a strike during the winter, especially when it is windy and you are trying to fish a small lure in deep water. Another good method of strike detection is to "weigh your line", which means that when you think a fish may have your bait, slowly lift your rod, and if it feels oddly heavy or different than it should, set the hook. Fish may hit very lightly and sit stationery with the bait for a few seconds, making it difficult to know you've been hit.
If you're lucky, you'll have the option to plan your winter fishing trips in accordance with weather patterns. Consistency is your best friend when it comes to weather, no matter if it be mild, cloudy and calm or cold, sunny and windy. Big changes in barometric pressure and sky conditions can completely shut fish off, and no time of year is stingier than winter when it comes to a bite turning sour. Usually 2-3 days of "the same conditions", whether favorable or not, will keep fish in a biting mood. In the dead of winter, I usually seem to do best on calm days with cloud cover or with just a bit of wind. Sometimes right before a big storm too, which is not an uncommon scenario through the rest of the season as well. The closer we get to spring and as the water temperature is starting to rise, a string of sunny days seems to be the ticket for a productive outing.
My Top 5 Go-To Lures For Winter
1. Lunker City Grubster 2.75"
This little finesse swimbait has probably accounted for 60% of all my freshwater fish caught between the months of December and February, and just about every species too. Largemouth and smallmouth bass, pike, yellow and white perch, crappie, trout, and even stripers have taken this bait over course of many seasons of winter fishing. The paddle tail is pliable and works well in extremely cold water, something that can't be said about similar looking baits. The best way to present these is on a jighead, I like 3/16 oz. for the bodies of water I fish, but if I need to, I'll bump up to 1/4 oz. of weight.
The best presentation is dragging it along the bottom with slight lifts and pauses. If you think you're moving it too fast, you are. The other thing I like to do with this bait is to swim it over the tops of vertical standing weeds like eelgrass. If you know where the edge of the grass is, stop your retrieve and let the bait fall or give it a twitch. If fish are there, you'll know it. A big hookset is not required with these baits. If they are hitting this bait in the winter months, they are committing to eating it. When you see your line jump or if it feels like you reeled into a clump of weeds, just reel tight to the fish and lean into them. My favorite colors for this bait are Arkansas Shiner, Cinnamon Pro Blue, and Clearwater Flash.
2. Hair Jig