Like a sprawling casino dinner buffet, Sabine Lake offers a little something for everybody during winter. There are very few times during the year when you have as many quality programs to choose from with as little risk of making a bad decision. All the standard patterns are in play – chasing birds, hustling flounder, wading flats for big trout - all these and more will be in full swing and producing excellent opportunities for those willing to confront less than ideal weather conditions when Mother Nature gets in a sour mood.
Fortunately for the diehards, the throngs of fishermen that ply Sabine’s waterways during warmer months will thin significantly as many folks spend days in deer blinds or are just plain content to wait for balmier weather. For me, this time of year holds a special place on my list of things I love to do because it’s actually where I got my start in saltwater fishing. It has also provided me with the confidence to know that I can catch fish in places most folks don’t even think about.
My first “real deal” saltwater experience came more than thirty years ago when my neighbor Chris Gunn and I bundled up like “Michelin men” and took off for the Sabine River. Chris was a veteran angler who loved to fish the Sabine, especially in the wintertime when the redfish were ganged up. The 17-foot aluminum boat offered little in the way of a break from the elements unless you actually laid flat on the floor. A coin toss usually determined who stayed warm and who got the unenviable task of driving the boat. The ride down the river culminated at an intersection where the old river made a big bend near Conway’s Bayou and the old ship graveyard.
That deep pool held all manner of aquatic life, big redfish, black drum, largemouth bass, stripers, and the occasional speckled trout. Our primary target was always redfish and our weapon was always the trusty Rat-L-Trap. We cranked those baits until we couldn’t crank anymore. The object of the drill was to cover as much water as possible and it didn’t make any difference what depth…fish until you got bit and then do your best to repeat the depth and speed of the retrieve.
As the seasons wore on we perfected our techniques and began to concentrate on deeper water, usually around some type of structure. The deep water pattern paid big dividends and we enjoyed some outstanding days on the water despite the terrible conditions. The thump of a wide-shouldered redfish at near freezing temperatures was unmistakable, even to seriously numb hands. Once we located the fish we generally were able to catch several more from the same area as they were quite predictable.
I still remember my first redfish, an aggressive nine-pounder that smashed a gold “Trap” and forever changed the way I thought about fishing. To this day I still fish some of the same water where I started and the patterns still hold true, those fish gang up in deep water and only those who go looking for them will ever find them.
Deep water fishing is something of a mystery to most inshore saltwater anglers. Once they get into about 8-foot depths most of them begin feeling lost and start looking for a shoreline somewhere to beat up on. The shallow stuff is great and everybody wants to “get ‘em in the skinny” if they can, but sometimes that just doesn’t happen.
The biggest problem that most anglers have to overcome when fishing deep water is developing confidence. The shallow water approach has been so hammered into our psyche that we almost don’t know any other way to go about chasing fish. But believe me when I say this, “If you can master deep water you can fish without crowds more often than the folks who stay shallow.” Now if that doesn’t get your attention I don’t know what will.
Several techniques can be employed to fish the deeper stuff. None are very difficult to grasp and the month of December is a perfect time to try them.
Start by taking advantage of your electronics to locate a break in the depth or some type of underwater structure that offers fish a place to get out of the current and ambush prey. Crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap and Hoginar are perfect for probing these areas. The crankbaits are easy to feel and stay in contact with, even at increased depths.
Another good method comes from the world of bass fishing – the dropshot rig. This rig consists of a soft plastic rigged several feet above a weight. The hook is tied on with a Palomar knot and the depth of the weight is adjustable. Feeling the strike is made much easier because the weight is located below the lure. The presentation is made by allowing the weight to descend vertically to a productive depth and then simply shaking or quickly raising and lowering the rod tip.
As an alternative to a standard dropshot rig you can also use a jighead rigged with a soft plastic instead of just an ordinary weight or dropshot weight. Old timers will tell you it looks like a “double rig” or “speck rig” but its made to fish vertically instead of being cast into schools of feeding fish and then retrieved horizontally. This works particularly well when fish are suspended over deep shell, a situation that challenges the angler’s ability to fish deep without hanging up on the oyster or clam shell that litter the bottom.
Just about anybody can catch fish when the conditions are ideal during these last weeks of the year because it’s almost stupid easy at times. What separates true anglers from average fishermen is when the weather turns bad or the wind cranks up and forces you to seek an alternate plan. The methods previously mentioned are tried and true for this part of the coast but I’m confident they’ll work in just about any location if given a chance. Trust me though when I say that it’s not always easy and some patience is required.
Once you actually experience some success using a deep water technique you will no longer worry as much about picking the perfect day – you have a new weapon in your arsenal. Having the confidence that you can find fish in a wider variety of scenarios will certainly allow you to not only spend more days on the water but to enjoy them as well.
This time of the year will certainly bring us our fair share of cold weather and that will make for some excellent opportunities for those who dare to brave the elements. Take special care to wear warm clothing and a PFD at all times. Hypothermia is no joking matter and if accidents could be predicted they would never happen. Think about that.
Take care, be safe, enjoy December’s angling opportunities, and have a great holiday season.