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Winter Fishing

It’s often said that 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish. I believe that, especially in winter fishing, and I think there’s a good reason for it. That reason can be summed in one word – preparation. While, we may occasionally make a spontaneous trip to the beach, and have a banner day, most of the time, our success is due to planning and preparation. My typical trip consists of three separate stages.

1. Pre-trip preparation.
2. Actual trip execution, observations and adjustments.
3. Post trip analysis.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

While many reading this article are forced to fish only during very limited times off, as I’ve mentioned before, I am blessed to have a flexible enough schedule to be able to pick my day to fish, at least most of the time. Because of that, I usually start checking several factors at least three to four days ahead of my target time period. The first thing to look at is the long range weather forecasts. I don’t put much stock in these, because they’ll probably change daily, however, it does begin to show me a one or two day window when things might work out. I will then check a couple of wind forecast sites that I’ve found to be reliable most of the time.

* Note that the default measurements for windguru are knots for the wind and meters for the wave heights. You have to toggle to mph and feet.

I will continue to monitor these sites up to the evening before my trip, and sometimes the morning of the trip, if the conditions are still changing. The preferred condition I’m looking for is a day with very light winds from any direction, accompanied by light seas. As an alternative, I will accept a NW wind up to the mid-teens, but only because a wind from that direction is blowing directly from the beach to the water on the beaches where I fish. While the advantage of a stiff offshore wind is that it can add yards to my casts and blows the surf flat, the downside is that it can make for a tiring day of yakking back to the beach after dropping baits.

Following checking the wind forecasts, I check the tides for my target location. … sites.html

To me, the tides are the least important factor in the surf, but I like to know what I’m looking at. I’ve had successful trips on every conceivable stage of the tide, and on every possible combination of tides during the course of a day’s fishing. However, the predicted tides may determine some of the decisions I make. For instance, in some of the areas where I fish, the wade gut can be over head deep during an extremely high tide. If I see an extremely high tide predicted, I know to either consider another location, or to plan on yakking out any baits I want past the first bar all day. Likewise, if I’m debating between two days, and one day has neap tides, while the other has at least some tidal movement, I’m probably going to opt for the day with some movement.

So, now based on the weather forecast, the wind forecast and the tide forecast, I’ve decided on what day I’m going to go (assuming work doesn’t jump up and get in the way). What’s next? I’ve got to make certain what the temperature range is going to be. As most of us know, here along the upper Texas coast, a winter day can range from freezing to the 70s, sometimes in the same day. However, let’s assume for the sake of this article that we are looking at a temperature range from a morning low in the 40s to an afternoon high in the 50s on our fishing day. The water temperature is also going to be somewhere in the 50s. That’s about the minimum range this old man will fish in. That temperature range is going to determine my basic choice of clothing for the day. Let me throw in one piece of advice here. Always take about twice as many clothes as you think you might need. The extras won’t hurt anything staying in the truck all day, but if you get cold, they’re sure nice to have.

The key to my winter clothing system is layering. The other key to winter fishing, if there’s any possibility of getting wet, is not wearing anything cotton. In wet and cold conditions, cotton can actually wick heat away from your body. Under the right circumstances, it can be deadly.
My winter wear starts with nylon or polypropylene underwear. Again, no cotton please. Following that comes my Farmer John wetsuit with a 100% polyester fleece shirt over. Next, but not least, comes some type of waterproof and windproof jacket. In my case, I prefer a Frogg Toggs jacket, but others will work as well. I wear this jacket anytime I’m on, or in, the water. Before I wade out to cast, and after fastening the jacket over my other clothes, I secure everything together with a wading belt. Depending on how warm the day might get, and how active I get during the day, I may shed the over shirt or jacket from time to time. One item I have added for this winter is a heavy insulated jacket to put on once I’m back on the beach, if it’s cold enough. The jacket is nylon inside and out so it doesn’t matter if I put it on over wet clothes.

Here’s my basic clothing arsenal.

