Jack Frost always brings some of the nastiest weather of the year to Texas. We’ve already gotten a really good dose in 2021.
Most recently, a historic Valentine’s Day blitz that crippled the state amid a long-lasting polar vortex packing sleet, snow, freezing rain and the coldest temperatures witnessed in decades.
Power outages followed as excessive demands for electricity stressed the state’s power grid, leaving millions with no heat to offset the record lows.
Water lines froze and cracked. Trees and limbs came crashing down, taking many power lines with them. Roofs collapsed. Lakes and ponds crusted over with ice. Many birds and other the wildlife dependent on seeds and ground cover for survival perished.
The winter blast was so far-reaching some citrus crops were lost in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also issued a temporary fishing closure for parts of the Texas coast.
A deep freeze can be a death sentence for temperature-sensitive saltwater fish and other marine life unable to escape shallow bays. Likewise, it forces cold-stunned survivors to gather in the deepest holes, where they are extremely vulnerable to being caught by anglers. Thus the reason for the temporary closure.
Impacts Less Freshwater
As potentially devastating as frigid weather can be for coastal fisheries, the impacts are significantly less in freshwater, according to Craig Bonds, TPWD director of inland fisheries.
Bonds said the main concerns in freshwater reservoirs are threadfin shad die-offs that may occur when water temperatures dip too low. Sport fish like bass, crappie and catfish can usually find safe refuge in deeper water.
Bonds added that TPWD personnel at several state fish hatcheries stayed busy through the cold snap flushing additional water into hatchery ponds that house the state’s valuable Florida bass brood stock. The idea was to help maintain water temperatures and hopefully prevent the ponds from freezing.
Fishing Fresh in the Cold
As freshwater fishing goes, a nasty front may throw fish into a funk and curb the angling urge, but the lull is only temporary. Things will begin to bounce back after a few days of warmer weather.
Here's an angler's guide to some of Texas' best winter fishing opportunities once the weather settles and things begin to thaw:
The Fish: Some of biggest bass of the year will be caught between now and the end of April. While the majority are caught during spring, when big females are lured to the sun-baked shallows to spawn, there are always some pre-spawn giants reeled in during the dead of winter.
The current Texas record of 18.18 pounds was caught in January 1992. Four Legacy ShareLunkers (13 pounds plus) have have already been turned in this year.
Best Locations/Times: Targeting channels, ditches, points and other travel corridors that connect deep water to shallow are good bets. Pre-spawn bass will sometimes gather around underwater brush, grass, stumps, or any other isolated cover/structures along the pathways. Anglers sometimes refer to the sweet spots as "staging areas.”
Some of the best fishing will occur during warming trends that heat the water’s upper layer a few degrees. Wicked swings in barometric pressure associated with foul weather can spark feeding frenzies at times.
Small power plant reservoirs can be particularly rewarding in cold weather. Power plants use lake water to cool turbines used for generating electricity. The water is discharged at a degree much warmer than when it went in, resulting in water temperatures significantly warmer than cold water impoundments.
Tactics to Try: Florida bass will be lethargic in cold water. It’s a good idea to work moving baits slow. Alabama rigs, suspending jerk baits, Rat-L-Traps, spinnerbaits, square bill crankbaits and Chatterbaits are good choices in shallow and mid-range depths. In deeper water, try crawling a jig, Carolina rig or deep-diving crankbait around deeper ledges and hard bottoms.
The Fish: Crappie are plump with eggs ahead of the spring spawn. The state record white crappie is 4.56 pounds; black crappie, 3.92 ounces. Any crappie weighing a pound or more is a solid fish on most lakes.
The statewide daily limit is liberal, 25 fish,10-inch minimum. Anglers are reminded of a special "no cull" rule currently effect on Lake O' the Pines and Lake Fork. Through Feb. 28, anglers on those lakes are required to keep every crappie up to 25 fish, regardless of size. The no-cull rule was implemented several years ago because of the high incidence of barotrauma (overinflated air bladder) and delayed mortality with fish reeled in from deep water.
Best Locations: Crappie are school fish. Other than spring, when they move shallow to spawn, crappie live most of their life away from the bank around channels, underwater points, bridges, brush piles, standing timber and deep boat docks. The fish are often suspended between the surface and bottom.
Tactics to Try: Live shiners or small jigs work best. Anglers often rely on their electronics to determine whether or not fish are present before wetting a hook.
The advent of forward-facing sonar has refined the game even more. The technology shows fish in real time. This allows anglers to move with the school when they relocate. You can even see how they react to a bait.
