Question: I am from Florida and my old stomping ground is Lake Kissimmee….I moved to Kentucky and my son is on the high school fishing team and we are having a hard time figuring out the winter fishing. Can you give me some hints? -Dennis
Man, do I know your struggle! I lived in Florida during my formative years as an angler, and when I started fishing tournaments outside of the Sunshine State, I realized that Florida fishing was a different animal from the rest of the country, and that I had a lot to learn about the habits of fish in other regions.
Here are some of the things that I have learned that helped me in my transition, especially when it comes to figuring out wintertime fishing outside of the state of Florida.
The biggest thing that I must point out about the Florida fishing and the fishing in a place like Kentucky is that the lakes are completely different.
Florida is unique in the fact that almost all the lakes are natural, not man-made reservoirs. Lakes like Kissimmee, Okeechobee, Harris, Istopoga, and many others, are all natural lakes, and the fish act very differently than they do in reservoirs like you will see in Kentucky.
To read more about natural lakes check out my blog on the subject HERE
As a Florida fisherman at heart, the biggest piece of advice I have is to remember that in reservoirs fish move much more, but yet have very predictable movements that are driven by the seasons.
In Florida, we have very residential populations of fish that tend to stay in a general area. A place like Jack's Slough on Kissimmee, or the Monkey Box in Okeechobee are areas that fish will live all year round, and they don't move too much, because the water temp is suitable, the cover is present, and most importantly the bait is available.
In a reservoir, like Kentucky lake for example, the fish will travel miles between their different seasonal locations, because the bait (usually shad) is more nomadic than in natural lakes. This can be frustrating because in Florida fish will often live their whole life cycle within one area, while on reservoirs where you find them one week may not be where they are the next week.
With all that in mind, in an effort to narrow my search down a bit on reservoirs, I came up with a process to find productive areas during any season which revolved around the spawn.
Spawning is one of a bass' two main motivations in life (eating is the other), and even though the spawning window is small it has a big influence on where they decide to live the rest of the year. In short, my focus is on finding the best spawning areas on the lake, like creeks, bays and major pockets with calm, stable, water and hard bottom. Once I find these places, I can then start to work my way out towards the main lake and identify the areas the fish will hold in different seasons.
The good news, when winter fishing is concerned, is that a bass' wintertime haunts are going to be relatively close to their spawning locations. These wintering areas are going to be the first vertical drops into deeper water from the spawning areas. Places like where a creek channel makes a turn right up against a rocky bank, or a bluff outside the mouth of a spawning pocket, are going to be attractive winter locations- but the key factors are steep and deep.
Slow, Florida Slow
If there was one thing that Florida taught me, that I was able to apply to other parts of the country, it was patience. After a cold front in Florida I found that I sometimes had to fish excruciatingly slow in order to catch fish, and though fish in northern states react to cold weather a bit better than Florida fish do, they still slow down during the winter, and you need to use techniques that keep the bait in their diminished strike zone.
During the winter you are going to be dealing with two types of fish- those which are suspending off of structure, and those that are tucked in close to structure eating crawfish or capitalizing on rocks radiating heat from the sun. If I was to pick two baits that I would use during the winter months to cover these two conditions, it would have to be an umbrella rig, and a jig.
Unless you have some moral or regulatory aversion towards the umbrella rig (or A-Rig), it is possibly the most effective technique ever developed to target suspended, cold-water, bass. Bass will often suspend off of the steep, or bluff, rocky banks during the winter, and so I like to slowly reel these umbrella rigs parallel to the bluff banks, and as long as I have the right retrieve speed, and the right size, shape, color of baits to match the baitfish, I am going to catch them.
For these wintertime umbrella rigs I like to use a lower speed gear ratio baitcasting reel (5.1:1) in order to force myself to slow down my retrieve. I then like to again match my lure size to the size of the prevalent baitfish in the area, but my favorite umbrella rig bait is a Zman Diezel MinnowZ, paired with a 1/8oz or 1/4oz Zman ShroomZ Head . Though many like to use braid for casting umbrella rigs, I prefer using 20lb Vicious 100% Fluorocarbon because it gives me good depth control, and I feel that I get more bites while slow rolling.
If the fish don't seem to be keying in on baitfish, but are more focused on eating crawfish, which is a common food for wintertime bass, then I switch to a football jig. In Kentucky, football jigs can be a year-round bait, but during the winter they are especially effective. I use either a 1/2-3/4oz Secret Lures MVP Football Jig, or a Zman Project Z Football Jig. In either case I will use a complimenting Zman BatwingZ trailer, which has a lot of buoyancy and action in the cold water. I will use a 7'MH baitcasting rod, with a high-speed (7.1:1) baitcasting reel spooled with 20lb Vicious Pro Elite Fluorocarbon. The heavy line is necessary because fluorocarbon tends to weaken in very cold temperatures, so you need the extra strength to compensate.
Again, the key to the jig, as it is with the umbrella rig, is to fish it extra slow, with very few hops, but rather a dragging action.
Though the conditions might differ, the general guidelines I have outlined here should help.
Trust your instincts!
PS- If the advice I've given here doesn't apply to your lakes you fish, please let me know and I will try to help more.