It can be a test of character as well as tackle to be a winter angler. But if you can keep warm and fish smart, it can be a great time of year to catch fish in pristine condition. Following our last blog post on cold weather waterfcraft and venues, here are a further selection of winter fishing tips from our staff and ambassadors, guaranteed to keep you catching!
1. If in doubt, start with maggots!
If it’s really brass monkeys, few baits are better than maggots or pinkies. Rather than trying to catch the biggest fish in the river or lake, it’s sensible to start by simply fishing for bites by trickling in maggots. If there are larger fish around, they’ll often come and have a look at some stage if you keep gently buldling the swim. The only drawback at present is that you might need to order in advance and collect your bait. If you can find a tackle shop that offers this option, do buy an extra pint or two for the fridge!
2. Precision is key
There are times in the year when we can happily scatter bait over quite a generous area to get the fish in the mood. Winter isn’t one of them! In fact, when fish are in energy saving mode they might not want to move much at all, so accuracy is critical. Don’t leave it to chance; use a pole cup or bait dropper to ensure what little you feed is exactly where you want it.
3. Switch to finer lines & smaller hooks
Frosty weather not only tends to make for less energetic fish, but clearer water. They will be less tolerant of thick lines or large hooks, so it’s time to scale down. A 20 or 22 isn’t too small for maggots and pinkies. That said, specimen and carp anglers should also consider going right down to 10s and 12s. Small, strong hooks require much less force to get a solid hook hold than a size 6 or 8, especially when the fish may not be in any mood to “bolt” off very energetically.
4. Get perfect float presentation with a dab of vaseline or mucilin
Once the water gets close to freezing on natural venues like canals and drains, the fish can give quite pathetically gentle bites. Use a thick-tipped float and most of us would struggle to see half of them! One excellent tip with a fine-bristled float is to dot it down so that it virtually sinks, before adding a smear of vaseline or mucilin to the float bristle. A mere dimple showing is perfect, allowing even a small, lacklustre fish to pull the tip under. It also works with fine insert wagglers.
5. Go natural for carp
Summer favourites don’t always work for carp once the temperatures really drop. More sparing helpings of bait and sweeter boilies are sensible, but if smaller fish are not a major issue, a bunch of maggots or hair-rigged worm sections can be unbeatable for carp of all sizes. That said, prawns might be associated more with perch, but are another fabulous alternative for carp; try just one large hair-rigged hookbait over a few finely chopped pieces.
6. Mix it up for winter rainbows
When it comes to trout fishing, one of the biggest ironies is that our many day ticket stillwaters tend to be quiet during some of the best months of the year. Rainbow trout thrive in far colder places than Britain and can be relied on for sport on the bitterest days. Even if you only occasionally cast a fly, now is the time to get out and get that string well and truly pulled!
That’s not to say things will always be easy, especially if the weather has been unstable. Indeed, there are two very different styles of fishing that I’d try to beat iffy conditions. One is to pull a lure and forget it’s winter with a lively retrieve. Freshly stocked rainbows, in particular, will still smash lures such as Vivas, Cat’s Whiskers or my favourite, the odd but deadly Rubber-Legs Daddy.
If the fish are wiser or catch and release is the norm, however, the opposite approach can be best. Fishing natural patterns slowly requires more patience but can also work a treat- and the “static buzzer” method can be best of all for fish that stay deep and won’t chase.
7. Get on the bread for silvers and chub
If you want a bag of roach at this time of year, bread can be the best bait of all for slow flowing rivers and canals. A good tip to get a really fine liquidised mix is to put slices through a blender, then freeze, then blend again. For extra effectiveness, you can even try adding a pinch of crushed hemp or salt.
Of course, bread is also an excellent chub bait in a cold, clear river. Tiny bits of punch just don’t cut it for these big-mouths, though. Instead, go for a meaty, thumbnail sized bit of flake over some mashed bread. One supremely easy way of preparing some loosefeed on the bank is simply to take a few slices in a landing net head, dunk in the edge of the water and give them a good working over (above). Voila, bread mash in seconds!
8. Slow it down for winter dropshot success
Perch are another reliable species for the winter angler, but most of us tend to retrieve lures too quickly. A drop shot presentation can be excellent in deeper spots, with a patient retrieve. Meanwhile, with standard jigs or a Ned Rig, you might think about incorporating longer pauses to give lethargic fish time to react. When the going gets really tricky, you can even try drop shotting with a real section of worm, which brings us to our next tip…
9. Chop some free bait
For winter perch, not to mention chub and carp, chopped worm can sometimes pull in fish like no other bait. And while you wouldn’t always start on worms, it’s always worth having a few for when all else fails! For any angler with a garden, it’s a no-brainer to start a compost heap with kitchen scraps and have a ready supply of free bait.
When it’s really icy cold, you might need to feed sparingly, but half a dozen well-chopped dendrobaena worms, perhaps with just a pinch of groundbait and a few pinkies or maggots, is a great way to encourage a response. Two broken halves of worm on a size 12-14 hook, or half a lobworm on a size 6-8 is a fabulous bait for perch.
10. Use a longer pole line for spooky fish
The finesse of pole fishing can make it the best of all methods, but be warned that clear winter waters can mean spooky fish that need extra caution! Try a longer length of line between the tip to avoid your pole tip waving right over their heads.
11. Try a moving bait
Trotting with the flow of a river is one of the most enjoyable of all winter methods. You won’t go too far wrong with maggots on most rivers, but do be prepared to slow the float down a bit and present the bait right on the bottom if necessary. If anything, most anglers tend to use a float that is on the small side, when a larger model provides better control. The really fine models are better left to expert match anglers!
Incidentally, it might be about as fashionable as underwater cricket, but trotting a dead bait for pike can also be a great method. Try setting the bait just past mid depth, so on a river of 6ft depth, suspend that bait 3-4ft down. You’ll cover a heck of a lot more water than you would with static baits and with the fish forced to make their minds up on the spot, bites tend to be nice and positive. This method also works a treat with gold or red dyed baits.
12. Try a fly for predators
Finally, still on the topic of pike, one message that seems stuck on repeat recently has been how tough predator fishing has been. Up and down conditions are part of the cause, but it’s also true that these fish have never been under more pressure. This is why it’s always good to try something different.
Fly fishing has, without a shadow of a doubt, become my most productive winter method. One reason for this is that you can fish a fly much more slowly than most lures, and they have a bewitching, subtle quality pike can’t resist. Whatever the truth of it, a large fly is always worth a cast when the temperature drops, or on any venue where predators have seen a hundred and one jigs, plugs and spinners. I also find a single, debarbed hook much easier to remove and kinder to these fragile fish.
Stay safe and get your fishing fix every week with us!
We hope you enjoyed this blog and are able to keep fishing safely and locally. However, there will also be those who cannot get out right now, or have questions about the latest rules and restrictions. Don’t forget to keep checking our dedicated Covid-19 support section, which has regular updates and answers many common questions. Meanwhile, you can also find fresh weekly content at Fishing Buzz, which has great reads, videos and more for fans of all branches of angling at a click!
Pictures for this article are courtesy of Dominic Garnett. You can catch his “Last Cast” column every week in the Angling Times, while you’ll also find further words, photography and his various angling books at dgfishing.co.uk