Fishing vertical around brush piles and standing timber is highly effective, as is casting jigs around bridges to suspended fish relating to concrete supports and cross members.
Deep strolling over main lake points, river ledges other structure away from the bank can be equally productive at times. The idea is to drop a 1/8 or 1/4 inch jig to the desired depth, then rely on the trolling motor to move it along through the strike zone.
The Fish: Catfish rank second in popularity with Texas anglers behind largemouth bass. Channel cat are most abundant, followed by blues and flatheads.
Blues and flatheads grow significantly larger than channel cat. The state record channel cat is a 36.50 pounder. Texas’ biggest blue is a 121.50 pounder; the state record flathead, 98.50 pounds.
Winter fishing can be particularly good for catfish, especially big blues. Texoma, Tawakoni, Lewisville, Toledo Bend, Palestine, Waco, Buchanan, Livingston, Cedar Creek and Richland Chambers are well known for quality fish.
Best Locations: Most big winter blues are caught away from the bank, usually around underwater humps, points, old road beds or channels. A common denominator in most sweet spots is bait fish. Blues are eating machines. Find the shad and you'll find the fish.
Don’t overlook the shallows, either. Wind blown points and shorelines are always potential hotspots.
Tactics to Try: Drifting with the wind or anchoring in a specific spot are good ways to target big blues away from the bank using fresh cut gizzard shad or chunks of buffalo.
* Cormorant Roosts: Cormorants are fish-eating birds that migrate to Texas lakes in large numbers during the winter months. The birds disperse to main lake areas to feed, then to retreat to roost trees to rest and relieve themselves. Blues and channel cat gather beneath active cormorant roosts to feed when droppings rain down.
Anglers can score around roosts by casting weightless chicken gizzards to trees or stumps, or soaking soak fresh shad or punch bait along the outskirts. The “poop pattern” works well on Richland Chambers, Cedar Creek, Fork, Ray Hubbard and Lavon.
The Fish: White bass (also called sand bass) spend most of the year roaming open water. Things change in late winter. When the timing is right with river flows, photoperiod and water temperature, hordes of the fish make big moves up creeks and rivers to spawn. The spawning run is most pronounced on headwaters that feed major reservoirs with abundant white bass populations.
Best Locations: Among the most storied river systems are the Sabine River above Toledo Bend, Trinity River above Lake Livingston, Neches River above Lake Palestine, Angelina River above Sam Rayburn and the Colorado River above Lake Buchanan. Spawning runs also can occur on select creeks, rivers and tributaries that feed lakes Lewisville, Belton, Cedar Creek, Somerville and Whitney.
The best fishing areas vary with the river system. Key on underwater sandbars, gravel bars and still water eddies.
Tactics to Try: White bass will hit assorted baits ranging from crankbaits to small spinners and Roadrunners. Retrieve baits slow and steady.
The Fish: Stripers are the fourth most popular sport fish on Texas' freshwater menu, heavily favored for its nasty disposition, brawny power and violent, spool-stripping runs. Hook into a fish upwards of 15 pounds on bait casting gear and you're for a bull-in-the-china-cabinet experience. Coax one into eating a topwater lure and it might seem as if a bomb went off.
Texas river systems have a history of producing the biggest stripers. The 53- pound state record was caught out of the Brazos River.
Best Locations: Striper fishing is big on a number of lakes, but it's huge on Texoma. The Texas/Oklahoma reservoir supports one of only few self-sustaining striper populations in the country and has a reputation for big number and quality alike. The fish are believed to generate $20 million annually in economic impact for the Texoma area alone.
Other Texas lakes well known for striper fishing include Tawakoni, Whitney, Canyon and Buchanan.
Tactics To Try: It’s best to switch to granny gear in cold water due to the stripers' slowed metabolism.
Shad pattern swim baits rigged on a 3/4 ounce jig head work well when crawled slowly around points, offshore structure or areas where birds are working bait fish.
Another popular technique is "deadsticking." The key is to locate pods of shad and schools stripers over deep water using your electronics, drop a shad pattern plastic like a Zoom Fluke rigged on 3/4 or 1 ounce jig head straight down amongst them and allow the bait to hang there motionless. Thus the name, deadsticking.
Many guides will bump the bottom of the boat using broom handle or tap the side with at rubber mallet to attract fish and activate the action. It sounds strange, but I've seen it work multiple times for stripers, hybrids and white bass during the coldest part of the year.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reach by e-mail, email@example.com.