For hardcore anglers, myself among them, just about any fishing is better than none at all. It’s not even necessarily a matter of traveling to a warmer climate. It’s the fishing, which is why I sometimes toss piles of fleece and Gore-Tex into the truck and head for a winter steelhead river, where I can wade happily for hours and cast along the edges of icy slush. Sometimes I catch something, but mostly it’s just a way to scratch the deep itch of winter.
Winter is also an opportune time to fish those places you’ve always wanted to try or for those species that have always fascinated you. Some years back, I fished with a longtime Florida bass guide who confessed in a quiet moment that his lifelong dream was to go tarpon fishing. This seemed odd since there was good tarpon action off the coast, a scant 60 miles away. When I asked why he hadn’t tried it, he shrugged and said, “I dunno. Just never got around to it, I guess. But someday.”
Don’t let that kind of inertia get the best of you. Whether you’re a young turk thrashing the water or an old-timer who takes fish with more guile than energy, fishing time travels a one-way street. “If the fishing is good, go now,” Lee Wulff told me years ago, “because tomorrow may be too late.”
Here are 15 top winter fishing destinations in the Lower 48. They aren’t the only ones. But I was trying for geographic variety so that most readers could reach one or more without having to spring for an airline ticket. So, check the list, check your gear, and scratch the itch.
1. OCEAN RUNNERS [WASHINGTON]
Steelhead in the Pacific Northwest are perhaps the most intensely politicized fish on earth. They are big, beautiful, and hard to catch. Their runs have been decimated by decades of habitat loss and overfishing. Freshwater trout are a sport, but oceangoing steelhead are a passion. It is a tilting-at-windmills sort of fishing, hard labor in lousy weather, all for the rare thrill of a violent yank at the other end of the line.
There are still fishable winter runs of both wild and hatchery steelhead on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, perhaps the prettiest of all the regions they call home. Hatchery steelhead, identified by a clipped adipose fin, start returning to coastal rivers by mid-November in most years. These runs usually peak in December, with fish averaging 5 to 9 pounds and occasionally reaching 15 pounds or more. By mid-January, wild fish, commonly 10- to 12-pounders with a few at 20 pounds or more, have often started their winter run. Even 30-pounders are possible, though exceedingly rare.
Steelheading on the peninsula revolves around the little town of Forks, Washington, in the northwestern corner. It’s near the Sol Duc, Calawah, and Bogachiel Rivers, which together form the Quillayute system. Other well-known steelhead rivers, such as the Hoh, Queets, and Quinalt, are a short distance south, along the western side of the peninsula. It is all difficult fishing under uncertain weather conditions, whether you’re using fly or conventional tackle. A heavy downpour can make a river almost unfishable for days at a time, and it rains a lot here. The fishing is really bad when it’s bad, unforgettable when it’s good.
2. SKI-SLOPE TROUT [COLORADO]
There are some truly crazy trout fishermen in Colorado, where tire chains and four-wheel-drive vehicles are basic equipment for winter fishing. If those can’t get you to your favorite December water—and yes, that happens—you may need a snowmobile, too. Flyfishing for snowbound trout isn’t about to replace alpine skiing as a growth industry here, but in recent years it’s been getting increasingly serious attention.
Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, Steamboat—scratch deeply enough around any major Colorado ski resort and you’ll find at least a few winter flyfishers. They’ve figured out that as long as there’s some open, flowing water nearby, the trout will eat something no matter how cold it is outside. They’ve also learned that the same sort of high-tech clothing that makes skiing pleasurable makes winter trout fishing bearable, too. Just trade your breathable ski bibs for breathable waders and wear fleece underneath. The water you’re standing in will likely be warmer than the air anyway.
The best such fishing comes in tailwaters because water flowing from the bottom of a dam is warmer than that in a free-stone stream full of slushy ice chunks. This means more active trout. One way you can approach them is with the Steamboat Powdercats, operating out of Steamboat Springs in northern Colorado. For $350 a day, they’ll take two people by snowmobile into the Yampa River tailwater below Stagecoach Dam, which happens to be full of feisty 16- to 20-inch rainbows. They provide waders and tackle; you provide your own warm clothes.
A little more civilized (insert snooty sniff here) option is on the fabled Fryingpan tailwater near Aspen. It’s a 14-mile stretch, which stays open all winter, where big rainbows and browns feast on Mysis shrimp flushed out of Ruedi Reservoir upstream. You can drive to this one as long as the canyon road upstream from Basalt has been cleared. The biggest rainbow I’ve taken in Colorado came to a small midge fished here during a late-season snowstorm. I froze my butt and loved every minute of it.