There is one final aspect of dressing for winter surf fishing, and that’s protection of your extremities. One of the most important areas to consider is the head. Experts say that huge amounts of body heat can be lost from the head. Therefore, I like to wear a watch cap, or other insulated cap. We naturally have to have something on our feet in the winter, and I like neoprene wading or dive boots. The last aspect is the hands. I’ve never liked fishing with gloves, so I don’t normally wear them, but I do keep a couple of pairs handy just in case I need them. I have a pair of neoprene diving gloves and a pair of leather insulated gloves. If I absolutely have to use gloves in a wet environment, such as out in the kayak, I use the neoprenes. Otherwise, I use the non-waterproof gloves. Even better, the fleece over shirt I wear has pockets I can stick my hands into as I need a quick warm up. Also, if my hands get really cold, I can unzip my wetsuit a bit and stick my hands next to my body. That is a wonderful way to get a quick warm up.

Here is another good article on dressing for winter on the water. Although it specifically addresses kayaking, the basics apply as well to surf fishing. Note the various water temperature ranges that have sub-articles. … ss-1.shtml


So, I’ve chosen my day to fish, and I’ve got my clothes lined out. Now what? Well, I guess I’d better choose a location to fish. I’ll typically be fishing the beach somewhere from Sea Rim State Park to the western part of Bolivar Peninsula. However, that’s about 30 miles of beach to choose from. I’m going to make my decision based on a few criteria.

1. Recent weather
a. If the water temps are exceptionally low for my area, I’m going to consider areas that have muddy bottoms. Muddy bottoms absorb and hold warmth much better than sandy bottoms. In the case of very cold water temps, sometimes those warmer bottoms, and the warmer waters over them, can make all the difference between a successful day and a less sterling day.

b. If we have had a lot of rain recently, I’m going to avoid any beaches near any major passes that are subject to runoff. My favorite beach is relatively near to the Sabine Neches ship channel. Many times, after major rains, I’ve seen the waters around the east end of McFaddin muddy and fresh, while those a few miles farther down the beach at High Island will be green and salty.

2. Recent fishing reports.
a. Nothing beats first hand reports, however, you have to take them with a grain of salt, both for the better or for the worst. Unless you personally know the people fishing, and know them to be usually productive fishermen, a bad report may not tell the true story. We all know some people would get skunked fishing in a barrel of fish. On the other hand, some fishermen can’t resist embellishing their reports. The key is to try to pick up trends. If you see a few decent reports from a particular stretch of beach, it’s probably worth trying. On the other hand, if you see a half dozen bad reports from the same weekend, you might should avoid that beach.

3. Past fishing logs.
a. I’ve kept fishing logs of every trip for years (don’t you?). If I can’t remember what I did at about the same time last year and the year before that, I go to my logs to see.
Okay, so I’ve picked my day, and my beach. There’s one other thing to do before I hit the sand. I need to make sure I’ve got some bait lined up. Fresh wintertime bait can often be hard to gather onsite, so I always take bait with me. If I have frozen mullet or whiting left over from the previous trip, I bring at least enough with me to get me started. If I have plenty frozen, I’ll bring quite a few, but only thaw enough onsite to keep me fishing. I’ll then take any leftovers back home for the next trip. The other thing I normally do is stop along the way and pick up a dozen live crabs. Blue crabs really come into their own as bait during the cool to cold water months. Some days they will be all the fish want to eat. I will also sometimes pick up some bait shrimp when I stop for crabs, but I often rely on FishBites for my bait rod.
So, I’ve completed my pre-trip preparations, now I’m ready to go fishing.

Now comes the fun part. The first thing I do after arriving onsite is get my bait rod in the water. I use a double drop leader on my bait rig and bait with pieces of shrimp about the size of my thumbnail, or with FishBites, or a combination of the two. I start the bait rig out in the wade gut. If I see no action there in the first half hour, or so, I’ll start casting farther and farther, until hopefully I find where the fish are. Following setting the bait rod out, I’ll check the wade gut for any bait that might be showing. I might even make a few blind casts with the net, but I don’t usually have much, if any, success with the cast net during the winter. Next I’ll rig the long rods and the kayak. The two yakked rigs will be the first to go out, so they get rigged first. With any luck, by the time I’ve got those two rods and the kayak ready to go, the bait rod has produced a nice whiting for me. If not, I’ll bait one yakked rod with one of my frozen whiting or mullet, and the other yakked rod with a fresh crab. During the winter, I typically drop one bait out about 200 yards and the other 30 to 50 yards farther than that. These will often be the baits that get the most action during the winter.
Incidentally, I usually keep my bait rod in the water while I’m yakking those baits, but I’m very careful to insure that the drag is light enough that the rod won’t be pulled in should something big decide to eat one of those small baits. I’ve caught both bull reds and big uglies on the bait rod. Either one will certainly snatch a rig away if you’re not prepared.
Following the yakked rigs, I cast two more rigs baited in a similar fashion. I will keep my baits divided 50/50 between crabs and fish unless one or the other is getting hit much more often on a given day. While I sometimes put a long rod bait in the wade gut during the summer, I cast all winter baits from the first bar. I will try to cast one farther than the other. All the rigs, whether yakked or casted, are also fanned out from each other to provide as much separation between baits as possible. I like to cover as much ground as I can with my baits.

