Winter Wade Fishing
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Many coastal anglers think of winter and wading as mutual exclusive terms. The fact that fish will feed in relatively shallow water during the coldest portion of the year may sound strange, but it's true. And, a growing number of saltwater pluggers are taking advantage of the uncrowded bays and getting in on the hot winter flats action.

Of course, not every piece of shallow water will hold fish during the winter months. However, with a little forethought, anglers can find plenty of fish feeding in knee- to waist-deep water all year around. And, if they are willing to put in the effort, they could easily find themselves tied into the trout of a lifetime while wading a winter flat.

One reason more fishermen aren't interested in winter wading is the stark contrast of bottom terrain between the summer and winter shallow water haunts of speckled trout and redfish. Unlike the warm-weather months, when fish will most often be found on firm, sand bottoms, winter fish tend to gravitate to sloppy, muddy bottoms. As anyone who has ever taken a shuffled step across the bay bottom knows, mud is infinitely harder to wade in than sand. But, this is a classic example of success requiring anglers to fish where the fish want to be, not where the fishermen want to be.
And, successful winter waders know the mud is where the fish are. “I'll be in knee-deep mud,” is popular Matagorda-based guide Capt. Bill Pustejovsky's stock answer when asked where he'll spend the cooler months. “Trophy class trout will be on knee deep flats with mud or mud and shell bottoms.”

Capt. Chris Martin of BayFlats Lodge in Port O'Connor agrees with Pustejovsky's advice. “In February we key in on mud and grass in protected coves and area drains - or bayous and channels - leading out of the back lakes,” Martin said. “We are specifically targeting big trout.”
“There's a reason we concentrate on mud bottom this time of year,” Martin continued. “Mud is like a solar panel in that it soaks up heat and releases it throughout the night and day. So, fish will natural stay close to that mud bottom. Stay away from sand this time of year - it doesn't hold as much heat. Concentrate on mud and shell. Shell also gives protection - or cover - to small baitfish. And, of course, if the bait is hiding in the shell, trout will be hanging around.”

Once the proper bottom is located, bait is the other key element anglers should look for. Although the presence of bait is always important, in the dead of winter it is critical.

However, the presence of large rafts of bait isn't necessary to ensure success. Unlike spring, summer or fall when large amounts of bait are migrating through the bays, winter sees relatively few, but larger bait specimens.

“This time of year, water color isn't as important as bait,” Martin said. “Even if you see one piece of bait - stop the boat and fish.”

“Any place you can find shallow water with mud and mullet, you will find big trout,” Pustejovsky said.  “It is just a matter of getting the fish to eat. This time of year, these fish don't feed every day, they may only two or three times a week. They will eat the biggest mullet they can find, them lay down. If you work an area that you feel has big fish but don't get bit, mark the spot on your GPS, go back the next day and see if they are ready to eat.”

With the majority of shrimp having left the bay system during the fall, the diet of fish on winter flats consists primarily of other fish. Mullet, in particular, are high on the list of possible food sources. With that in mind, anglers are well advised to throw mullet imitating plugs and soft-plastics. And, as they would do when fishing for winter fish in deeper water, anglers should slow the retrieve cadence to ensure lethargic cool water fish can catch up to their offering.

“The key to catching big trout is wading really slow and throwing a big bait, such as the Super Spook,” said Capt. Bruce Shuler of Get-A-Way Adventures Lodge in Port Mansfield, who suggests also keeping a rod rigged with a slow-sinking bait, such as a Catch 2000 or Catch 5, at the ready. “If I have one miss the topwater, I'll cast right back to where that swirl was with the slow-sinker and let it swing down a beat or two in the pothole,” Shuler explained. “They just can't stand that and most of the times they'll hit it.”

“Most of the time, we will be throwing suspending lures like the Corky Fat Boy,” Martin said. “I like green/black or solid bone, but you have to make sure they have rattles in them.”

Like Shuler, Martin will throw a surface plug, but he usually opts for a slightly smaller version. “I personally like a little smaller topwater because I feel it is easier to work in the wind,” he explained.
When fishing soft-plastics, Martin thinks a lighter head gives anglers an edge on the winter flats. “Fish are really lethargic this time of year,” he said. “Usually we will start using a 1/16 ounce head instead of an 1/8 ounce head and go to lighter line to help feel the bite.”

Although any soft-plastic can draw strikes under the right circumstance, most winter waders prefer a fairly large profile, baitfish-imitating bait. Bass Assassins, 5-inch Stanley Wedgetails and other “big baits” are among the most popular.

“I know some people like throwing topwaters, but I have more luck on soft-plastics for winter fish,” said Capt. Jim Onderdonk, who fishing Baffin's fabled big trout haunts out of Poco Loco Lodge. “I'll usually be throwing Norton Sand Eels and Stanley Wedgetail Minnows when wading for big trout. I'll also be throwing the Chatter Tube, which is made by the same guy that makes the Texas Rattlin' Rigs. That is a real slow-sinking tube bait with a rattle inside. I like those baits in pumpkinseed/chartreuse/red, plum, or red/white. In other baits, pretty much the basic colors for winter will be Morning Glory, rootbeer, and plum. Usually, it's one of those darker colors that work.”

Of course, even when the find the right spot - and are throwing the right bait - winter waders often have to have patience.

“Often times, we fish all day for a few bites, but those fish are big ones,” Shuler said. “We just chunk topwaters and work real slow down those mud flats, looking for one or two trophy trout.”

“The main thing is find a bait and stick with it,” Martin concurred. “Fish it all day. Don't keep changing baits. If you have a bait you are comfortable with and you feel there are fish in the area, keep throwing it. Fish may only feed once a day this time of year, so don't expect a lot of hits, just keep grinding.”

Winter is one of those odd seasons when the weather can change rapidly. Sure, it can be overcast and cold all day, but it can also turn out to be sunny and warm in mid-afternoon. Therein lays the danger. Even the warmest of winter afternoons can lead to a chilly late evening boat ride. And, many a sunny winter day has suddenly turned ugly by the appearance of a fast-moving front.

Conversely, often times anglers bundled up to withstand a morning frost are shucking clothing as fast as possible come afternoon.

The short answer is be ready for all types of weather when you take to the water during the winter months.

“Be prepared. We have some of the coldest days of the year in February,” advised Martin. “You hate to be having a `career day' on big specks and have to leave because you're too cold. It's happened. Layer your clothing, wear a stocking hat and gloves - keep comfortable. Also, always wear a belt around your waders to keep them from filling up if you happen to fall. The more comfortable you are, the longer you'll be able to fish.”

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