3. FRESH STRIPES [GEORGIA]
It’s a little hard for many out-of-staters to think of Georgia as a striped-bass power-house, but consider these notes: The state-record striper is a mammoth 63-pounder taken from the Oconee River in 1967. Ancient history, you say? Nope. In 2002, another giant a few ounces shy of 60 pounds came from Lake Hartwell along the Georgia–South Carolina border. And while bait-fishing is usually preferred for big stripers here, just last fall a flyfisherman caught and released a 43-pounder from the Chattahoochee River below West Point Dam. Clearly, this is serious striper country.
Georgia has long aggressively stocked the species in many of its major lakes. As with most landlocked striped bass fishing in the southeastern United States, the bite peaks in winter. Stripers turn on in the cold, feeding on schools of shad and blue-back herring. Most of the action is found in the state’s northern half, although there’s some as far down as Lake Seminole, in the extreme south. Top waters include Clarks Hill and Hartwell Lakes in the northeast, both part of the Savannah River system; Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River system just northeast of Atlanta; and the Coosa River system in the northwest, which has one of the very few naturally reproducing freshwater striper populations (the fish are normally anadromous). For those who can’t take stripers without a hint of salt, the lower, tidal reaches of the Savannah River also host a fairly good winter fishery.
A striper is a striper, and the same fundamental rule applies here as everywhere else they’re found: Find the baitfish, and you’ll find the bass. In winter, shad and herring schools tend to congregate in the lower reaches of major reservoirs or the lower ends of creek-mouth tributaries. Catch some with a cast net, then either live-line them around the edges of bait-fish schools or slow-troll them as you search for active stripers. Wide-spool bait-casting reels loaded with 20-pound-test monofilament are the general rule. Make sure yours has a very good drag.
4. SMOOTH SAILING [FLORIDA]
You might be a snowbird looking for an easy daylong fishing break from a Disneyworld tour. Or you might be a serious angler heading south for the best Florida can offer. In either case, you’re in the right place at the right time. Short of exotic venues such as Guatemala or Costa Rica, southeast-coastal Florida sailfishing in December and January is as good as it gets.
Yes, you can do this, even if you’re a raw beginner who has never caught anything but bluegills back home. Skilled charter captains along Florida’s Sailfish Alley, from Fort Pierce south through Miami and the Keys, bring an exciting day’s fishing well within the reach of complete novices. A typical charter includes everything you’ll need but your jacket and camera. All it takes is some enthusiasm and a willingness to listen and learn as your captain and mate find the fish (and even hook it for you, if need be).
You’ll need your checkbook, of course, but even that part’s not too bad considering it’s a chance to finally live the dream. Prevailing rates run about $700 to $1,000 a day and $450 to $650 for a half day. That covers the boat, meaning it can usually be split among as many as six people. At those rates, you’ll get a comfortable craft in the 30- to 40-foot range or larger. Smaller charters might bounce you around a little more on rough days offshore but usually cost less, too. Remember, this is fishing; there are no guarantees. But in recent seasons, skilled skippers and anglers have been getting as many as 20 or 25 sailfish releases on a good day, so the odds are on your side.
Sailfish are on their winter migration southward in peak numbers at this time and are typically caught well within sight of land, commonly from 2 to 7 miles offshore. On average they weigh about 40 pounds and are about 7 feet long; the Florida state-record Atlantic sailfish topped 116 pounds. They are known for savage surface strikes on trolled or drifted baits, followed by a blazing run and tail-walking acrobatics across the surface. Catch-and-release predominates, thanks in part to the increasing use of circle-style hooks. Have the boat’s mate take your picture before releasing the fish. I guarantee that for at least a day you’ll forget about Mickey Mouse entirely.
5. FAT CATS [SOUTH CAROLINA]
Getting the winter blues down South can be a very good thing, especially if those blues have whiskers. The Santee-Cooper Reservoir complex in southeastern South Carolina, also known as Lakes Marion and Moultrie, is a renowned, year-round hotspot for blue, flathead, and channel catfish. The state-record blue cat-fish, weighing 109 pounds, was taken here, as was the world-record channel cat of 58 pounds. When the temperature plummets, though, the fishing for jumbo blue cats really heats up.
