Hot Tips for Cold Weather
Patrick Mills



During the early spring, just after ice out, water contained within our lakes, rivers and ponds remains very cold. Fish can be difficult to both locate and catch during this time, as they tend to shoal in specific deep-water areas and, due to their slowed metabolisms, are typically lethargic and tend to adopt timid feeding behaviors. However, it is possible for the bank fisher to make some excellent catches during this time. The following tips detail how, by allowing for and adapting to these specific conditions, this goal can be accomplished.

Locating fish on lakes and ponds

Tip #1 – During cold late winter and early spring fish of all species generally shoal up in ‘warmer’ deep-water areas. This behavior is related to the fact that water in the range of 4oC – 0oC  (~39oF – 32oF) is less dense than water above this range, meaning it rises to the surface before turning in to ice. Thus, under the coldest conditions, locating fish can sometimes be as simple as casting ones bait into the deepest (or ‘warmest’) part of the lake or pond. However, just because ones bait is within the vicinity of the fish, this does not guarantee that it will be taken. This point is addressed further in tip #6.

Tip #2 - Following on from tip #1, it is important to remember that fish will generally migrate to warmer water as conditions allow. Therefore, as weather conditions improve fish may be found in shallower water closer to shore. This behavior may follow either of two trends – after a few days of mild weather, during which time the temperature of the water has remained above 4oC during both nighttime and daylight hours, or during bright daytime conditions when direct sunlight may rapidly warm the shallows by a significant degree. This latter effect can be particularly evident around midday, so it is often of benefit to bank fish a venue over the more productive hours of ~11:00 am – 3:00 pm during the cooler months.  The points so far discussed pertaining to water temperature illustrate an important fact – by either estimating or actually measuring the water’s temperature, the angler can come up with a best guess of where the fish will be holding at our local lake or pond. Thus, it is of benefit to carry a thermometer in order to check the venue’s temperature close to shore. A personal rule of thumb is that if the water temperature in the shallows is 5oC (39oF) or greater, then a close range pole or bobber (float) approach is used, but if the shallows are at a lower temperature than this critical value, then either long range sinker or float tactics are preferred. These specific approaches are discussed further in tip #6.

Tip #3 - Fish from the windward (sheltered) bank of a lake or pond during the cooler months. For example, if the prevailing winds are out of the Northwest, then fish from the NW bank of the venue. This tactic has two principle benefits – first, the angler will generally be protected from the prevailing wind, or at least have his or her back to it. Not only does this approach allow for a more comfortable fishing position, (much better than having a brisk winter wind blowing directly into ones face), but bite detection also becomes easier when fishing calmer water. Second, as the wind blows across the venue it will produce two effects - in addition of causing the top most layers of the water to be pushed towards the venue’s opposite (SE in our example) bank, it will also significantly cool this water. As a result of these effects, the temperature of the water blown into the leeward (exposed) bank will plummet, resulting in any fish present to most likely vacate the area.

Locating fish on rivers

Tip #4 – In many ways, locating and catching fish from rivers during the cooler months can be a far less complicated than performing an equivalent task on any lake or pond. This truism can be traced to one simple fact – in common with their still water counterparts, the metabolisms of all river fish also slow down as water temperatures drop. Thus, in order to conserve energy most species relocate to either deeper and/or slower river stretches with the onset of cooler weather. Bearing this fact in mind, the angler is advised to target the deeper features of rivers – holes, the outside of bends, bays and above dams, during the cooler months. Interestingly, even though both river and still water fish retreat to deeper water during cooler periods, they may do so for different reasons. For river fish, which must constantly expend energy by swimming against the current, residing in deeper and/or slower stretches provides a mechanism for such species to conserve energy and, therefore, function with a reduced metabolic rate. However, it should also be noted that river fish typically maintain slightly higher metabolic rates than their still water brethren under similar temperature conditions. This is due to the fact that such fish must continually expand energy by swimming against the river’s current. This latter point is good news to the angler, as river fish must necessarily feed more frequently than their still water counterparts during the cooler months. Thus, given a choice, a personal rule of thumb would be to fish a river in preference to a still water when water temperatures are within a few degrees of freezing.

