Peering out the office window, it appears true winter has finally arrived. Dreary mist coupled with a steady cold north wind is not exactly what sight-fishing enthusiasts look forward to. I have been forced to reschedule more than a few trips lately.
It isn’t a matter of the fish refusing to eat. As I’ve always said, “fish gotta eat.” Rather, it is a product of my typical customer who is more interested in seeing their targeted fish than spending the day blind casting. For the guys throwing conventional gear, a day of endless casting isn’t too much of a problem, but my fly guys tend to balk at the workout.
Typical of winter, the cooler water temperatures have significantly cleared the water making it much easier to spot cruising reds in the marsh. However, even in the clearest of water, you still need some sunshine and light winds to get dialed in. The good news is that the brief periods between the passing fronts often set up perfectly this time of year. If you can ditch work when it gets right there is some awesome fishing to be had. And as an added bonus, you’ll often have the whole bay to yourself.
So what does a sight-fishing addict do during the stretches of poor conditions, besides stay home and catch up on those chores that got ignored during the non-stop fall fishing?
For me it depends on which set of poor conditions are at hand. In the pre-frontal periods with the typical southeast winds, overcast and higher tides, I’ll just suck it up and go trout fishing with everybody else. Hey, I like sticking a big ol momma trout as much as the next guy even if it does involve mind-numbing hours of blind casting. This year I’m thinking about bringing along the fly rod for a few sessions of blind-casting. Tossing a big Deceiver into the right water is just as effective as slinging a Corky, and at least I can use the time to stay sharp and maybe add a few feet to my cast.
Once the front passes and the north winds are howling, the water levels will drop to their lowest points of the year. These are the days I love to get out there and go exploring.
Low water scouting is one of my favorite winter activities. Over the years I’ve learned a lot of vital information about the bays and marshes during January and February. Take away a couple feet of water and a whole new world is exposed. Add in the extra water clarity of winter and you’ll see all sorts of things that could help you better understand your area.
If you’re new to venturing out in extreme low water conditions you’ll want to be sure to launch at a ramp that allows you to get where you want to go. There were a few ramps I used in the Galveston area that were fine under normal conditions, but nearly impossible to use when the water went low. A couple others were fine for launching, but the route would get pretty sketchy. Fortunately in Port O’Connor I don't face such problems now.
Wherever you are, it’s not a bad idea to play it conservative and run very familiar routes. In addition to the good structure you locate on a low tide, you’ll likely have a few “Oh Crap” moments when you run across something in one of your normal running lanes that you never knew was there. I had one of those when I came across a large hulk of heavy metal in an otherwise wide open mud flat that I run across all the time. It was a lower unit killer lurking just below normal running depth. Mental note made.
The fun starts once you successfully navigate the gauntlet of shallow hazards and arrive in your favored fishing area. Reefs, drains, flats, humps, depressions; they’re all important pieces to the fishing puzzle for a variety of reasons and now you get to analyze them.
We all know oyster reefs hold fish. You’ve probably got several that produce on a regular basis and in all likelihood there are certain places on these reefs that seem to hold more fish than others. With the reef exposed you can take a closer look at the shape of the structure. Look for cuts through the reef, odd points that jut out, and humps that rise up. Look at the edges. Do they drop off abruptly or slowly taper off?
Also, make note of which way the tides flow over and around reefs. The next time you start catching fish on a particular spot on that reef you’ll know why and possibly come up with a pattern that you can repeat on other nearby reefs.
Shoreline flats and open lakes of the marshes will often go completely dry on these winter lows, revealing the full topography of the bottom. Stop on the outer edges of the flats or at the mouth of a bayou leading into a marsh lake and take note of the various humps, depressions and drains. I’ll often take photos to aid my aging memory.
Google Earth is an awesome tool that greatly aids the search for travel lanes and other features in new areas, but it has no capability to show the subtle depth changes that can be so important to your fishing success. When you’re poling a boat that floats in six inches but not four, this knowledge can save a lot of frustration and backbreaking work.
Low water scouting can also lead you to those disappearing fish. How many times have you stalked up to a school of tailing reds, only to have them vanish before you got within casting range. Chances are they’ve sensed your approach and are using a slightly deeper area to ease out and make their escape. They’re usually not overly spooked at this point. Knowing the layout of the area can give you an idea of where to cast and intercept them.
Poking around the marsh in the poling skiff is great for checking out the lakes and drains adjacent to the deeper bayous, but there are areas further into the back lakes that are not accessible due to the low water level. If you really want to learn these places it’s going to require some effort.
My favorite way to go about it is to throw the kayak on the skiff. Not only will the kayak float skinnier than the skiff, it’s a whole lot easier to deal with when it gets stuck. And you will get stuck.
When I’m feeling really energetic I’ll drag it short distances if I know there’s a place deep enough to paddle on the other side. Sometimes I’ll pack a lunch and spend the better part of a day learning new things about a place I’ve fished for years. That knowledge can come in pretty handy when the winds blow and muddies things up.If you don't have a poling skiff or kayak, the only other option is to slip into your waders and go mud-slogging. It’s not for everybody, certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you’re in decent shape it can be an interesting way to check out some of those places others seldom venture. And it sure beats the heck out of sitting here watching it rain.