As the waters cool in early winter, vast schools of threadfin shad start to bunch up while slowing their open-water activity. By December, they tend to be concentrated off lakeshore points and around underwater humps and other structure, where they’re easy pickings for the catfish. To catch them, fishermen first net some small shad for bait, then use depthfinders to search for shad schools on or near bottom structure, knowing that big blues will be close at hand.
A 1- to 2-ounce sinker keeps the bait near the bottom. About 2 feet of 20-pound-test monofilament leader extends from a swivel at the sinker to a 4/0 hook carrying two or three fresh shad. Low-stretch braided main line enhances bite detection, but 20- to 25-pound-test monofilament is more common. Circle hooks are becoming more widely used. They’re easier to remove, as most fish will be hooked in the jaw. Many guides use multiple rods when anchored over a hotspot. The action can be nonstop, with catches measured by wheelbarrow loads of blue cats averaging 5 to 10 pounds. Twenty- to 30-pounders are relatively common, and there’s always a chance for a fish three times that size or even larger.
6. FOOTBALL SEASON [ARKANSAS]
Here are three good reasons to consider fishing Arkansas’ fabulous White River tailwater this winter. First, there’s nobody around, and the trout are lonely. Second, because it’s tailwater fishing, water temperatures generally remain in the 50s to low 60s, so trout are active all winter. And third, Crazy Mike Neher said so.
The last time I fished with Neher, a veteran White River guide who is not the least bit crazy, in spite of his nickname, I asked him about his first choice among seasons on the river. “I’d fish in February and March for trophies,” he said, “and sleep the rest of the time.” Usually sometime in February, in some years as early as January, water temperatures in the upstream reservoir drop low enough to start killing schools of small shad. The dead and dying fish pass through the dam and into the tailwater currents, where big trout go nuts over the suddenly abundant bait. There is no better time here to take browns of 5 pounds or better.
There are 50 miles of good trout fishing on the main-stem White below Bull Shoals Dam in the northern Arkansas Ozarks, and tributaries such as the Norfork and Little Red are productive tailwaters in their own right. Because electrical power demand tends to slacken as winter sets in, flows are often reduced, which makes the fishing even easier, especially flyfishing. You won’t have green leaves and flowers, but you probably won’t have snow either. Daytime highs are generally in the 60s. And while the action holds up well through December and January, in late winter it gets even better.
7. A BRONZE MEDAL [ALABAMA]
Located in southwestern Tennessee, Pickwick Dam backs up the Tennessee River as a 50-mile-long reservoir along the Mississippi state border and well into northwestern Alabama. While the jurisdictions may be confusing, the fishing is not. Four current IGFA record smallmouth bass—three of them topping 8 pounds—were caught in Pickwick Lake.
One hotspot is the tailrace below Wilson Dam near Florence, Alabama, which is effectively Pickwick’s headwater. Boating anglers here drift in the current while jigging small soft-plastic grubs or casting bantam spinnerbaits along the edges of rock piles and shoals. The lake is usually drawn down 4 to 5 feet in winter, exposing more of the abundant structure and making the fish more accessible. It also increases the danger, as currents can be swift.
Fish-holding topography abounds in the rest of the lake, where points, under-water humps, and the deep edges of shoreline bluffs can all hold concentrations of bass. Both crayfish and threadfin shad are common forage for bass here, which makes both diminutive jigs and shad-imitating crankbaits logical choices. Patience is key, along with a willingness to try several lure variations and depths along a steep bluff face, for example, before moving to another spot. Six- or even 4-pound-test line will help with finessing light lures and trying to fool finicky fish.
8. HOG WALLOW [CALIFORNIA]
Let’s cut to the chase: 22 of the 25 largest largemouth bass ever taken (according to Bassmaster magazine) have come from small reservoirs in southern California. The daytime highs for December and January in much of the area average around 70. If you fish this region during the winter, you’ll probably be over some monsters. And you most likely won’t be shivering either, at least not from the cold.
That’s what everybody knows. Now it’s time to take a look at the fine print.
There are numerous water-supply reservoirs in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas. Some are open to fishing; some aren’t. Generally those that are part of a city aqueduct system have plenty of water, even in recent dry years. Others do not. Some are open to almost unlimited boat traffic. Others are not. It’s a hugely complicated puzzle that’s made even worse by the outrageous publicity given to occasional lunker catches. Dixon Lake, north of San Diego, has produced two largemouths over 20 pounds. What much of the attendant publicity failed to note is that Dixon is only 70 acres in size, a pond so small it seems like a silly place for a national-media stampede.
