Fishing Options for Late Fall and Winter

Hello, Readers!

Recently, I've been receiving plenty of e-mails regarding late Fall and Winter fishing; therefore, I decided to write a short post on it. It seems that local anglers are getting more and more adventurous towards different Species of fish, which is a great thing! Fishing under brutal temperatures requires a lot of strategy; however, it pays off in the end! =)
February 2nd, 2013 -- Frozen spillway at Audubon Lake, NJ. Even when air temperature is below freezing point (32F) and conditions look brutal for fishing, certain Species of fish will still be feeding. Thus, having good fishing strategies under those conditions can still bring great results. 
In this post, I'll cover the following two topics: (1) The best fishing strategies for cold water temperatures (32-40F), and (2) the best Species of fish to target during late Fall and Winter.
Before I even start with the first part of this post, let me announce that I've updated my fish hibernation/dormancy post. You can read it here.

Summarizing, that post basically uses a scientific approach to show how fish are not able to hibernate (fish hibernation is a myth), and instead, how they are able to enter a state of torpor (dormancy). There are some definitions there that you guys should be familiar with before reading this post, including the following important terms: endothermic and ectothermic; hibernation and dormancy; and torpor. Since I'm using that post as a "back up" for the fishing strategies cited here, it's definitely good for you guys to know the concept and the differences between hibernation and dormancy.

In my hibernation/dormancy post, I have included all the science behind fish behavior during low water temperatures. Now, I'll show you how those pieces of information can help you in terms of your fishing efficiency. Thus, once again, I highly recommend anyone to read that post before this one! If you do so, you will have a better understanding of the logic here.
1. The best fishing strategies for cold water temperatures
If you already have read my other post on fish hibernation/dormancy, you should know the following by now:

-- freshwater fish are ectothermic; therefore, they are not able to enter a state of hibernation. As a matter of fact, only endothermic organisms are able to hibernate (i.e. bear).

-- freshwater fish can enter a state of torpor, which is similar to hibernation. By definition, hibernation is nothing else but a deeper state of torpor, and torpor is nothing else but a state of physical inactivity (lethargy).

-- the state of torpor in fish lasts only a certain amount of hours per day. In other words, freshwater fish do not stay put in one location the whole time, during the whole Winter season.  
Therefore, we can conclude that due to low water temperatures, the metabolism of the fish slows down drastically. Since they are ectothermic and poikilothermic, they must enter a state of torpor for a couple hours each day. After all, their main objective during cold seasons is to preserve their body energy for the whole Fall/Winter period. So, it's incorrect to say that they hibernate, but it's correct to say that "fish become lethargic during low water temperature."

The time of inactivity varies between different Species of freshwater fish: more resistance to cold water temperatures results in less lethargic fish. In other words, the fishes that are more resistant to the cold spend less time in a state of torpor.

A chart of game-fish temperature preferences. As the temperature preference increases, resistance to cold water decreases (from top to bottom on the chart), and the amount of time in a state of physical inactivity during cold water temperature increases. Therefore, ideally speaking, the recommended Species of fish for Winter Time would be the ones categorized under 60F and below: Trout and Salmon. However, this post will focus on: Channel Catfish, Common Carp (it's not even recognized as a game-fish), Black Crappie, and Sunnies (in general).   
The best fishing strategies for cold water temperatures are based exactly on the scientific pieces of information above! Since fish move and eat less when the water is cold (32-40F), the approach for fishing becomes more like a game of chess: anticipation over expectation and gratification.

Side note:

Notice that I broke the process of fishing in those three steps (anticipation, expectation, gratification)because I believe that that's a good way to explain the whole thing. According to the philosopher Vincent A. LaZara, the sport of fishing is "driven by the basic hunter-gatherer survival instinct that accounts for much of human behavior in general, from stamp collecting to bird watching, to spending the afternoon shopping at the mall"

The three stages of the hunter-gatherer process is: anticipation, expectation, and gratification.

The anticipation part is when we prepare for our next fishing session. That includes reading fishing magazines and other online sources; picking a good spot depending on the weather, season, and time of the day; picking the adequate gear and bait when targeting a certain Species of fish; etc.

The expectation part happens after we set our lines in the water. As the step implies, we just expect the fish to bite! If we are fishing passively (i.e. still-fishing for Carp), we may expect the fish to swim over our baits. If we are fishing actively (i.e. using a Buzzbait for Bass), we are expecting a strong pull on the other side of the line.

