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Winter Fishing Comes With Perils, Discomfort, Big Rewards

I hear all the time from people how they love winter: That first snowfall, Christmas decorations, sweater weather.

It’s something they love. Look, I get it.

After months and months of oppressive heat, winter is a welcome break. But I have to tell you something, by the end of college football in January, I’m done with it. I’m ready for warm breezes and wearing shorts and T-shirts. Going fishing in January can be exercise in frustration.

If you don’t have a boat with a cabin, it gets cold. I don’t love it. Piloting a small skiff across open water can be chilling — to the bone. If you must do it, here are some things to think about.

First of all, you want to make sure the wind can’t get to you. You have to have a warm shell of some kind. We used to call them “windbreakers” when I was a kid. It won’t matter how thick a sweater you have on, if the wind – “The Hawk,” as Chicagoans might say — gets you, you are in for an uncomfortable day.

How should you bundle up from bottom to top then? First, you need a lightweight layer, close to the skin. Long johns, we used to call them, and maybe folks still do. Now, the lightweight modern materials are better, warmer and keep moisture away from the skin.

All the big manufacturers of outdoor clothing make what is referred to in the business as “base layer” clothes. Get the kind that is made for coldest weather and not for jogging or skiing. They’ll be lightweight but offer more warmth than those old red flannels your grandfather had.

Next, a pair of pants made out of polar fleece and a fleece shirt. We’re talking about layers to trap the warm air in and keep cold out.

Then, for pants, you’ll want something more than just a pair of jeans. I have insulated winter pants. For your top half, a sweatshirt that will fit over everything. Then add your wind shell. Alternatively, if you can find it, a snowmobile suit like they wear to zip around frozen lakes in Minnesota can be especially useful if you do a lot of winter fishing.

In addition, get a pair of warm socks and some boots or shoes that are waterproof. The old-school white boots are good, just add a comfortable insole. They don’t have much cushion in the bottom.

Another handy item is a neck gaiter. The same companies that make the summer sun-protection sleeves for your face also make warm ones with fleece linings for winter. This can make the difference in a good day or a miserable one.

Make sure your jacket buttons, snaps or zips all way up to your face, and keep it zipped while driving.

Now why would I, a professed hater of winter, even want to venture outside during January? Believe it or not there is a decent speckled trout bite.

As far back as you can go in the same creeks where you caught them during October, they’ll most likely be there now. I mean all the way back. Back where the creek is so narrow two boats can’t pass at full speed without spraying each other with their wakes.

Fish a lot slower than you did in the fall. They’ll hit many of the same lures. I’ll often use a ¼-ounce jighead with a Zman Shadz plastic tail — experiment with colors. The water will be quite clear, so garish colors might be too bright and not attract strikes.

Except for the days that they will.

I also like the heavy-weighted Mirrolure Mirrodine plug. Pink seems to be a triggering color. Let the current swing them. With the Mirrodine you’ll have to cast it upstream or it just swings out too high in the water column. A jig you might be able to cast it in any direction you want to cover water. Depends on how swift the current is. On a strong tide you’ll have to cast upstream.

You want to think of the fish as just kind of sitting there and not really interested in chasing. They want it to come right near them as they hold in the current.

Strikes will not be very forceful. Sometimes it will be nothing more than an extra weight. Set the hook quickly. Don’t be too forceful, but be fast.

Every winter there is a monster trout or two caught around here. In February 2022, a new state record 12-pound, 8-ounce state record fish was caught in Pamlico County by Todd Spangler of Merritt, and in November 2022, Cathy Jones of Belhaven caught an 11-pound, 3-ounce fish not too far away from the other.

Imagine seeing a 33-inch trout roll up next to the boat and realizing your net might be too small. Even more reason for getting out there when things get colder.

Another thing that’s happening the past couple of winters has been a bluefin tuna bite. This is not in narrow creeks unfortunately. Those doing it are usually in the most seaworthy boats. I say usually because once in a while there is a story of someone going out and catching a monster in a smallish center-console all by himself.

A father-and-son team from Virginia were in a 22-foot Grady White when they got one estimated at more than 1,000 pounds out of Oregon Inlet. The fish was bigger than the piloting area in the boat.

Usually, however, you’re going to be pursuing them in bigger boats. The guys who are out there every day are normally in the bigger sportfishermen, with cabins and enclosed piloting areas — not just for comfort, but for safety. However, I know a few guys who do it a lot in 25-foot center-consoles and have caught a few worth talking about.

Any bluefin is worth talking about, actually.

Just like in any winter fishing, the key is to dress warmly, stay dry, be prepared for any situation.

I’d say the key to having a good time on the water in winter is to be smart and safe. That water is cold. Anything under 60 degrees Fahrenheit can suck the strength out of you really fast, and all those clothes and boots you wear will make it extremely difficult if you should fall over.

The official recommendation is to wear your personal flotation device 100% of the time when the water is below 65 degrees.

The fish are out there, if you know how to safely pursue them and have the correct gear, you’ll do fine.

Finally, let me add that this is the second anniversary of the Angler’s Angle. The editors of Coastal Review have been exceptional to work with and we are lucky to have such an excellent resource. It’s been a great relationship and I’m looking forward to continuing.

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