Here is my typical beach setup.
The two yakked rigs are in the truck rack holders. The bait rod is nearest to the camera, and the two casted rigs are farthest away.

During the fishing day, I continually analyze what’s happening, and adjust as necessary. For instance, if the fish are showing a decided preference for one type of bait over another, I’ll bait an additional rod with that bait. If the fish seem to be hanging at a particular distance off the beach, I’ll put an additional rod out that distance. One thing I will not do is relocate. I know people who will give up on a location and either move or quit and go home if they haven’t caught a fish in two or three hours. I’ve had many trips where I had no action for several hours, then caught several fish in the next hour or two. Once I’m onsite, I’m committed for the day.

One thing I want to specifically mention is the way the fish often take baits in the winter. During the warm weather, and warm water, months, we sometimes assume that our sharks and bull reds are going to pick up a bait and head for Cuba as fast as they can. We all love the sound of those screaming runs. We often have a different ball game in the winter. While some fish will still take off on a screaming run, many more will take the bait much more timidly. It is not unusual to have a fish do one of two things. Some will simply bounce the rod tip a few times, almost like you have a hardhead working on the bait. On some of these fish, if you wait them out, they will eventually eat the bait and move off. Others will lay out there and work on the bait until it’s gone, especially if the bait is a crab. I will usually opt to pick up the rod and feel for the fish. If I continue to feel them working on the bait, I’ll attempt to set the hook. I’ll hook up the majority of the time. The other thing the fish will often do is start dropping slack. Sometimes the drop will be subtle, but other times they’ll be running beachward so fast it’s hard to catch up with them. In either case, I’ll reel up to them and pause. If they continue to drop slack, I’ll reel tight again and set the hook. If when I reel tight the first time I don’t feel them, I’ll wait for them to do something else. Usually, they’ll eventually either resume dropping slack, or they’ll turn around and head in the other direction. Again, the biggest danger is letting them fool around with the bait long enough to strip it. In either case, the key is continually watching your rods. Even subtle clues can lead to fish on the beach, if you’re paying attention.
If the plan comes together, there will be plenty of action to make it worthwhile, but even if I just catch a couple of fish, I’ve had a fun day.

Once back home, I log my trip and use the opportunity to analyze what happened during that day. I try to note any significant details, no matter how small because they may help me next year, or the year after.
Well, there you have it. This is certainly not the only way to approach winter surf fishing, but it’s worked very well for me for years. Hopefully it will work for you too.

Article by: bigfost

4 Responses to “Winter Fishing”

  1. Carlos Says:

    Its seems like your a really experience fisherman. I was given a rod and went fishing for the first time and was hooked. Do you have any tips or locations for someone who just started? I have only been to the Jetties at South Padre Island and the Pier in Port Isabel. I have a blast everytime I go, but Its often that I catch little to know fish. Any info will help Thanks!


  2. Carlos Says:

    **It seems like your a really experience fisherman. I was given a rod and went fishing for the first time and was hooked. Do you have any tips or locations for someone who just started? I have only been to the Jetties at South Padre Island and the Pier in Port Isabel. I have a blast everytime I go, but Its often that I catch little to no fish. Any info will help Thanks!


  3. williamthomasrice Says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I made the mistake of having my reels to close together, and the lines got twisted, tangled, and intertwined. It took me several hours to straighten that mess out. I also struggle with the current bringing in my bait fish. I never realized location, current, and wind played a factor as to where to fish. I also beleive in staying in the area that you have selected. Man, those are some big fish you caught, do you use the Giant whiting, or whatever they are as bait for shark once caught?

  4. Drew Says:

    Great article. Has me itching to go

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