Although I scratch my fishing itch all winter long by chasing trout, I yearn for the warm days of Spring. Although the coming of Spring also means a great trout fishery, what I am longing for are lazy afternoons on my local ponds and lakes chasing panfish and bass. As the longer days slowly melt the winter’s ice off the surface of my favorite lakes, it usually takes a few weeks of sunny days and milder temperatures to get warm water fish to shake off their winter sluggishness. Early on the fish seem to drift back and forth between their deep and shallow water haunts. A few warm sunny days in a row will bring them into the shallows, but the first cold snap will make them retreat to the same depths in which they spent their winter.
When the fish are in the shallows, they are not behaving like they do in late spring and summer. They will eat but not with the gusto they demonstrate during warmer weather. My fishing has taught me that when the water is cold smaller, slow moving flies are the key to success at least when it concerns bluegills and other panfish. Fishing in late winter /early spring also means subsurface flies here in the northeast. I specify my part of the country because those living in the south may enjoy good top water fishing year round. The best I can hope for here in New Jersey is sporadic fish rising to midges. Fishing a size 18 or 20 midges is not as enjoyable as fishing a popper or foam bug, so I stick to sub-surface presentations.
My favorite way to fish is with soft hackle flies. Soft hackles to a good job imitating a host of underwater life forms. Bluegills will readily take a soft hackle pattern any time of the year. During cold water periods, you do need to modify how you present these flies. In warm water conditions, there is seldom a wrong way to fish a soft hackle. Retrieve them fast, retrieve them slowly, long strips, short strips, pauses or constant retrieve all seem to work when the fish’s metabolism is high. In cold water conditions, the fish react differently. They will seldom chase down a potential meal, at best they seem to casually follow a fly not willing to expend the energy to grab it. Accordingly, retrieves must often be made painfully slow. The way a bluegill in cold water takes a fly is drastically different than the way they will do it in mid-summer. Cold water takes are usually very subtle, sometimes barely perceptible. Fishing the same pattern in June would result in a substantial grab that would be unmistakable!
I prefer to scale down my offerings when fishing in early spring. I will almost never fish a soft hackle larger than a size 12, often preferring to stay in the size 14 or 16 range, occasionally going as small as a size 18. I also modify my retrieve in cold water conditions. I attempt to keep my retrieve as smooth as possible with little in the way or jerks or twitches. To accomplish this, I typically retrieve the fly with slow sweeps of the rod or a constant slow figure eight hand twist method. Slow in this case means S…L…O…W…I can’t emphasize that enough! Strike detection becomes more of a visual game. Takes will be indicated by slight twitches or disturbances where the leader meets the water, sometimes you may be able to feel it, but very often it is more visual. Whether I fish with a floating line in the shallow water near the bank or an intermediate line farther from shore I use the retrieval methods.
To get the recipe for the Black Pennell Wet Fly click here.
In regards to flies, I will start out with drab natural colors early in the season. A Black Pennell Wet, Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle, Partridge and Olive Soft Hackle or Hares Ear Soft Hackle are all good flies to try. As the season progresses and the fish get a little more active I think they begin to show a preference for brighter patterns like a McGinty, California Coachman Soft Hackle or a Partridge and Yellow.
Winged wet flies are often good producers during this time of year. One of my favorites the Pass Lake Special can be tied in both drab and bright color schemes making it a very versatile fly pattern. For cold water conditions, I like to fish the Pass Lake with a black, brown or olive calf tail wing instead of the traditional white.
To get the recipes for all of my variations of the Pass Lake Special click here.
These small flies are great to fish on light two or three weight outfits. They are also ideally suited for fishing on a tenkara rod, which is my preferred method for presenting these flies. Although I am limited in my casting distance, I am typically fishing close to the bank, so it’s not much of a disadvantage. Retrieving the flies is down with a slow (and I emphasize SLOW) sweep of the rod. I keep the rod tip low to the surface of the water and begin a slow sweep towards the shore. I then raise the rod once it reaches the shoreline, this allows the fly to swim slowly and smoothly. The biggest advantage of a tenkara rod when using this technique is strike detection. By watching the tip of the rod and not the leader you can easily see a hit. The tip of a tenkara rod is far lighter and more flexible than a standard fly rod. The tip will flex when a fish takes without offering enough resistance to the fish. If you react quickly, you can set the hook on a fish before they feel resistance to making them want to spit out the fly.
Most of my early season fishing is done from shore. If I am fishing with a buddy, I’ll consider taking out the kayak. Although you should always consider safety when fishing from a kayak, there is an increased risk in cold weather conditions. Hypothermia is a real threat should you find yourself in the water, so I feel better having a trusted friend in the vicinity to lend a hand with dealing with an overturned boat and re-entry. Casting to bank-side structure can bring results, but I will often walk the shoreline blind casting. If you have access to a dark bottom, shallow cove the fish may be anywhere as they seek out the warmer water found in these locations. Although the fish may not be a densely schooled up as they would be in their deep water winter areas, they do tend to migrate to the shallows in small groups so if you find one cover the same general area with a few more casts before moving on.
The time is upon us to get out there and try these techniques. I would love to hear from you if you have any other cold water fishing techniques you would like to share. Leave a comment or hit us up with an email on our Contact Us page.