Adventure/Travel: 15 winter fishing hot spots

The best spots for stripers, largemouth, smallmouth, sailfish, steelhead, snowbound rainbows, sun-splashed catfish, and 8 other places you need to go this winter.

Field & Stream Online Editors

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.

Table of Contents

[NEXT "Washington"]

1 Ocean Runners [BRACKET "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 f, 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.

Contact: For details on local accommodations and fishing guides, see the Forks Chamber of Commerce website at forkswa.com. Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest cover much of the land area. For regulations and other information, see nps.gov/olym and www.fs.fed.us/r6/olympic. [NEXT "Colorado"]

2 Ski-Slope Trout [BRACKET "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 freestone 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.

Contact: Check out Steamboat Powdercats at steamboatpowdercats.com/vacation/fly_fishing.htm. For general winter trout fishing information, check the Colorado Division of Wildlife website at wildlife.state.co.us/fishing. [NEXT "Georgia"]

3 Fresh Stripes [BRACKET "Georgia"]
It's a little hard for many out-of-staters to think of Georgia as a striped-bass powerhouse, 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 baitfishing 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 blueback 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 baitfish schools or slow-troll them as you search for active stripers. Wide-spool baitcasting reels loaded with 20-pound-test monofilament are the general rule. Make sure yours has a very good drag.

Contact: Your trip planning should start with the Wildlife Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' excellent website at georgiawildlife.dnr.state.ga.us. You can find a list of striper guides at 1fghp.com/ga. [NEXT "Florida"]

4 Smooth Sailing [BRACKET "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 Wildlife website at wildlife.state.co.us/fishing. [NEXT "Georgia"]

3 Fresh Stripes [BRACKET "Georgia"]
It's a little hard for many out-of-staters to think of Georgia as a striped-bass powerhouse, 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 baitfishing 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 blueback 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 baitfish schools or slow-troll them as you search for active stripers. Wide-spool baitcasting reels loaded with 20-pound-test monofilament are the general rule. Make sure yours has a very good drag.

Contact: Your trip planning should start with the Wildlife Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' excellent website at georgiawildlife.dnr.state.ga.us. You can find a list of striper guides at 1fghp.com/ga. [NEXT "Florida"]

4 Smooth Sailing [BRACKET "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