The Right Structure and Gear for Winter Trout Fishing

The Right Structure and Gear for Winter Trout Fishing
Example of “clump” shell we find scattered over softer bottom. The key is the height of these clumps and the contour it creates.
Many of you look forward to wintertime fishing as much as I do. Recent rainfall and higher than normal tide conditions along the Middle and Lower Coast are giving me positive vibes for our winter prospects. Winter will bring some of the year’s best trout fishing for those willing to brave sometimes harsh elements. Yes, some of the excellent catches will be due to what we refer to as “seasonal bounty” but much of it will be driven by proven winter strategies. 

There will be tons of articles, blogs, tweets and Facebook posts giving you updated reports. Few however, will offer advice on how and why, much less revealing a location. I can honestly understand protecting small areas where fish congregate, after all, not all anglers are conscientious about releasing upper-end trout.  To me though, the real truth lies in understanding what actually attracts and holds good numbers of top-end fish, being able to identify those facts, and putting them into play in your own area. Every bay system contains preferred winter structure and knowing the preferred structure for the system you’re fishing is HUGE! Remember now this is only my observation, not based on science, simply records of my catches.

For years I believed that locating bait was the single-most important factor in locating winter trout. Older and wiser, I have come to realize that in my area the larger winter fish prefer areas with bottom structure that contains scattered “clump” shell amid scattered grass, slightly softer bottom, and a consistent supply of mullet. So I guess I have now come to trust that best results can be found where the combination of proper structure AND food are located. In our back bays we still see a few shad (menhaden) during winter and this is always a bonus to attracting and holding bigger fish.

We only find the tall “clump” shell in areas where oystering is closed or where the water is too shallow for them to work. These clumps can be tough on our Corky inventory, so a good fluorocarbon leader of at least 20-lb test is in order. Now in previous articles you might have learned that I prefer monofilament leader most of the time as I believe its softer texture provides more action in the presentation. Fluorocarbon tends to be stiffer, more abrasion resistant, and therefore better in this application. Again – no science here, just what I think I’ve learned over the years. 

Many years ago Cliff Webb taught me how to fish a Corky over such structure and I believe they hold over this structure due largely to the uneven contour it creates. Fairly easy to see how a large dark shape could blend into an area of scattered clumps with dark seagrasses attached over a darker, mud-based bottom. Suspend and wait is the nature of larger trout so the slow sinking Corky is often irresistible to them.

You already know how anal I can be about fixing little things that keep us from being successful. In the following paragraphs I will try to explain just how important our equipment choices have become. You can’t catch what you can’t feel or cast to, and you won’t stay and grind if you’re wet and cold. These are my keys to being able to play the winter game I have so grown to love.

I cannot stress enough the importance of a rod and reel combination that allows you to cast far enough to reach areas without actually entering them. Stealth and working the fringes of structure are too often overlooked. Your rod needs to have a moderate- fast action to allow you to work the Corky without pulling or twitching out of the strike zone. Couple this with medium-light power and you have a really good tool for your Corky fishing.

It is true that many of your strikes will come on the fall but I often see larger trout come completely out of the water on the rise of the lure. Trout acclimate to the cold and once this has taken place their feeding aggression is no different than any other time of the year. I use a 6’6” Phoenix K2(CS) rod with a moderate fast action and medium light power, custom-made by Henri Rods. The shorter 6’-6” length allows me to do everything I feel I need with every presentation and gain a higher percentage of strikes.  The fact that they are custom built for me means that I have finally found the rod that fits me perfectly.

I have equipped my Henri’s with the NEW Quantum EXO PT with 5.3:1 or the faster 7.3:1 gear ratios to suit my fishing. The marriage of these two creates the lightest and most sensitive rod-n-reel combos on the market – in my opinion. I have been using them for over a year and have had outstanding performance from the duo. I need light weight to keep my arm from wearing out during long days at 55 years of age. The old wrist and elbow ache a little in the winter months with some of the heavier combinations that I used to throw. I have always had what I felt was the best available and I certainly feel that way about what I am using today.

Wading the softer bottom with clump shell can be sporty. Taller oyster clumps can be the end to our waders if we don’t employ quality lace-up wading boots. I use two types of wading boots, both made by Simms Fishing Products.  For many years their Flats Sneakers were my favorites but we had to buy a size larger than our actual shoe size to accommodate our G3 or G4 Simms Guide waders. Hey, my wife and daughter, Shayla, have tons of shoes, so I don’t feel bad about buying two or three pairs of wading boots a year. The new Simms OceanTek wading boots are awesome. I thought they were going to be heavy and bulky but I was wrong. If you’re a size 10, order a 10 and they’ll fit perfectly with waders. The extra height that high-top lace-up wading boots gives me allows me to work bottom that is less than favorable. I have good support on the uneven bottom and the higher sides on the boots provide a little more protection. You still need to be careful when wading the nasty stuff but the boots will certainly divert a certain amount of danger from the sharp shell.

The most important thing to me anymore, during my winter trout fishing, is staying comfortable. It does not matter if you have the best area and the best equipment, if you can’t keep warm and dry you’re done. When I was younger I thought I was tough. As I aged I realized I was mostly just stupid, so today I make it a point to have what I think is the best under and outerwear that money can buy. I have Simms everything and the reason is simple, it works and it lasts, and if it doesn’t they take care of it. My New Simms G4Z Pro-Guide waders were a pretty easy decision for me when it comes to purchasing cold water fishing gear. Costly?  Yes. But worth every dollar.

I hope this article helps put you on some better trout this winter. I also hope that learning what works best for me provides insight for improving your own game. Oh, just in case you’re wondering…I choose my sponsors, they don’t choose me!

May your fishing always be catching.  -Guide Jay Watkins