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Spinfishing open water in winter

Blog by: Bill Prater , CO 2/3/2020
As a Midwesterner who migrated to northern Colorado four decades ago, I eventually embraced ice fishing. But I still canít make it all winter without longing to make an occasional good, long cast and retrieve. You do have to work for your open water, deep winter fishing opportunities around here, but they are possible and can be terrific. You just have to use whatever Mother Nature is willing to give you from December through March, and be prepared for an occasional skunk.

We're not talking about Florida or high country ice-off here, but "right in the heart of winter" Colorado fishing with spinning gear. We can talk later about ice fishing or fly fishing tailwaters; weíre concentrating now on spinning gear to fool trout in temporarily unfrozen, still water lakes and ponds. Some of you are probably whizzes at getting warm water species to bite in the winter around here, and I dimly recall succeeding occasionally in places like Illinois and Missouri. But my favorite quarry is the same species most of us are after while ice fishing:  trout. You can choose to believe all those Southern Good Old Boy professional fishing shows about wintertime bass fishing. But to me they rely on techniques, water temperatures and a climate unlike anything around here. High altitude and frigid nights are the main culprits. You live here, you learn to fish in the cold.

It took me years to appreciate the virtues of the Westís cold water species -- after retirement, really, before realizing that trout have a unique metabolism that can extend your fishing season tremendously. A slow learner, it took me years to realize that trout donít go dormant from late fall to early spring, and in fact prefer icy places to chase bugs and minnows. In my defense, bass do kind of develop lock jaw, and most anglers around here hang up their spinning gear with the arrival of cold, not to emerge until dogwoods are in bloom.

Except for big, deep lakes like Carter and Horsetooth, most slack waters in northeastern Colorado develop an ice cap, sometimes but not always thick enough to stand on and drill into. Those wide open lakes do hold opportunities. But to me, at least, their fish seem scattered and hard to locate, especially in these days of aquatic nuisance inspectors, when we canít narrow our search by launching motor boats in the ďoff season.Ē So I much prefer smaller bodies of water in winter, mostly former sand and gravel ponds, ones where at least some of the ice cap occasionally melts around the edges. Yeah, most are covered most of the winter with ice of varying thickness, and most arenít stocked with trout. But some of them are.

Hereís where our sport parallels hunting: if you want to fish open water in February, you usually have to really search to find a big enough hole in the ice. Start in places where you found fish in spring and fall; just don't expect to find them everywhere. Speculate on places where some open water may be deeper than the water around it, and where the water might catch more warmth from the sun. Donít just look at one or two ponds, either. An east, west or north side of a body of water may open enough to be fishable one day and inexplicably ice-capped the next. And one pond may be open, but the one next to it, probably the one stocked in the fall, may be socked in for the season. Remember that a stout chinook wind freezes hands and butts, but it can also alter the fishing equation by opening up opportunities. So watch for warming trends and sunny skies.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife stocks hundreds of lakes and ponds each spring and fall. Some are specifically intended to create ice fishing opportunities; others are meant to provide fishing in spring and summer. When they decide where to stock, I donít think our biologist friends give much thought to an angler seeking open water in January, but their fish are in there somewhere, and sometimes willing to eat, big ones just as likely as the newly stocked.

Watch the sky and the weather forecasts, and dress warmly, giving special thought to how youíre going to keep your ears and hands warm. You may find fish arenít hugging the usual spots reachable by a cast from shore. Move around often, remember that your prey are also on the prowl, and try to guess where the water may be warmest. Just as they do in other seasons, most trout remain on the move. Look for humps and dips, and what's left of good weed beds. And you donít have to limit yourself to bank fishing. Your float tube works just as well in the winter as summer, if you keep it pumped up, and honest, fishing with your feet in the water is not as cold as it sounds. Remember, the water may be warmer than the air above it. Take along a towel to help keep your hands dry.

I am not one to fish Power Bait or other bottom baits, but I suppose theyíll work. Use barbless hooks, smaller baits than in other seasons, fish more slowly, and treat your catch as gently as you would the rest of the year. Though trout remain quite active, theyíre still cold blooded, and wonít chase baits as quickly as they will in spring. Use light line, a sensitive rod and a small jig fished slowly up and down the water column.  Above all, move your favorite bait as slowly as possible. You can always speed up.
Rainbow from temporarily open local pond on Groundhog Day...
Blog content © Bill Prater
Blog Comments
ass bass or cash, 2/4/2020 11:15:11 PM
Good stuff Bill, nice fish too. I may just have to get my float tube out before too long. Spring Fever has set in earlier than usual this year, I think due to the early start to winter in October and the relatively nice weather we've had since early December. See you on the water!
The Cat001, 2/9/2020 7:23:42 PM
Excellent article Bill with lots of good information for those of us who like to get out the old long rods and try to fish during the winter months. I am always on the lookout for open water to cast a line into. When I do find a patch of open water I prefer to keep my tackle gear backpack on my back while I fish with my light power, fast action rod and spinning reel. That way I can feel even the slightest of bites and easily move to another area of open water if I am not getting anything. Of course the weather is usually pretty bad so I come prepared with my heavy arctic boots, gloves, hand warmers, and other cold weather gear. Its worth it though. I've caught some of my best trout and other species in some of the worst weather conditions your average person would never think of venturing into.
nparker, 2/11/2020 8:40:21 AM
I have caught more trout this January than ever before using my fly rod. Very slow retrieves work best. these lakes have refrozen now but I will keep an eye on them.
cisum, 2/15/2020 12:01:06 PM
Iíll even throw a weighted anything on a rope to open up an icecap, done it up at Barbour ponds up in Longmont still fun throwing back small stocker trout, and occasional Crappie.
ELVIS, 2/18/2020 5:25:07 AM
Yes an excellent article enjoyed reading it !!! I did not now that you can take out your tub as early as January / February and be safe on open water , I was afraid doing so because of the cold water temp. Always waited until May to take my tub out .
Bill Prater (fishthumpre), 2/18/2020 11:43:59 AM
On taking your tube out this time of year: probably not the sanest thing I do, but I mostly keep to smaller waters, only launch where you won't risk a spill, and get off if it gets windy. If you were long johns and fleece wader pants you can stay warm for hours, without needing neoprene, even when half or more of a pond is ice capped. For me the main issue is keeping hands warm. You'll want a towel handy to keep them dry.