The gratification part is the "after-fish" part. After we land the fish, we usually have the feeling that our plan has worked out. We feel good about our success! We take photos, engrave the moment in our minds (especially if it's a big or uncommon fish), etc.

And the most interesting thing about the hunter-gatherer process is in the fact that it's cyclic. Once we feel the gratification part, we want to do it again. And so, we go fishing over and over again, repeating the steps of anticipation, expectation, and gratification. As Vincent A. LaZara states, this is something that applies for life overall! Most of our habits and addictions to certain things follow this primal process.

Therefore, we will focus here strictly on anticipation: what to do BEFORE you even head out for your chosen body of water. That includes 3 main strategies: picking a good spot, picking a good time of the day, and targeting a specific Species of fish. Strategy is certainly fundamental during the cold months, and just dropping your line out there without thinking about these 3 conditions can greatly result in the waste of your time and failure to catch fish.   

A. Pick a Species of fish
Choose a specific type of fish to fish for, and prepare carefully for it in terms of gear and bait. Multi-Species fishing during late Fall and Winter can become very frustrating! Your fishing efficiency will increase if you target one Species of fish at a time.

Once you have chosen what you want to target, choose the appropriate strategies, gear, and bait. Many fishing magazines say that sometimes "fishing slower is better," and that is very true. If you are targeting Largemouth Bass, for example, make sure you fish for it super slow! Select lures that are appropriate for the occasion: a suspending jerkbait to imitate lethargic dying fish (jerk-jerk-jerk, stop pattern); a worm imitation or jig on the bottom (dead-sticking); etc. If you are targeting Carp, make sure that you chum less, since they feed much less during the cold season. You don't want it to get full before it even gets to your hook! If you want to catch some Catfish, bring out your most stinky baits -- force the fish to swim towards you, and so on.

So, the first key strategy in successfully catching fish during low water temperatures is to target one specific type of fish. Once you lock on your target, then you can start planning your strategies!
B. Pick a good spot
Winter is definitely the best time to put your explorative skills at use. Picking a "good spot" in a certain body of water during the cold months will increase your fishing efficiency by a whole lot! Remember all those good spots that you have found and memorized during Spring and Summer? Maybe that unique deep hole in the whole Creek? That one current break or slow pool in the River? Those big pieces of structure in your local Lake or Pond? Now it's the time to hit them up because they will most likely be there!   
The ideal situation is to pick spots where you think the fish will be "living" during Winter time. As we mentioned before, fish are lethargic during low water temperatures. In other words, most of them will very likely stay close to their natural habitats (homes), and perhaps swim just a little bit around it.
Thus, you want to cast your bait right into their houses! This is the second fundamental strategy for late Fall and Winter fishing.
C. Pick a good time of the day
The feeding window for fishes during late Fall and Winter is very short. Since they are Ectothermic, fish are not able to regulate their body temperatures. As water temperature drops, so does the temperature in their bodies. As mentioned earlier -- once they become lethargic, their bodies' metabolism slows down a lot. Thus, their digesting ability also decreases.
Concluding, they eat very little per day and they feed only for short amounts of time. As a matter of fact, that usually happens after they get out of their state of torpor. If you cast your bait right next to a nice fish when the same is inactive, it won't even bulge for it.
Therefore, the third and last key strategy in successfully catching fish during the cold season is to choose a good time of the day. In other words, pick the time of the day that you believe it will be the best time for your target Species of fish to feed. The ideal situation would be to know when they are feeding, and that requires a lot of observation and stalking beforehand. However, thankfully, most fishes feed according to the D&D rule of nature: "Dawn and Dusk."

If you are familiar with your local bodies of water and your local fish feeding behaviors, you may go out only for a couple hours a day (1-2) and catch a lot of fish. This is the second fundamental strategy for late Fall and Winter fishing.

2. Different Species of fish to target during cold water temperatures

On this post, I'll focus mainly on Common Carp, Black Crappie, Channel Catfish, and Sunnies (in general). Please, keep in mind that there are many other Species out there that are available for late Fall and Winter fishing (i.e. Chain Pickerel, Striped Bass, Trout, Walleyes). These Species were picked for the convenience of the usual Recreational angler.