Tackle and tactics

Tip #5 - Having determined the most probable location of the fish, how do we go about catching them? Simply stated, in order to attract fish to the vicinity of or hook bait, hold them there and eventually attract takes from our quarry, some kind of groundbait (chum) must be introduced to our chosen swim. Groundbaits work by first attracting fish, through releasing an attractive smell, then providing a readily available ‘carpet’ of food in order to keep these fish within the desired (‘groundbaited’) area. Groundbaits themselves can be very simple – a 50/50 mixture of cornmeal and white bread crumb, combined with water and mixed into fluffy balls that, in turn, fall apart when thrown into the swim, works well in summer. However, under cold-water conditions a more sophisticated approach is required. First, since the fish require less food, the food value of the groundbait must be reduced. Passing the dry, pre-mixed groundbait ingredients through a coffee grinder typically accomplishes this task. The resulting fine powder contains very small particles that, when eventually introduced to the swim via the finished groundbait will not overfeed the fish. Additionally, the finished groundbait may also be ‘cut’ with up to 50% damp soil before being introduced to the swim. This also has the effect of allowing a larger groundbaited area to be established, while simultaneously not introducing an excessive amount of feed. Second, the attractiveness of the groundbait must be enhanced. This an easily be accomplished by adding some kind of flavoring to the groundbait during mixing – vanilla and strawberry food flavorings work well, as do garlic and fish oil ‘lure sprays’ sold through most tackle stores. This is necessary as scents and flavors diffuse at a much slower rate in cold water, thus by increasing their concentration this drawback is overcome. A small number of hook bait samples should also be added to the groundbait. If using worm on the hook, chopped or pulped worms make for a deadly groundbait additive. Typically, between two and five orange sized balls of low feed / winter groundbait should be introduced to the area to be fished. The angler should then fish his or her bait over this area until the number of takes begins to tail off. This may not happen during the session, but if it does a further two or three balls groundbait should be introduced.

Tip #6 – Following on from tip #5, having attracted fish into the area to be fished through the introduction of a suitable groundbait, the angler is free to fish a hook bait over this groundbaited area. However, due to the fact that fish in cold water can be notoriously lethargic and/or ‘finicky’, ultra light tackle, coupled with the most sensitive of bobbers (floats) or other terminal tackle, must be utilized. Additionally, since the appetites of the quarry have become diminished (due to the fact that they have reduced metabolic rates), small baits, and therefore hooks, must be also used, as they also provide the best chance of inducing a take. Typically, a sensitive float, such as a Thill style ‘shy bite’, is fished in conjunction with line of ~2 lb breaking strain and a fine wire hook of size 18 or 20. Small baits such as double or single maggot (spikes), or a half to one inch section of chopped worm are typically employed, although a single grain of corn or a larger section of worm mounted on a size 16 or 14 hook may be used if larger species such as catfish or carp are sought. The bait is most often fished so it just touches bottom, appearing (from the fishes point of view) to protrude from the groundbaited area. Additionally, if fishing at short range with a rod or pole, it is often possible to ‘jig’ or ‘twitch’ the bait in order to provoke a take with such a rig. If a sinker set up is used for fishing at longer range, the hook bait should be fished on a short leader of a foot or less in length with the point of the hook exposed from the bait. The sinker should also be fixed in place and be of at least one ounce in weight. This is essentially a self-hooking rig and will result in takes being easy to spot. Also, the hook bait can be rendered partially buoyant, and therefore more visible to the fish, through the use of a worm blower or by attaching a small piece of sponge foam to the shank of the hook.

More details

The above tips and hints provide a good basic description of how good numbers of fish may be caught from our ponds, lakes and rivers and during the cooler months. For additional information and free access to more detailed articles on these and other bankfishing topics (including groundbait recipes and detailed rig descriptions), the reader is encouraged to visit to the Pat's Patch area of this website.