Get ready… winter is almost here
The days of fishing in your t-shirt are gone.
The endless summer evenings are a faint memory, and the cold mornings can now be painful for your hands and ears when you pull up at your favourite spot at the crack of dawn. Winter is almost here and, in some places, it has already shown its true colours – usually white, grey and pitch black! It’s time for a change of tactics.
It is that time of year again – cold ones can mean big ones
In this series, we cover each season and the tactics that work best in its particular conditions. To be successful in catching pike during winter, you have to learn and understand the behaviour of pike. A lot has been covered and written about this topic, so I won’t go into too much detail on behaviour, rather I’ll stick to the general rules of thumb. Basically, it’s all about food and comfort. Makes sense, right?
Follow the baitfish, but most of all, find the spots that are more comfortable for predatory fish. They usually represent risks that baitfish are willing to take, sharing those comfortable spots with their biggest enemies. Strength in numbers helps them, and certain spots over cover also make surviving during the harsh winter a bit easier.
The comfort I mentioned usually comes to pike from either warmer temperatures, calmer conditions or easy-to-access food. Harbours or marinas are a prime example of how this works. They are sheltered from rough weather, meaning pike can use less energy than when out in the open water in bad weather. Harbours are also often sheltered from the wind making the temperature a bit more stable. Warm air gets trapped between boats and buildings, causing these spots to be slightly warmer than everywhere else.
Another factor is human activity. Humans tend to feed birds with leftover food like bread. The leftovers and the poop from those birds are easy meals for baitfish like roach or bream. If you find these regular bird-feeding spots, you will find baitfish and thus you will find predatory fish that are out searching for a snack.
A bird restaurant – a potential pike hotspot
Besides in harbours, you can apply this small set of rules to other spots too, such as dead ends of canals, lake systems that are partially surrounded by houses, and deeper spots. These deeper spots are the most common location where fish hide away from the cold and rough elements. In general, these spots are a bit harder to fish, but they are certainly worth the effort.
Take time to find the depths
Harbours and marinas are easy to locate on the map, the deep spots that actually hold fish require a bit more than just Google maps, though. Even a marine chart only gives you an indication of where fish might hide during wintertime. The only way you will definitively know is by actually fishing these spots and catching fish (or at least getting a few contacts) to prove they are there. A good sonar can help speed up the progress. Traditional 2D or down imaging will work fine, but side imaging will help greatly increase your vision underwater and will speed up that progress of finding fish or baitfish. If you don’t have a boat, but want to know the situation underneath the surface, there are multiple portable sonars out there that you can cast out to get a better picture of the situation. This will help you fish more effectively from the bank.
The Burbot is very effective in winter when you need to go deeper!
There is no specific ‘golden depth’ I can point out; you will have to try for yourself in each specific situation. From my experience, schools of fish move around from day to day and the predatory fish are usually not far away. Thus, the location can change from one day to another, and so does the depth at which they are present. It depends on the weather conditions, time of the season and the specific bottom structure on each individual water system. Complicated? Maybe, but it’s this complexity that makes it a lot more fun (or challenging, at least). This is one of the reasons why I prefer fishing the open water during winter, even though harbours are usually easier places to get results.
I realise that open waters are hard to fish without a boat, but winter is usually prime time for us predator anglers. Spots that are usually impossible to fish due to heavy growth of vegetation are much easier to fish. Harbours are also easy to access, if you have permission to fish there. Please check if you’re allowed to fish there before you break any rules, which in some countries can result in serious fines.
From the bank, you can increase your results by focusing on certain irregularities that will affect the comfort we talked about previously. Bridges are a good example. They offer some shelter and they trap pockets of warmer air, heating the water underneath. In the Netherlands, we have a lot of houseboats, and they can be brilliant for us anglers; they are heated and thus the water around them warms up a little. That combined with the feeding of birds… easy right?
The banks offer a lot of great alternatives from boat fishing
So, now that you have found the spots you need to fish, you still need to catch them. Generally speaking, during winter a slower presentation is preferred and for big fish – bigger lures will motivate them to get out of their slow, energy-saving mode and make an effort.
Slowing down usually means that you are limited in the lures you can use. Swimbaits with joints usually require a bit more speed to keep their swimming motion. This is why paddle tails or, when going even slower, curly tail baits work better at lower speeds. Because we want to fish closer to the fish, we want baits that sink quickly when fishing from the boat. The Rattle Trout 27.5cm or 3D Burbot (36cm or 50cm) are excellent baits to use during winter.
During the warmer months, I don’t mind letting these big pike work for their fake meal. Making them lunge several meters usually makes them less hesitant to strike the bait as they have less time to inspect the lure. In winter, their whole modus operandi is all about being as efficient as possible. Don’t waste any energy, the return on investment has to be worth it. They will come up and swim several metres, only if they reward might outweigh the effort. This is the main reason why you want to fish close to the fish, and with the baits mentioned above, you can easily fish at 9m or deeper at slow speeds with a 0.32mm diameter line.
From the banks, this will be different in most cases. Deep water can be in limited supply and heavy, sinking lures will not allow you to fish slowly. Baits that have hardly any added weight are more effective here. Jerkbaits with a lot of hangtime like the Jerkster, or soft lures with a shallow screw like the Craft Trout Pulse Tail are excellent for these types of situations.
The unique tail of the Pulse Tail series allows you to retrieve it at ultra-slow speeds
There are some exceptions that can help when a slow presentation is not producing. Both may seem a bit odd. One is doing absolutely nothing at all. I’ve caught fish while fishing with deadbaits, or casting on a second rod that had a soft lure attached to it that just hovered one metre above the bottom. No movement, only some slight vibrations caused by us walking around in the boat.
Another trick can be to speed it up in a drastic way; flip the whole idea of giving them enough time to reach it. Especially in shallow water spots, it is easy to step it up in terms of speed and fish those baits super-fast. Try to pre-set the bait close to the fish and trigger that reaction strike. If the bait comes close enough and they don’t have time to think, they might hit it instinctively and you can fool multiple good fish on a slow day with this technique. Obviously, crank baits are highly favoured due to the higher speeds.
What about deadbaits?
Winter is the ideal time to fish with a deadbait, especially when you have found the fish. I won’t cover ice fishing, as this is a different game and this article focusses on how to fish when the water is still in liquid form. Deadbaits have been super effective over the past few years in harbours. We’ve all heard about match the hatch – trying to figure out which bait the pike are feeding on and imitating it? Well, my most successful deadbait for pike fishing is… a herring! I don’t have to explain how many herring we have in our freshwater system here in the Netherlands, right?
Herring or sardine are easy to get and very effective deadbaits during winter.
Why these saltwater fish are so attractive to pike, we will never fully understand, but they give off a great scent and lose a lot of oily substance while in the water. This makes these baits easy to find for those northern pike. While deadbaits are effective, it is also a very passive style of fishing, and this is why I prefer fishing with lures year-round. It’s less of a hassle and the active style appeals more to me. Deadbaiting is, however, a very effective method for catching big (lazy) pike.
Keep your own comfort in mind too
Last but not least, to fish effectively you have to stay focused, and if you are freezing your nuts off, your focus will slowly fade away. Stay warm by dressing appropriately and keep your belly filled with food and hot liquids. There is no shame in wearing gloves and keep you your head from losing heat with a beanie or hoodie. Dress with multiple layers – it’s better to be too warm than too cold, as you can always remove one or two layers if you are boiling up in your suit.
Finally, stay safe. Winter is, out of all seasons, the most dangerous to be out or at the water and no fish is worth risking your life for. That being said, good luck this winter my fellow anglers.