The key in catching all of them lies on the strategy that was described above: (1) Pick a Species to target; (2) pick a good spot; and (3) pick a good time of the day.

A. Common Carp

Particularly, Common Carp are among my favorites for Winter fishing! Even when lakes and ponds are frozen, they will still feed actively for a couple hours a day. Chumming helps a lot and they are still great fighters during the cold months, even with their metabolisms slowed down.

Here are a couple pointers for it:

-- Pick a place where you know that they are likely to feed. Carp always have their feeding grounds memorized, and they will very likely swim over it a couple times a day in search of food. Knowing those "feeding routes" is your golden key! That's basically your "good spot." In case you don't know those routes, you have two other options: you will have to eventually find them by trial and error, and that includes a lot of time on the water; or you can create a new feeding route by chumming a certain spot everyday for a couple days (sometimes even weeks).

-- Downsize your gear, especially when it comes to the hook and rig. Smaller hooks for Carp work better during the Winter, since they don't feed as aggressively as Spring and Summer. Hair rigs are not recommended at all. If you are a compulsive Carp angler, then the PVA technique is highly recommended.

-- Control your chum! As mentioned many times before, they feed less during the Winter. Therefore, you want to make sure that you have just the right amount of chum to attract them to your presentation. That means enough for them to stop and feed and enough for them to not get full! If you chum too much, they will eventually get full even before hitting your hook! =(

Here are a couple photos of late Fall and Winter Carp:

December 1st, 2012 - The Ponds.

December 17th, 2012 - Lake Luxembourg

December 24th, 2012 - Core Creek

February 2nd, 2013 - Upper Cooper River

January 20th, 2013 - Audubon Lake

January 20th, 2013 - Audubon Lake

Here are a couple videos of Winter Carp Fishing:

Or click here to watch it on Youtube.

Or click here to watch it on Youtube.

Or click here to watch it on Youtube.

Or click here to watch it on Youtube

Or click here to watch it on Youtube

B. Black Crappie

Black Crappie is another Species of fish that feed really well during Winter time, not to mention that they are delicious (if they are safe to eat). They usually stay close to structure, ready to ambush any small prey that is lethargic or dying. So, if you have seen a good amount of structure around a place that you fish often -- especially branches and stumps, it's a good sign that you should give it a try!

Here are a couple pointers for it:

-- Pick your bait and your presentation carefully! I've have had success with live nightcrawlers and small live minnows; however, my favorite technique for them is a 1 inch "Gulp! Alive Minnow" on a 1/64oz Trout Magnet jighead, all under a float. Jigging for Black Crappie around structure is a great idea, and it will probably end up with you catching some.

-- Try different depths. Black Crappie are usually suspended around structure during Winter time. Logs, branches, stumps, piers, etc, are all good locations to try for them. However, if you don't get bites after a couple casts, do not leave! Change the depth of your bait and try again. If you find the right depth and they are actually present, you will end up having tons of fun!

-- Watch your float constantly. The bites are soft and 75% of the time your float will not disappear in the water. Usually, the float either "twitches," or it starts moving towards a certain direction. That means that you could have a Black Crappie on the other side of your line already! =)

Here are a couple photos of late Fall and Winter Black Crappie:

December 2nd, 2012 - Audubon Lake (greedy fella...)

December 5th, 2012 - Centennial Lake

December 7th, 2012 - Driscoll Lake

December 16th, 2012 - Haddon Lake

February 2nd, 2013 - Upper Cooper River

January 2nd, 2012 - Wallworth Pond (on a Trout Magnet)

January 5th, 2013 - Upper Cooper River (notice the branches in the water)

January 5th, 2013 - Upper Cooper River

January 21st, 2013 - Upper Cooper River

November 3rd, 2013 - Driscoll Pond

November 3rd, 2012 - Upper Cooper River

November 4th, 2012 - Evans Pond

November 4th, 2012 - Wallworth Pond

November 9th, 2012 - Meadow Lake

And here are some videos on Black Crappies (notice the bite pattern):

Or click here to watch it on Youtube

Or click here to watch it on Youtube

C. Channel Catfish

For some reason, many anglers tend to believe that Channel Catfish totally shut down after temperatures start to drop. Thus, they stop targeting them. However, it's a fact that many trophy Catfish are pulled during the cold months, and not during the end of Spring or Summer! Channel Catfish, in particular, will bite all year-long.

