Winter's Duplicity

Winter's Duplicity
Caleb McCumber with the smaller of two impressive fish he caught on a January wade with the captain, soon after strong north winds abated somewhat.

In the coldest month, Old Man Winter exerts influence on the efforts of Texas coastal anglers in two main ways. When people choose to fish for speckled trout with artificial lures, January's challenging weather patterns generally provide barriers to consistent productivity. When the stern face of Jack Frost glares across choppy waters, the potential for catching speckled trout drops down to nearly nil for a while. Inevitably, though, after a lull in which cold-stunned fish can't or won't quell their appetites, a vigorous bite occurs.

When hungry trout begin snapping at everything vaguely resembling food, anglers on the scene find the catching easy. In such a scenario, Jack's friendly face seems to smile on people who make the effort to get out on the bays, during a time when others prefer hunkering down behind brush in a duck blind, or maintaining a vigil on a game trail, hoping to harvest the buck of a lifetime. Significantly, the conditions which provide optimal opportunity to catch numbers of trout and specimens of epic size vary somewhat from one end of the state to the other.

On the lower half of the coast, in places like Baffin Bay, where shorelines oriented east to west offer insulation against the chilling effects of brisk north winds, the best bite often occurs as soon as conditions moderate enough after the passage of a strong front to allow anglers to safely target the fish. The exact timing of the frenzied feeding period depends on two main factors: the severity of the front and how well the fish are acclimated to cold temperatures. Surely, colder minimum air and water temperatures in the wake of a blue norther will extend the duration of the shut-down. If severely chilling values come after a warmer than normal start to the cold season, the same truth will apply.

But sometime before conditions moderate enough for most people to think of them as advantageous for fishing, the trout will begin feeding again, often with ravenous appetites. This renewed hunger isn't likely felt only by fish in the southern parts of the state in such situations, but some specific locations in the bays in these places provide anglers better opportunity to target the fish than those in the northern half of the state. When temperatures rapidly decline in January, many of the trout temporarily retreat to relatively deep water and sit on the bottom to wait out the cold snap.

On the Upper Coast, this generally means they move into the open basin of the bay or into the Intracoastal Waterway. In a place which offers anglers a chance to wade in the shallows while casting into the edges of the swag or along the edge of the ditch, anglers can execute slow, subtle presentations in ways which allow them to catch the trout as soon as they start feeding again after a strong shutdown. Additionally, because many of the bays in the southern half of the state aren't fed by rivers which deposit lots of suspended sediments in them, the water retains better clarity under the effects of strong winds, particularly in places tight to north-facing shorelines.

Anglers attempting to target trout in open basins on the Upper Coast while north and northwest winds still crank at speeds above 15 knots face a much more daunting task. Effectively executing presentations close to the bottom from the bouncing deck of a boat or while standing on a mid-bay reef in mucked up water proves difficult or impossible for many; most don't even try such a plan. Consequently, many Upper Coast trout anglers wait longer after a strong frontal passage to return to the water, in some cases likely missing out on the best opportunity the event created, but without any obvious way to solve the dilemma.

Lower Coast anglers have an advantage over their friends up north in such situations. Anglers who outfit themselves properly to cope with the potentially deadly effects of frigid water and winds and who venture back out as soon as conditions allow sometimes find themselves in situations which arguably made some specific spots in Baffin Bay and both the Laguna Madres famous. The precise timing of the hot bite which happens after a cold snap can be difficult to predict, for sure. Certainly, it can occur under the cover of night or early in the morning, despite a persistent myth which touts the warming rays of an afternoon sun as its genesis.

This said, warm afternoon temperatures do indeed create a predictably sweet scenario for anglers targeting trout in Texas in January. Especially on the Upper Coast, when the tide first gushes back in and fills the bays after a bitter blast of cold air drains them, the jaws of the trout will generally start snapping. If this incoming tide occurs right around dark two or three days after a front drove the water out and water temperatures into the low-fifties or lower, anglers can expect to catch plenty of trout, including some of the biggest ones in the area, in places where a mix of shell and mud covers the bottom in shallow areas close to the swag, or around mid-bay reefs.

A similar situation often plays out on the western shorelines of the Laguna Madres in January, though the timing of the bite down south depends less on the strength of tide movements than it does up north. Many times, in the crystal clear waters of the hypersaline lagoons south of the JFK Causeway, trout swim out of the swag right at dusk two or three days after the passage of a strong cold front, snatching whatever food they can when they reach the shallows close to drains and grass mats on the bank. During these hours, especially when a big moon, either full or new, hovers close to the horizon, anglers in the know sometimes catch impressive numbers of trout exceeding 28 inches in length.

I have personal knowledge of several occasions on which individuals caught enough big trout to compile weights which totaled well over 70 pounds on the ten best fish, often with a dozen or more fish weighing in excess of five pounds to back those up. The key to taking full advantage of this pattern often rests on fishing through the gloaming, into the first couple hours of the night. The action can shift from zero to a zillion in an instant in such a situation, but doesn't often do so until the fading light of day dims to a point where two anglers standing fifteen feet apart can't see one another without the aid of a lamp.

Big trout living in clear water don't feed actively under bright skies, in general. When they're coming off a time when the cold has stunned them into an inactive state, this truth seems to carry the most weight. Anglers who fish the afternoon hours, then jump into the boat with just enough light to see things while they navigate back to the dock often barely miss out on the bonanza this predictable scenario provides. Regardless of the pattern in play, timing plays a key role in the success or failure of anglers targeting trout during Jack Frost's favorite month.

For me personally, January ranks a close second behind February on the list of the best months for producing big trout. In terms of the fish I caught on my own rod, the first month of 2008 reigns supreme for me. On 14 outings that year, I managed to land 14 trout at least 27 inches in length, with four of those exceeding the 29-inch mark. My customers also had sweetly satisfying success that year. As a whole, the group managed to land 53 trout over 27 inches, 30 of which stretched the tape to 28 or more. That's a rate of over two trout meeting or exceeding the 28-inch mark per day of effort! Such a number pays tribute to the potential for catching big trout in this state's southern bays in January.

Since 2007, when I began keeping detailed records of big trout caught on charters, my customers and I have managed to catch at least one trout measuring 27 inches or more about 70% of the time on January outings. More significantly, we've caught at least one fish weighing seven pounds or more over 35% of the time. On my own rod, in the same time-frame, I've caught a trout measuring at least 27 inches on about 33% of the trips. To repeat, these stats rank second behind only February, for me, and they provide evidence of how Old Man Winter can certainly enhance the efforts of trophy trout hunters during the year's coldest month.

Chilly weather is usually a key to better catching in January, for lure-chunkers dedicated to chasing trophy trout. Without some strong cold fronts and the low temperatures they generate, fishing for mature female trout in Texas in January often becomes slow and sluggish. People who don't like frigid weather, who don't like to wade, and who don't have reliable skills for selecting and deploying artificial lures might as well find other things to do in the New Year's month.

Many of them have already made the decision to do so; they prefer hunting ducks and deer, or watching football instead of bundling up and heading to the coast to try and find the trout of a lifetime. But those of us who prioritize fishing with lures and targeting the biggest trout in the bays of the Lone Star State can find ways to make Jack Frost smile more often than he sneers, if we time our efforts thoughtfully and fish with focus and patience.