Fishing can seem pretty bleak around November, the last of the stripers have gone, water temperatures have dropped and fish have become less active. The time between the last of the stripers and ice fishing can be frustrating for many yakkers, either the season is over or stocked trout become the target. For those of us who fish year round November and December can be great months to experience the variety of freshwater fish; the stockies aren’t the only fish willing to bite in cold water.
Fishing late season is much better than most realize—many species of fish are still in feeding mode to prepare for winter. The problem is that temperatures fluctuate so much that fish move away from the shallow areas where we usually fish or become less active. When fish move off from the shallows, they often congregate in bigger schools and hang along drop offs in deeper water that doesn’t fluctuate as much in temperature. Finding these areas is the key to successful cold water fishing.
The tactics in this article, while aimed at the fall fishery also work well right after ice goes out. After ice out, fish start preparing to spawn and many anglers think that the season hasn’t started yet, but the fish need to eat to have a successful spring spawn.
When the water is cold, adapting your techniques to the sluggish behavior of the fish is key. This kind of fishing is most effectively done from a kayak and requires a fishfinder to locate the fish. I paddle slowly looking for concentrations of fish; often you won’t see one big school but an area with fish spread out over it. I find that when the fish are schooled up more tightly I catch more of the predators mixed in—largemouth and smallmouth will often hang around schools of perch or sunfish and readily eat the same small jigs as the perch. When the fish are more spread out, it is often because there are no bigger fish tightening the school; these spread out fish often provide some very fast action.
Many lakes have good populations of carp and in November, these carp start to form very large winter over schools. I will occasionally mark fish stacked up from the middle of the water column all the way to the bottom. Some of the schools will have dozens of fish, most of these fish will be inactive, but it only takes a few feeders to make for a good morning. Areas where they winter over are best found on the calmest days, I look for carp swirling or gulping air and make a slow drift over them. I have found that once a school takes up a location, they will often stay there until ice up. This presents an opportunity to chum them with bread and drift bread balls through the school.
When I fish shallow areas in cold weather, I usually fish in the warmest part of the day hoping that the warmer water will trigger the fish to feed. When fishing deeper water, the afternoon sun has very little impact on the temperatures, so I always try to arrive in time for the sunrise bite. One of the nice things about off season fishing is that the sunrise bite isn’t quite as early as the summer sunrise bite, sleeping later and fishing the best part of the morning is nice after a sleepless season of stripers.
Deep water will provide the most consistent action. Deep water is relative to the lake, if you are in a shallow lake and can find an area with 10’ depths that may be the spot. Other lakes you may need to go much deeper, I typically find that deeper lakes produce better and panfish stacked up in 15’-30’ will feed even in very cold weather. Paddle slowly around looking for dropoffs and structure that will hold fish—I usually won’t start fishing until I mark a good school of fish.
I will usually bring three rods with me for this style of fishing. My go to rod is a very fast action ultra light with four pound mono, I have one backup rod with 10 pound braid for fishing tube jigs or fin-s fish, and another backup rod with ten pound braid and a hook ready to be baited with a bread ball. When the temperature is below freezing, I use only mono because it doesn’t freeze up as much as braid. These three outfits allow me to target panfish, bass, and carp. Each of these rods is at the ready should I see anything interesting on the fishfinder.
Once a school of panfish has been located, my plan is to start off fishing slowly—and if that doesn’t work, I go even slower! Sometimes deadsticking is the best method. Deadsticking involves dropping a jig to the bottom, lifting it up a few inches and doing nothing but drifting. The very slight movement of the boat is all it takes to give the jig enough action to get bit. My favorite jig for deadsticking is a 2” white tube jig on a 1/8 ounce jighead. Plastics are very effective for deadsticking because fish will hold the baits in their mouth for a second or two, giving enough time to set the hook.
I use a variety of soft plastics on small jigs, along with tubes, I have had good success with small Berkeley Powerbaits, 2” Fin-s fish, and 3” Slug-gos. On windy days I stick with a 1/8 ounce jighead, but on windless days when the bite is slow, downsizing the plastic and going to a 1/16 ounce head can make a difference. Metals can also be very effective, especially when the bite is fast. Lures like Kastmasters or Swedish Pimples sink quickly and spend more time in the strike zone. I generally only use metal when the fish are actively feeding, less active fish will often ignore the metal even when it is jigged very slowly. Tipping the metal with a tiny piece of squid is another way to get the inactive fish feeding. Small ice jigs in spoon or teardrop shapes tipped with powerbait or squid will work when nothing else will; sometimes the smallest jig in the box is the most effective and a split shot or two may be required to get it to the strike zone.
The incidental catches make for memorable trips. I have seen marks on the fishfinder that I thought were largemouth and dropped a bigger plastic on them only to come up with a striper or a carp. In cold water, carp will hit tube jigs of all sizes as well as 4” Fin-s fish, but bread is the most effective way to take them from a small boat. Carp are one of my favorite fish and whenever I locate a good school, I fish them hard. Largemouths are the most common big fish to get on the panfish jigs.
The late season bite will last all the way to ice in and is a great way to push your open water season all the way to the end. It is also a great way to scout your local ponds for ice fishing spots—the spots that produce at the end of the open water period tend to be the first hotspots for ice fishing.
Keep in mind that cold water and small boats can be very dangerous, if you are planning on late season kayaking, dress for the elements and wear your PFD.