So here’s a sleeper for you, a big one. Diamond Valley Reservoir in Riverside County near Hemet, southeast of Los Angeles, is the newest and largest water-supply project in the area, having been completed in 2003. The lake is big for this region—4½ miles long by 2 miles wide—and has been generously stocked with both Florida-strain largemouths and rainbow trout, the combination that has made Southern California bass fishing so famous. Diamond Valley is open year-round from sunrise to sunset. There’s a boat ramp, but the types of outboard motors allowed are severely restricted. Rental boats are available at a marina on the lake.
9. STEEL MAGNET [NEW YORK]
It’s only 10 miles long, within easy reach of the urban Northeast, and it just may be one of the world’s best steelhead rivers. The lower Niagara, which carries the out-flow of Lake Erie from Niagara Falls to its mouth on Lake Ontario in extreme western New York, is big, fast, deep, and at times dangerous water. It’s also a magnet for Lake Ontario’s steelhead, plus brown and lake trout, especially in winter.
Before you grab your waders and head for the car, know that the best fishing here is by boat. Drift fishing provides the mobility needed to find active fish in the big river. And there’s considerable finesse required to catch them. As the area around the falls ices up toward midwinter, the flows downriver tend to stabilize and clear. Winter steelhead in clear water are among the world’s fussiest fish, and getting the right drift with a small spawn sack on a light leader is no easy matter. A good charter captain is essential. And having an experienced skipper at the helm adds safety when the water is close to freezing and the wind is howling down the canyon cut by the river. Day rates average about $300 for two people.
The payoff is in taking steelhead that average 5 to 10 pounds and can top 20 pounds. Brown and lake trout of similar size are a periodic bonus. Fortunately, the area, just north of Buffalo, has plenty of charter captains who go out all winter. Yes, it’s cold—sometimes very cold—but for this kind of fishing, who really cares?
10. BASS ON THE BORDER [TEXAS]
By what’s been written in recent years, you’d think Lake Fork near Dallas was the only bass lake in Texas. It isn’t, of course, but the attention given to its ability to pump out big bass has overshadowed dozens of other worthwhile waters. So here’s some advice for winter bass hunters shivering through yet another Dallas December: Go south.
It’s about a 480-mile drive from Dallas down to the 84,000-acre Falcon Reservoir on the Rio Grande at Zapata, Texas. When it comes to bass fishing, this is about as far south—and as warm in winter—as you can get and still be in the Lower 48. The international boundary with Mexico passes through the middle of the lake.
Fishing at Falcon is on a roll. After years of drought, rains starting in the fall of 2003 brought lake levels back to near normal, flooding newly grown shoreline brush in the process. All that cover has helped recently spawned juvenile largemouths to survive. That, combined with recent stocking programs, is starting to produce some outstanding fishing. Nor are all the bass little ones. It took a stringer of five of them averaging more than 5 pounds each to win a tournament here in March 2005, and a 14-pounder was caught the following month.
For winter bass anglers, the great advantage is warmth. Not only will the air and water at Falcon be at least a few degrees warmer during the winter than at more popular north Texas lakes, but the area is also less susceptible to the cold fronts that hit places like Lake Fork. Viva Zapata!
Can’t find what you’re looking for? Here are five more spots with enough hot action to get your blood moving this winter.
|Hatteras stripers||Massive schools of wintering striped bass are usually active along North Carolina’s Outer Banks beaches by December.||Among numerous surf-fishing outfitters, Hatteras Jack’s in Rodanthe is tops. 252-987-2428; hatterasjack.com|
|Michigan steelhead||Big winter-run steelhead are common in Great Lakes tributaries along Michigan’s western and eastern shorelines.||Matt Supinski’s Gray Drake Lodge on the Muskegon River is a good place to start. 231-652-2868; graydrake.com|
|Florida bass||Sunshine State bass fishing holds up all winter, with some largemouths active in prespawn mode by January.||Check with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for details. 850-488-0331; floridafisheries.com|
|San Francisco stripers||Bay- and Delta-area striper fishing often holds up well into December. A boat and a guide are a must.||To find out what’s biting and where, check with J.D. Richey Sportfishing at 916-388-1956; thesportfisher.com|
|New Mexico trout||The San Juan River tailwater below Navajo Dam near Farmington, New Mexico, has great winter fishing for big rainbow trout.||Abe’s Motel and Fly Shop near the dam is close to the action. 505-632-2194; sanjuanriver.com|
Photograph courtesy Dan Estudiante/Flickr