Monday, February 3, 2020

Don't pack up your spinning gear just because it's snowing

As a Midwesterner who migrated to northern Colorado four decades ago, I eventually embraced ice fishing, but still can’t make it through the winter without longing to make an occasional good, long cast and retrieve. You do have to work for open water, deep winter fishing opportunities around here, but they are possible and can be terrific. You just have to use whatever Mother Nature is willing to give you from December through March, and be prepared for an occasional skunk.

We're not talking spring high country ice-off here, but "right in the heart of winter" fishing with spinning gear. We can talk later about ice fishing or fly fishing in tailwaters; we’re concentrating now on using spinning gear to fool a trout in temporarily unfrozen, still water lakes and ponds. Some of you are probably whizzes at getting warm water species to bite in the winter around here, and I dimly recall succeeding occasionally in places like Illinois and Missouri. But my favorite quarry is the same species most of us are after while ice fishing:  trout. You can choose to believe all those Southern Good Old Boy professional fishing shows about wintertime bass fishing. But to me they rely on techniques, water temperatures and a climate unlike anything around here. High altitude and frigid nights are the main culprits. You live here, you learn to fish in the cold.

It took me years to appreciate the virtues of the West’s cold water species -- after retirement, really, before realizing that trout have a unique metabolism that can extend your fishing season tremendously. A slow learner, it took me years to learn that trout don’t go dormant from late fall to early spring, and in fact prefer  icy places to chase bugs and minnows. In my defense, most anglers around here hang up their rods with the arrival of cold, not to emerge until dogwoods are in bloom.

Except for big, deep lakes like Carter and Horsetooth, most slack waters in northeastern Colorado develop an ice cap, sometimes but not always thick enough to stand on and drill into. Those wide open lakes do hold opportunities. But to me, at least, their fish seem scattered and hard to locate, especially in these days of aquatic nuisance inspectors, when we can’t narrow our search by launching motor boats in the “off season.” So I much prefer smaller bodies of water in winter, mostly former sand and gravel ponds, ones where at least some of the ice cap occasionally melts around the edges. Yeah, most are covered most of the winter with ice of varying thickness, and most aren’t stocked with trout. But some of them are.

Here’s where our sport parallels hunting: if you want to fish open water in February, you usually have to really search to find a big enough hole in the ice. Start in places where you found fish in spring and fall; just don't expect to find them everywhere. Speculate on places where some open water may be deeper than the water around it, and where the water might catch more warmth from the sun. Don’t just look at one or two ponds, either. An east, west or north side of a body of water may open enough to be fishable one day and inexplicably ice-capped the next. And one pond may be open, but the one next to it, probably the one stocked in the fall, may be socked in for the season. Remember that a stout chinook wind freezes hands and butts, but it can also alter the fishing equation by opening up opportunities. So watch for warming trends and sunny skies.
A nice rainbow from (briefly) open local water on Groundhog Day.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife stocks hundreds of lakes and ponds each spring and fall. Some are specifically intended to create ice fishing opportunities; others are meant to provide fishing in spring and summer. When they decide where to stock, I don’t think our biologist friends give much thought to an angler seeking open water in January, but their fish are in there somewhere, and sometimes willing to eat, big ones just as likely as the newly stocked.

Watch the sky and the weather forecasts, and dress warmly, giving special thought to how you’re going to keep your ears and hands warm. You may find fish aren’t hugging the usual spots reachable by a cast from shore. Move around often, remember that your prey are also on the prowl, and try to guess where the water may be warmest. Just as they do in other seasons, most trout remain on the move. Look for humps and dips, and what's left of good weed beds. And you don’t have to limit yourself to bank fishing. Your float tube works just as well in the winter as summer, if you keep it pumped up, and honest, fishing with your feet in the water is not as cold as it sounds. Remember, the water may be warmer than the air above it. Take along a towel to help keep your hands dry.

I am not one to fish Power Bait or other bottom baits, but I suppose they’ll work. Use barbless hooks, smaller baits than in other seasons, fished more slowly, and treat your catch as gently as you would the rest of the year. Though trout remain quite active, they’re still cold blooded, and won’t chase baits as quickly as they will in spring. Use light line, a sensitive rod and a small jig fished slowly up and down the water column.  Above all, move your favorite bait as slowly as possible. You can always speed up.

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