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Texas: Winter's chill

1/4/2010

We'll debate global warming at some other time in some other space. For now, it's safe to say that winter has a grip on the Texas coast and unlikely to release its cold fingers until spring. If you can stand the chill, this is a great time to chase trout and reds.

Veteran mid-coast guide Sally Moffett joined my radio show this past week to talk about the relatively simple fishing pattern she follows this season. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but her primary plan most mornings remains the same.

"When the water gets cold, like it is now, they go to what I call the 'bomb shelter'," said Moffett, who concentrates most of her fishing effort in the area from Port Aransas to Baffin Bay.

The Intracoastal Waterway qualifies as deep-water shelter along the entire Texas coast. Additionally, there is refuge to be found in ships' turning basins, isolated natural holes (of which there aren't many in Texas) and even the marinas where recreational anglers keep their boats.

Insulation from the cold, to which trout are more susceptible than reds, comes in two forms. One is depth; the farther fish move downward from icy temperatures at the surface, the relatively warmer – even two degrees can make a huge difference – the greater their chance for survival.

Where they can't go deep, they seek warm structure. Under full sun, jetty rocks and concrete pilings can transfer enough heat to surrounding water to help fish ride out a front. The same can be said for mud and shell bottom, even dark-colored vegetation, all of which stay incrementally warmer than bare sand.

Through cold spells, gamefish and many of the animals on which they feed all retreat to the bomb shelter. The fish may not feed every day. Instead, they'll find a comfortable space and conserve their energy until water warms a bit.

When it does, larger fish often will ease back toward the sun-warmed flats to look for one or two relatively large meals. They won't venture far from shelter or stay away long, but action where shallow and deep water meet can be excellent if timing is right.

Critically important this time of year is a relatively slow presentation. Suspending plugs trump all others, but there are valid alternatives.

On the right flat on the right day, big trout sometimes will take aggressive shots at topwaters. My best trout trip ever, three memorable hours with Cliff Webb on Baffin Bay in the mid-1990s, produced two dozen specks heavier than eight pounds. Five of those fish were 30-plus inches, and the largest was a fraction longer than 32. All were toad fat; they were eating 8- to 12-inch mullet. Never underestimate the productivity of topwaters in winter.

Moffett also likes a plug I might have ignored for this season, Mann's Baby 1-Minus crankbait. I've thrown them at redfish in warmer months and been amazed at the reaction. In winter, she rips the shallow-diving bait a rod's length at the edge of a dropoff, then lets it wobble seductively, slowly toward the surface. On her recommendation, I'm making room in the tackle box before my next trip.

All predators' strike zones are short now. You'll have to put the lure within a foot or two of that pointed nose to draw a strike, which means you also should work more patiently and methodically through potentially productive water. Rather than throw left, straight ahead and right, visualize a clock face and cast to every hour and half-hour point.

When you fish the bomb shelter itself, use soft plastics that settle slowly rather than heavy heads that dive like bricks to the bottom. The fish can be anywhere within the water column, and you don't want your lure racing past them before a mouth can open and a tail wave.

It's winter. Until spring, the fish will be in one of two places: in or near those bomb shelters. Concentrate your efforts there, and you'll see plenty of action out the front of your ski mask.

Editor's note: Doug Pike spent 23 years as the outdoors columnist at the Houston Chronicle, nine years and counting on radio (he's the host of the Doug Pike Show on 790 the Sports Animal), two years and counting as back-page humor columnist for Saltwater Sportsman, 10 years and counting on the masthead for Field & Stream, two years and counting on the masthead and as columnist for Texas Fish & Game, 10 years editor of Tide magazine for CCA. He has won more than 100 state and national awards for writing, photography, broadcast and editing.