TIPS WINTER FISHING GUIDE By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton Where the Fish are Biting in Cold-Weather A breakdown of hot waters for winter fishing Multiple hook-ups with hard-fighting sportfish are almost a certainty when fishing blue-ribbon winter fishing destinations like Lake of the Woods on the U.S./Canada border. (Photo courtesy of Frabill) Mention the topic of cold-weather fishing and many folks will look at you like you’re crazy. Anglers who love warm-season fishing often refuse to launch a boat or walk the banks when the temperature drops and songbirds have headed south. Hunting when it's cold is bad enough, they say, but if you go out on the water in freezing temperatures on purpose to fish, you have reached the edge of sanity. Of course, one reason many of us love winter fishing is the fact that this time of year our favorite waters are most likely to be devoid of other anglers. Most fish are biting, too, despite popular misconceptions – if you know how to coax strikes this season. For the hardier among us who are willing to bundle up and brave the elements, two main questions need answering. Where should we go? And what should we fish for? To help, we offer the following information about popular winter fishing destinations throughout the country. When you need to scratch your fishing itch this season, you can’t go wrong traveling to one of these blue-ribbon hotspots and targeting the species mentioned. A Plethora of Perch A winter fishing trip on Lake of the Woods might produce some nice northern pike and muskies, high-jumping smallmouths, fat burbots, scrappy tubilees or slab crappie. But most anglers who visit this 1,679-square-mile lake in Minnesota, Ontario and Manitoba this season come to ice fish for good-eating walleyes, saugers and yellow perch, all members of the perch family. Walleye fishing is especially popular here (some call this area the Walleye Capital of the World), with fish averaging quite large and more than a few genuine giants in the mix. If you’re not a regular ice fisherman, don’t worry. Everything you need for a successful fishing trip – from bait to supplies to fishing reports to rental ice houses – is readily available at area resorts and businesses. Got your own shelter, snowmobile and ice auger? That works, too. Lake of the Woods is very popular with ice anglers who prefer to pick their spots, drill their own holes and remain more mobile with their approach. During early winter, most fishing is over broad flats with a bottom that consists of sand or rubble, Fish tend to be shallower (12 to 16 feet) early and late in the day, moving to 20 to 22-foot depths around the lunch hour. Schools of walleyes, saugers and perch roam almost constantly, so regardless of your locale, action is likely to come your way eventually if you’re patient During midwinter, saugers and perch move deeper, and the best midday catches will occur in 30 feet or more of water. However, walleyes still feed shallower early and late – just not quite as shallow. Late in the ice season, action for all three species heats up again in the shallows. Check local fishing reports for hot lures and baits. Much more information can be found by visiting the websites of the Northwest Angle and Islands Chamber of Commerce or Lake of the Woods Tourism. Panfish on Ice Another honeyhole where you can ice fish for your dinner is Lake Champlain, often called the “Sixth Great Lake.” Cradled between Vermont’s Green Mountains and New York’s Adirondacks, this 400-square-mile outdoor haven is unquestionably one of the country’s most beautiful lakes, and panfish such as yellow perch and crappie are a plentiful yet underutilized resource. Bonus catches could include largemouth and smallmouth bass, lake trout, brown trout, northern pike or Atlantic salmon. The best winter fishing opportunities are in bays like South Bay, Bulwagga Bay and the Rouse’s Point area at the lake’s northern end. Panfish anglers use small spoons or jigs tipped with grubs, mealworms or fresh perch eyes. Traditionally productive structures include weed lines, shoals and drop-offs, which often are indicated by concentrations of fishermen or old ice holes. Additional information is available from The Adirondack Coast and Lake Champlain Region. Greers Ferry Hybrid Stripers Greers Ferry Lake near Heber Springs, Arkansas was the focus of nationwide attention when Jerald Shaum caught a world-record hybrid striped bass there in 1997. A large percentage of the hybrids stocked each year in Arkansas are released in this 31,500-acre Corps of Engineers impoundment in the Ozarks, and since