The Seven Rules of Cold-Water Fishing
What’s the beauty of late fall fishing? Having your favorite lake, reservoir or river all to yourself. While everyone’s watching football or hunting, now is the time to ring up your biggest catches of the year.
A pro angler for more than 30 years, Rapala® pro Mark Fisher has boiled down his late-fall fishing techniques into seven rules that will help any angler of any skill level put more fish into their nets.
It’s all mental. What’s the number one thing that keeps anglers off the water at this time of the year? It’s what’s between their ears. Many anglers think the fish won’t bite - that they’ve gone into hibernation. Others have a tough time with the cold. If you can get your boat down to the landing, you’re 90% of the way there.
Safety first. It goes without saying, “respect the water.” But you really need to respect it at this time of year. Cold weather and cold water can be deadly. Always wear your lifevest in case you should accidently fall over board into cold water. Make sure your boat and engine is running smoothly. Use a GPS to know where you are at all times. Tell someone where you are, especially if you fish into the evening hours. And of course, dress in layers should weather conditions change while you’re on the water.
Slow down. One of the hardest parts of fishing in late fall is making the transition from running and gunning, like many anglers like to do in the summer, to slowing down and offering more finessed presentations. In late fall, I like to throw a lipless Rapala® Clackin’ Rap® or the new Rapala® Rippin’ Rap® or a Terminator® T-1 Titanium Spinnerbait when I’m locating fish. When I’m casting these lures, I not only retrieve them more slowly, but I’ll do something to interrupt the cadence of the retrieve, like stopping the retrieve suddenly, or giving the lure a quick jolt. Often times, it’s that little interruption that triggers the strike. If I catch a couple in one spot, I stop and pull out a jig with a soft plastic such as Trigger X® worm and work the spot very slowly to pick up the less aggressive fish. I also tend to downsize my baits, too. For example, I like throwing a smaller size 6 Clackin’ Rap at this time of the year.
Keep an eye on water temperature and water levels. In the summer, many of us target shallow waters, such as docks, points and weedbeds. Why? Fish tend to gravitate to these spots because the water is warmer and the structure that these spots offer. As winter approaches, water temperatures and water levels (especially in reservoirs) change. Warmer water can now be found at mid-depth levels, and dropping water levels may shift the more ideal structure to rock humps and steep drop-offs located away from the shallows. On sunny days, though, don’t overlook west-facing shorelines, where the sun will warm the water throughout the morning, including logs and rocks, which radiate warmth and attract baitfish.
Go to the vegetation. In the summer, anglers are trained to zero in on weedbeds. But then those weedbeds start to die out with colder temps and less daylight. So the fish must not be there any more, right? Don’t be fooled. Dying weeds still offer cover, and shorter varieties that thrive with less light, are still there, all winter long. Don’t forget to target these areas. The fish are there.
Where fish live isn’t necessarily where they eat. As the water cools and as vegetation dies, fish adjust, locating themselves to the warmest water that contains the most oxygen. But that doesn’t mean they stay there. Fish move throughout the day, and if the sun is warming the shallows, that’s where baitfish go, followed by the predators. In other cases, there are some species of baitfish, such as ciscoes, that spawn during the late fall, typically spawning on reefs and other shallow structure. Knowing when these fish spawn, at what temperature, and at what time of day, can put you in the middle of a feeding frenzy.
Locate sharp breaks. Finally, my last piece of advice is to use your electronics wisely and look for sharp breaks on your favorite body of water. Not gradual breaks, but a spot that goes from 7 feet to 20 feet within the length of your boat. These are no-brainer spots that offer you your best shot at hammering some late-fall fish. Use lake map technology such as those supplied by Navionics to locate and mark these spots.