When the Stars Don’t Align

When the Stars Don’t Align
We lost about 2 ½ feet of water with this most recent cold front. Once I found a ramp that had enough water to launch the boat it ended up being a one-star day. Caught enough fish to make it worth the effort while fishing near the bottom along a deep channel. The bite window was near the end of the major feed and only lasted about 20 minutes.

I truly believe that ninety percent of fishing success is between the ears.  There are so many moving parts that control this whole trout fishing thing. Knowing what adjustments to make and when to make them is critical, especially this time of year. There are plenty of days on the water when conditions are perfect and the fish are as cooperative as can be, but there are probably more trips where the easy day heroes get humbled.

I thoroughly enjoy the back and forth dialogue with my clients while we’re on the water together. I get a lot of questions that may sound simple to some but the answers are not always so simple. A customer asked me the other day, “So, do the major and minor solunar feeding periods I hear about really make that much of a difference?” This seems to be a very common question on my boat in recent years. I love the fact that more and more anglers are eager to dig deeper in an effort to become better fishermen, but the fact is most of the “simple” questions have complicated answers. 

For instance, let’s say we have a moon over major feeding period prediction that begins at 7:30AM and ends at 9:30AM. Does this mean that we’re going to absolutely crush trout and reds for two straight hours? Of course it doesn’t. What it really means is that fish are likely to exhibit a more aggressive feeding pattern at some point during that “major feeding” period and it is possible that it could last up to two hours. This is of course assuming that we are on fish when this occurs. In addition, there are countless other variables to consider.

Let’s assume we’ve chosen an area that’s holding fish. It’s likely that such an area this time of year (late winter) would include some sort of bottom structure such as oyster reefs with mud bottom mixed in.  While I definitely pay close attention to predicted solunar feeding times, there are times when other factors get moved closer to the top of the list. For instance, I personally believe that a tide change triggers a feed more so than a major or minor. Of course I’m referring to mainly Upper Texas Coast bays.  Other bays further south rely more upon wind-driven currents. 

I tend to rate fishing conditions based upon a five star rating system. Tide, wind (velocity and direction), water temperature, salinity, and boat traffic are the five main variables that I believe greatly influence the outcome of our fishing trips. The perfect fishing day is obviously when all five of these stars align.  It’s the days when some or all of these variables don’t cooperate that I pay even more attention to the major and minor feeding periods because that may be all we have to hang our hats on. It would be awesome to be able to fish in a light southeast wind and green streaky water during a tide change and a major feed every day, but unfortunately, we can’t always pick our days.

The order of the variables can change based upon the time of year. If we’re drifting in July over mid-bay reefs then a light wind is perfect. However, when the water temperature is in the fifties or lower the wind can benefit us. High salinity cold water during winter can get too clear. Air-clear water and dead calm conditions with the backdrop of a cobalt blue sky would look great on a postcard but it’s not the best for winter trout fishing. A good 10 to 15 mile per hour wind can streak the water and allow us to trick fish that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to catch. Throw in some good current and cloud cover and it’s game on!

Now, that being said, calm wind can be great in the cold water if we’ve recently experienced heavy run-off from passing cold fronts. We want the water to layer out when this occurs and the only way to do that is for it to get somewhat calm. The dirty (murky) fresh water will rise to the surface and the pretty green-salty water will be below.  We will typically find that the forage is down during these conditions as well. This is when small soft plastics on 1/8 to 1/4 ounce lead heads worked near bottom can be an effective strategy as trout will be down below the fresh water layer. 

Speaking of downsizing: I hear people talking about “matching the hatch” all the time. While this can certainly be a valid approach, there are times when you can throw this worn out phrase out of the boat.  Yes, it’s true that trout are primarily feeding on mullet, pinfish, pig fish, and shad this time of year. Yes, mullet and shad imitation plugs can be extremely effective, but there are exceptions. Say we’re fishing the day after a big cold front. The fish fed heavily leading up to the front. The water level and water temperature has now dropped to extremely low levels. The barometric pressure is 1028 millibars (really high). The trout we’re targeting are lying on the bottom in a fat and happy state. The last thing they want to eat is a big mullet or shad. They may, however, be inclined to commit to a tiny MirrOlure Lil’ John or a 4-inch Saltwater Assassin Sea Shad. The added impregnated scent of the Lil’ John doesn’t hurt a bit, nor does the fact that the Sea Shad’s paddle tail throws off vibrations that could be the one thing that triggers a strike.

Please don’t misunderstand. I love throwing plugs. Most of my larger trout have come on Corkys, topwaters, and various mullet imitating twitchbaits. If I’m wading a gut with the occasional mullet flipping here and there and I’m going for just a “few big bites” then I’m going to most likely have a MirrOlure Corky Fat Boy tied on. It’s not always necessarily just a few bites either. We’ve had some 50 and 60 trout days doing this. The best advice I can give is to experiment with different sizes and styles of lures until you find the one that works the best.

We’ve always heard that if we can find the bait then we can find the fish. For all intents and purposes this is a true statement but what about those days when we can’t find the bait? Do we just put the boat back on the trailer and call it a day? There are some days this time of year, especially after very strong cold fronts, when if we rode around the bay looking for active mullet we would run out of gas. 

When we’re faced with these situations I typically target deeper areas like the Intracoastal Waterway or nearby spoil reefs. A lot of days this time of year, leaving the dock around noon and fishing until dark can work out really well. I can remember more than a few days when we didn’t catch our first trout until the sun was on its way down. Many times our better trout come to hand even after sundown.

Late winter fishing isn’t always a gimme. Cold fronts and warm stretches in between fronts provide more challenging variables than probably any other time of year. Wind shifts, extremely low tides, extremely high tides, sudden water temperature drops, drastic barometric pressure changes, etc. It’s okay to use the fundamental things we’ve learned through the years like “matching the hatch” or “find the bait - find the fish” but we must also understand what adjustments to make when things aren’t so straight forward.  Because more often than not, the stars aren’t going to align.    

Tips for Catching February Upper-Coast Speckled Trout: https://youtu.be/A9a-FgYtkuk