Here are a couple pointers for it:

-- Downgrade your hooks; upgrade your baits! This is the time of the year when you really need to downgrade your hook size (I like using #4 and #2) in case you use x/0's, and upgrade your baits in terms of size. I recommend putting a big chunk of chicken liver on, or whatever you have that stinks a lot. I had most success with cut stinky American Eel, Ivory soap, and huge chunks of rotten chicken liver (I like hooking it through the fat).

-- Tighten your lines. Fishing for Catfish during Winter with slack line is a no-no. By tightening your line, you are strengthening the tension of the same. Bigger tension results in more chances of hooking the fish. During Spring, Summer, and Fall, Catfish usually hook themselves up while eating the bait. Winter is a little bit different -- 70% of the time, they won't be automatically hooked up.

-- Be patient. If you see a Catfish bite during Winter time, do not set up the hook right away! Chances are that the Catfish is so lethargic that it's taking its time to eat. That's exactly why you should downgrade your hook and put more soft bait on: it will stop biting if it feels your hook. Once you are sure that your bait is in its mouth, then you can go for the solid hookset.

Here are a couple photos of late Fall and Winter Channel Catfish (I only fish for Catfish on the Schuylkill Banks during Winter time):

December 19th, 2012 - Schuylkill River

December 30th, 2012 - Schuylkill River

February 3rd, 2013 - Schuylkill River

February 17th, 2013 - Schuylkill River

February 17th, 2013 - Schuylkill River

February 17th, 2013 - Schuylkill River

January 14th, 2013 - Schuylkill River

January 14th, 2013 - Schuylkill River (I got 3 at the same time, one after the other, in a 5 minute frame. They were all safely released!)

January 14th, 2013 - Schuylkill River

January 14th, 2013 - Schuylkill River.

And here are a couple videos on Winter Channel Catfish:

Or click here to watch it on Youtube

Or click here to watch it on Youtube

D. Sunnies

Being a Multi-Species angler, I've always loved to catch Sunnies! After all, they are usually great in numbers and you never know when you will catch "an anomaly" -- a different one. Concerning Sunnies, I'm referring here to the most common one that is found in and around Philadelphia: Bluegill. However, Pumpkinseed, Redbreast Sunfish, and Green Sunfish can also be caught during Winter time!

Here are a couple pointers for it:

-- Go ultralight! Get your ultralight rod, ultralight tackle, and go out for the challenge! Sunnies are just so-so on your regular medium action rod; however, they are frightful fighters on ultralight tackle (especially the big Bluegills). I recommend an ultralight rod and reel of your choice (I use a Shimano combo with a Sedona 2500), 4lb line test, and small hooks (I use #8-10). You may or may not add a float to your setup.

-- Go with live or organic bait. Nightcrawler, bread, mealworms...whatever works for you! I prefer nightcrawlers because they move a lot on my hook; therefore, they attract the attention of all the Sunnies around. Using small lures for Sunnies during Winter time is not a bad idea; however, I would go for nightcrawlers if they were available to me.

-- Move frequently. If you are fishing a spot and you are not catching any Sunnies at all, that's a good sight that you need to move to another spot. During Winter, Sunnies are usually bundled up with Black Crappies along structure or just chilling in a deep or slow pool, depending on location. Once you find them, you will have lots of fun!

Here are a couple photos of Winter Sunnnies:

December 7th, 2012 - Driscoll Pond

December 16th, 2012 - Haddon Lake

February 2nd, 2013 - Upper Cooper River

January 11th, 2012 - Wallworth Lake

January 20th, 2013 - Haddon Lake

December 23rd, 2011 - Wallworth Lake

January 5th, 2013 - Upper Cooper River

And, of course, Winter fishing is not limited to these four Species of fish! There are many more Species available out there! Below are some photos of other Species of fish that I've caught during late Fall and Winter time. Give it a try! =)

Rainbow Trout

Walleye (even though I'm using short sleeves, this was December)

White Sucker

Rock Bass

American Eel

Brown Bullhead

Chain Pickerel

Golden Shiner

Largemouth Bass

Striped Bass

Yellow Perch

Smallmouth Bass

Hope you learned a lot today, and best of luck if you attempt to do some late Fall and Winter fishing!

Best of luck for all of us,

Long Days and Pleasant Nights,


Leo S.