Winter In The South
By Ken Trail
My clients and I were struggling and had only moved a couple fish all day. I decide to move back to a large flat and switch to Hot Tail dive-and-rise baits. Almost immediately on the first drift, we hooked up with a nice fish, and for the next couple hours enjoyed multiple encounters with three more fish hitting the bag, including a 49 1/2-inch pre-spawn tank! We had previously fished the flat several times already that day without success, but the moon was right and the fish moved in.
It’s winter time in the South and the bite is usually on. It’s the perfect time for some intense pre-spawn musky fishing. The females are eating hard to finish developing their eggs and are as big and healthy as they will be the entire season.
When & Where
I primarily fish the New and James rivers. They are similar, but very different as well. The New is much larger and provides more diverse habitat. Muskies have more room to roam and larger areas to feed, rest and stage. On the other hand, the James is typically a little more shallow and condensed. The fish are stacked up in very specific holes and a little easier to target.
Both rivers are outstanding musky fisheries. The average musky is around 39 to 40 inches with fish north of 50 inches caught every year. Lots of low to mid 40-inch fish provide outstanding fishing almost year-round. The fishery is sustained through natural reproduction, which has allowed the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to scale back its stocking efforts. We choose to not fish for them during the spawn month of April and, due to high water temperatures, during July and August as well. Aside from that, we have nine months of incredible fishing and winter is prime time.
Water temperatures are typically in the 40s in December and the muskies will have moved to their wintering locations, where they will stay until late February or early March. They will then begin to move and stage in their spawning locations. In winter, muskies move into the slower-moving, deeper stretches of our rivers. They like areas that have structure, such as flat edges, wood, and bigger “eddy” pockets. Eddies are areas that have a current break of some type immediately upstream of the hole, such as a rock shelf, big boulder, or a point extending out from the bank, that results in an area of slower-moving water.
In the winter, I’m usually only focusing on the larger eddy pockets that are formed by rock shelves or points. These will typically be 100 feet long by 50 feet wide at the minimum, and will have baitfish and other gamefish in them all winter. Focus on the stretches that have deep water and an adjacent flat, especially areas that have a sharp drop-off between the flat and deeper areas. I like these to be midriver and running parallel to the bank instead of across the river.
Ledges and edges that run across the river will also hold muskies. I have a few of these areas that I focus a lot of attention on all winter long. The fish have everything they want in those locations.
I typically start fishing the flats first in the mornings as they hold muskies that are there to feed, especially in lower light conditions. If I’m not contacting fish fairly quickly, I will then transition to the deeper areas. Lastly I’ll hit the edges, and I will always work the drop-offs every day. There are always fish hanging on the drops no matter the conditions or mood of the fish. Muskies like these drop-off areas for a variety of reasons, but most importantly, the baitfish are usually in these areas. Often it’s also the biggest structure around. Most of our edges/drop-offs are rock ledges and bedrock, are jagged and provide cover as well as hideouts to ambush baitfish, and actually provide some current break.
Muskies will move during the day as well, so I’m always checking the flats. When the fish get really active they will move into these areas to feed. On major moon times I will hit the flats and bigger eddies.
Other prime locations that should not be overlooked are the top and bottom of a hole. The river flow is transitioning in these areas and often holds actively-feeding muskies.
Knowing where the fish are is only half the battle. Consistent pressure from guides and recreational anglers on the aforementioned locations adds to the challenge. Water temperature, clarity, and weather are also major factors to catching fish consistently.
Typically our water in the winter months hangs from the mid-30s to low 40s, but a rapid rise or fall can change everything. The water can go from gin clear to muddy in 24 hours after a major rain or quick snow melt. Knowing how to approach these conditions will make you a better angler.
Weather in southwest Virginia is all over the place in the winter. We can go from highs of 55 to a high below 30 in consecutive days. Generally speaking, highs in the mid 40s and lows in the high 20s are common. When we receive an arctic blast, things can get tough quickly. In post-cold front conditions, I use baits that I can pause for several seconds, such as Musky Innovations’ Dyin’ Dawg or Shallow Magnum Bull Dawgs. Dive-and-rise, twitchbaits, and glide baits are also sure bets. Muskies will move deeper at times and I will use crankbaits to rub the bottom.
If there is a prolonged stretch of cold weather and the water temperatures really begin to take a nosedive, I focus on the deeper sections and will also move to areas below dams or warm water discharges. Feeder streams or smaller rivers discharging warmer water into the main river can be excellent winter musky locations. Typically we see deep green water color with four to five feet of visibility as an average, but heavy rain or quick snow melt can change that rapidly.
People will typically not fish when the color is bad, but if there’s a foot of visibility or more, I’m fishing. This is a time when big girls hit the net. With high turbidity and water, the fish seek shelter in locations such as big eddy holes and current break areas. At these times I will also pound the banks, as the fish will stack up right along the edges. They will still feed, and in my opinion the darker water color makes bigger muskies more susceptible to baits — they can’t study them and will just react.
I will usually cast bigger profile baits as well as those that vibrate hard or rattle. Very large, slow-rolled spinnerbaits can be effective. Brighter colors often work best but, in my opinion, this isn’t as big of a deal as others may think.
Go-To Winter Baits
I use a variety of lures in the winter, as do most guys. But there are definitely baits that are my go-to’s and will be on a rod every day in my boat during the winter months.
Glide baits are a staple in my boat year-round, but they are my go-to weapon in winter. I use Hot Tail Gliders’ regular size in the shallows the most. I also use Heavyweight and SloFlo gliders a fair amount as well. I use the offerings of several different glide bait manufacturers; just pick your favorite and use them a lot!
Musky Innovation Bull Dawgs are another staple in all conditions. I use both the Magnum and Regular sizes, depending on conditions and how fast I want them retrieved. A Dyin’ Dawg is a sure bet to see in my boat in the winter months. Fellow guide Rocky Droneburg got in my boat a few years back and made me a believer! The ability to pull and a pause a large profile bait this time of year is very important.
Crankbaits are, admittedly, not one of my favorite baits to fish but are important. I use a variety of crankbaits from different manufacturers such as Big Game Tackle, Baker, Marshall Tackle, Lynch’um, Hot Tail, B and N, etc. When the fish are hanging low there are days when only rubbing the bottom will get them to strike.
Get a jump start on your musky season and head south for some awesome pre-spawn musky action.
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