In the colder months of winter, it is easy for anglers to look to the steep drop-offs and mud holes as their first and last fish-holding structures. However, you may find yourself wading out deeper than the fish while they are in a feeding frenzy between you and the shoreline. There are some signs to tell you when it is time to shallow up.
Look for the baitfish moving into the shallows. Often you will see a progression of the bait moving shallower as the day goes on. Be sure to follow them up, because that is what the gamefish are doing. Even if you have been having good luck most of the day in the chest-deep waters off the drop, start looking for the signs if the fishing slows down. The fish may have moved up shallow and left you behind.
This is especially true of winter days with lots of sunshine. On a sunny winter afternoon, the shallow water can be as much as five degrees warmer than the deep water. Take advantage of it before the sun drops and the water cools. The temperature of the shallow areas is just as fast to cool of as it is to heat up, so make sure your chosen fishing spot has easy access to deeper water with more stable temperatures. This is where the fish will retreat with the setting sun. Guts of deeper water that run parallel to the shorelines, especially those with dark, muddy bottoms, are a prime place to target winter fish. They can move into warming waters and leave cooling waters with minimal effort, giving them maximum comfort and accessibility to food.
Choose a shoreline or structure that appeals to the fish, not the fisherman. Protected shorelines and green water look great, but the fish want no part of them in the winter. Get on the windward shoreline, the water will be dirtier there and the bait will be thicker. Dirtier water means more particles of suspended sand and silt, which helps it warm faster. The light rays from the sun hit these particles and turn into heat energy, warming the surrounding water. The presence of more bait is due to the fact that they will take the path of least resistance, and that often means blowing with the wind. A fish’s metabolism is slowed dramatically in the winter, so it does not want to waste precious energy fighting wind and current. Predators know this, and will wait downwind for the bait to come to them, therefore applying the same energy conservation principles.
Now that you have the fish located, it is time to catch them. Shallow water presents some challenges for lure presentation. The water may be too cold for topwaters, and there is not enough water for the up-and-down motion needed to make a sand eel appealing. Swimming baits such as the Norton Bull Minnow or the Hogie Shad are great choices for aggressive fish as they swim well in shallow water and cause a lot of vibration. However, these soft plastics need to be reeled quickly to vibrate, and a lethargic winter fish may not want to chase something that fast. If so, try a curl-tailed grub like the CT Mullet or the Berkley Power Grub. They maximize motion and vibration with minimal forward movement, so they are very effective when retrieved at slow or moderate speeds. Twitch baits like the Catch 2000 or the Corky Fat Boy work well for a slow retrieve in water where the visibility is good, but stick with the vibrating soft plastics in water with poor visibility.
In summary, always keep an eye out for the signs that tell you where the fish are and what they are doing. Apply observation of surface activity combined with knowledge of bottom structure to set up a drift or wade. Don’t get pigeon-holed by tactics that you thought always applied and waste a lot of energy casting to fish that are not there. Be a student and an observer, and the fish will show themselves.