the stocking program began in the 1970s, Greers Ferry has had a reputation as a producer of giants. Smart anglers always properly set the drag on their reel to avoid big-fish break-offs. Five- to 8-pound hybrids frequently fall to Greers Ferry anglers, but all fishermen here are keenly aware that another world-record-class fish is always a possibility. Healthy numbers of 15- to 20-pounders lurk in the impoundment’s cool, clear waters. Grub-tailed jigs, shad-imitation crankbaits and clear Boy Howdy topwater plugs are some of the hybrid bass lures favored by lake veterans. Using fish-locating electronics is a huge help in locating hybrids this season. Additional information is available from the Heber Springs Area Chamber of Commerce. Desert Trout Flowing through the high desert of northern New Mexico, the San Juan River gives credence to the saying that trout usually live in beautiful places. The river’s gin-clear water cascades through remote red-rock canyons and rocky mountainsides before being harnessed by the impoundment of Navajo Lake on the Colorado/New Mexico border. The dam tailwater is well oxygenated and nutrient rich, providing perfect habitat for big rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout and occasional steelheads. Twenty-inch ‘bows are common. The 10 miles of gorgeous water below Navajo Lake create the kind of place fly fishermen dream about visiting. Broad flats are interspersed with deep pools, runs, tailouts and eddies, making it one of the most wade-friendly rivers in the West. Predictable and controlled flows make it ideal for floating in a drift boat, too, which many people do. Other lures will work sometimes, but fly fishing the San Juan River successfully and consistently demands being able to fish tiny flies that imitate the midge pupae and larvae comprising most of the local trouts’ diet. The bottom of the river is covered with these immature insects, so lookalikes entice trout 365 days a year. Additional information is available from the Perfect Fly. The Crappie Capital Alabama has two capitals: one in Montgomery, where politicians hang out, and another near the town of Centre, where anglers come to dangle minnows or jigs for America’s favorite panfish – Weiss Lake, a fertile Alabama Power reservoir on the Coosa River. Widely hailed as the Crappie Capital of the World, Weiss has been a hot bed for slabs since impoundment in 1961, luring anglers from throughout the country who pump tens of millions of dollars into local economies each year. At full pool, the lake covers 30,200 acres, and those acres of water cover stump flats, timber, creek channels and other cover and structure bristling with white crappie and black crappie often weighing 2 pounds or more – just what the doctor ordered when you have a bad case of crappie fever. Like crappie lakes everywhere, Weiss gets the most attention from anglers during spring’s spawn. To ignore the lake’s papermouths in winter, however, is to commit an error in judgment. Crappie bite year-round here, and thanks to intensified management efforts in recent years, panfishing enthusiasts often catch limit stringers anchored with several big slabs. Additional information is available from the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce or Pitts Outdoors. Bayou State Bass Kayak fishermen can find great opportunities for landing some hefty winter largemouths on Louisiana’s Valentine Lake. Located in the backwoods of Kisatchie National Forest near Alexandria, this little-known gem is off limits to motorized boating, but at just 46 acres, it’s an ideal locale to launch a kayak and cast for lunkers. In 2010, Regina Womak did just that and landed the No. 2 Louisiana state-record largemouth bass, a monstrous 15.87-pound bucketmouth that some say might have been the top bass ever caught in the Bayou State had Womak been able to weigh it sooner. Could even bigger bass lurk here? Some say yes and believe January and February are top months to try for them. Huge prespawn fish, including females loaded with eggs, hold along the lake’s drop-offs and ledges until the water warms and inshore movements begin. Jigs, jigging spoons, dropshot worms and big deep-diving crankbaits will often catch them, but the fish are lethargic in winter’s cold water and you’ll have to use subtle and precise presentations to coax bites. Valentine Lake is open for fishing from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, but don’t worry about that being a problem. In winter, fishing gets better each day as the temperature warms. Additional information is available from the U.S. Forest Service.