Aim Small – Miss Small!

Aim Small – Miss Small!
The sandbar at the mouth of this tiny drain, nearly obscured by mangroves, is a perfect example of what I call small structure. Note the water clarity.

Winter is notably one of the best times of the year to catch trout longer than twenty-five inches. Larger and heavier specimens are on many angler's wish lists and I doubt there is an outdoor publication in Texas that doesn't run at least one trophy trout article at this time of year. Strategies are publicized to the point that few anglers have not heard how the approach of a frontal weather system is a prime time for catching them. Let's be honest though, we still have to be in the proper area, with the right tools and the skills to finish the job.

We (I am one) talk plenty about pre-front conditions and how fish feed the way they do at this time. It's all about falling barometric pressure. In general, the more severe the approaching front, the more aggressive the feeding activity will be. I firmly believe fish and other animals can sense a front approaching and react accordingly.

It's all about the change a front brings but, there can be exceptions. Over the years, when we experienced prolonged cold following a front, the approach of the next front also produced somewhat elevated feeding behavior, but not to the frenzy level of the one that preceded it. And what about the fronts when high barometric pressure and clear blue skies appear immediately as they pass? This is hardest time to pattern quality trout, or any trout for that matter.

I always go back to my learning years and mentally replay conversations with tournament anglers and fellow guides. Mickey Eastman has always been one of my best teachers, freely gives his knowledge and beliefs, and that's a good thing. He told me one calm and clear day after a front in the head of Trinity Bay that it was going to be about three days before they fed again. We were standing in slicks strong enough to almost make one ill and I thought, well- aren't they feeding now? Mickey said they had fed on such a grand scale, they were still digesting all they had eaten the day prior. High pressure had set in and there was no wind. We drifted, waded, dredged and caught very little. Long strings of what looked like cotton fibers covered our hats and rod tips. I believe they are called parachute spiders and this migration strategy only works when humidity is low and wind is very light–which goes hand-in-hand with high pressure in the winter months. As a matter a fact I had them all over my boat today.

With this said, what will be our game plan be when the only day you have to fish falls the day after a front? I have been doing this going on 37 years, developing strategies that allow me to succeed when conditions are stacked against me. Aim small miss small has become my mindset.

This tactic allows us to miss and not waste valuable time in the effort. If we land on them we get huge rewards for small effort. If not, we execute Plan B. If fish are full from previous feeds and the general conditions that create normal instinctive feeding are absent, how should we go about finding fish and getting them to eat? I say finding because believe it or not I still find most of my fish with the lure on the end of my line.

I have a terrific new 23-Haynie Cat powered by a Mercury 250 Pro XS that can run up shallow enough to see every fish on the shoreline but I seldom do. Why spook them? Getting bites is how we confirm that fish are present and spooked fish probably won't bite. I still key on mullet, even though mullet sightings can be few in the winter months. If I see some over or along small areas of structure, I am certainly going to investigate the area further.

Small areas of scattered shell, a slightly deeper shoreline gut, a small drain, or simply a small area of shallow sand in an area of solid bottom grass will concentrate the few baitfish present and can create an ambush point–and this tips the odds in our favor. Simple competition for food can and often creates what I refer to as reactive feeding. There are times when a trout eats a mullet simply to keep another from eating it first.

Another advantage to fishing smaller areas is our ability to totally access every plausible ambush point within the structure from a reasonable distance. Many anglers overlook small structure, believing the odds are better around larger areas of structure. More structure more fish–not necessarily true.

I also like the fact that I can thoroughly work multiple small areas in the same time span it might take me to fish one larger area. The more small areas we can fish, the higher our odds of picking off one or several at each. Your math doesn't have to be too sharp to discover that one or several at a half-dozen small pieces of structure is better than spending three hours exploring a large reef, only to learn they're not there.

Our trout bite in Rockport has been very good the past several months but we still have days and conditions that make fishing tough. This fall and through December, the smaller marsh drains created stacking points and saved many a day. Now that the majority of the bait and much of the prolonged higher-than-normal tides are absent, these drains are not as productive. No food, not many fish. So now I look to the outside shorelines and the small areas of structure along them.

Once the colder water temps and lower tides flush the bait out of the back lakes, trout and red fish will work the main shorelines. Shorelines provide us windward opportunities, shallow water warming zones, smaller areas of scattered shell or grass, and deeper-water drop-offs. Seems like everything a fish would want and need, so these are the places I start looking this time of year, especially when high barometric pressure sets in. I don't think the fish move once a food source and ample bottom structure are present, they just don't eat well after a strong front.

Even though feeding is generally limited, fish will continue to feed during majors and minors on high pressure, so pay close attention to your solunar table. Yesterday, our best fish came right in the middle of a mid-morning major and again on the moonrise minor. Bites were scarce in-between but we did manage a few targeting small pieces of shell structure found basically in the middle of nothing. The only time I do not key on bait activity I can see, and rely strictly on deeper structure, is during these high pressure periods. At these times I go on the assumption that bait is likely present but I cannot see it in deeper water so we fish deeper.

So post-front high pressure sets in and the wind goes dead calm. The water is wintertime air-clear and the bottom is bare because most of the shallow grass has declined or been eaten by ducks. Bait is scarce due to the cold water temperature. Bites are going to be few if you get any at all, but this is the only day you have to fish. Time to aim small miss small!

Locate small areas of structure and go to work. After 20 or 30 minutes without bites or mullet activity, move to your next little area. Repeat with confidence and patience and see what happens. I bet you will be pleasantly surprised.

May your fishing always be catching. -Guide Jay Watkins