Spring may be the traditional season for trout, but that doesn’t mean that you can continue to catch fish year-round. It is even possible to fill a creel in late winter if you learn how and where to look. The key to lots of late winter trout is to fish in small water with small lures. Let us tell you how.
There was a time when regulations did not allow the targeting of trout outside the traditional spring season. Even though many states have changed the regulations, there are still anglers who never consider fishing for trout before late March or early April. This is a mistake that can cost you plenty of fish and tons of fun. If you adapt how where and how you look for trout a late winter trip can be as rewarding as any Opening Day.
Small is key
When I say “small” I am not referring to the trout. I am talking about the waters you will be fishing and the lures you will be using. Let’s look at each in greater detail.
Small streams- small creeks and streams are where you want to spend your time. Many of these waters are spring feed, which means they maintain a nearly constant temperature between 40-55 degrees. Not only is it the perfect environment for trout it also means they are less likely to be frozen over.
Although you may favor shallow ripples or fast-moving areas during the later season this is not what is going to produce in late winter. Instead, focus on deep pools and areas with or near natural cover. The mouth of a feeder stream is also worth a few casts. Trout are a cool water species so they will not be effective as much by the drop in temperature, however, food will be scarce so they will limit activity to conserve energy. These slower areas will allow them to exert less energy while waiting for the next meal to swim by.
Bait – speaking of the next meal, let us look at what some of the more productive options will be this time of year. Again, you want to think small. Waxworms, mealworms, grubs, and even small red worms are what you want available. Leave the big earthworms and shiners for Opening Day. Winter feeding habits shift to a reward verse cost activity, with cost being how much energy will be exerted to catch a meal. A smaller offering may not seem like the biggest reward,but because they are easier to catch the scales tip in their favor.
Lures – as with baits your lures should be small. Everyone has their favorite trout lure and almost any stick bait, spoon or spinner will work just downsize from what you would use on warm days. Regardless of what lure you select slow it down – remember the cost verse reward equation. Make you lure enticing and easy prey for more strikes.
Gear – since you are using smaller tackle and fishing smaller waters this is a perfect time to try out your favorite ultralight setup. You will not need a 6′ or 7′ rod to cast to all portions of these smaller streams and the light gear will allow for a more memorable battle when you do find trout.
Putting it into practice
As stated early, the spring feed stream will be the most accessible. Next are downstream tributaries of the spring feed stream. You want to fish as close to the mouth of the feeder stream as possible, this is where the water will be warmest and where you are most likely to encounter ice-free open water. If there is natural cover available such as a downed tree or artificial structure, start there as they are the perfect ambush point for the trout to wait for a meal. If no cover is available look for deeper pools where the slower current allows for a low energy rest area.
Once you have located a likely spot make a few exploratory casts and retrieve slowly, stopping to allow any interested trout to strike. Do not be in too much of a hurry to move to a new spot. Due to their lower activity level trout will be holding close to their hides and may not strike unless your bait or lure is within a small strike zone.
The battle has just begun
One of the joys of fishing ultralight tackle is the battle between you and almost any trout. This setup will not allow you to muscle a fish to the nest, you must play it properly or it is likely to swim away with your bait/lure and even some of your line. This is not something you can get away with when the weather warms unless you plan on harvesting the fish. Fortunately, the lower temperature allows an increased fight without endangering the fish (within reason of course).
One thing you must remember when winter fishing is your safety. Colder temperatures, ice conditions, and the lack of other anglers to come to your aid mean you must be properly outfitted to avoid potential danger. A slip into the water or failing to dress for the weather is a minor inconvenience in April. In January it can be life-threatening.
Protect your head, hands, and feet. Keeping these areas warm goes a long way towards overall comfort.
Dress in layers. Instead of a bulky snowmobile suit opt for several thinner layers. Not only will this keep you just as warm it will also allow you to add or remove a layer as needed to avoid sweating while remaining comfortable.
Hydrate and snake. Many people do not realize that dehydration is equally possible in extreme cold as in the heat of summer. Make sure to drink plenty of water and carry a few high-energy snacks as well. Keeping hydrated and fed will help avoid hypothermia.
Avoid ice. When fishing moving water there is rarely such a thing as safe ice. Even ice that looks thick enough to hold your weight can be hiding brittle, thinner pockets.
Chasing late winter trout will never be as popular as the fever surrounding Opening Day, it can be equally rewarding. Plus, it is a great way to get out and add a few more weeks to your fishing season.
Good luck, good fishing!