Lakes and rivers in winter pose their own particular set of problems for the angler, but finding your fish is actually easier if you recognize the special conditions involved.
Finding fish is in some ways easier in winter than at other times. In other ways it is more difficult. On lakes and pits with extensive areas less than 3ft deep, these shallows can be almost ruled out from December to March. When water temperatures are in the mid-thirties to lower forties Fahrenheit (1-6°C) fish move into deeper parts.
Fish-finding is easier
Shallow and fast-moving stretches in rivers can also be eliminated at these colder temperatures. Fish-finding should be easier in winter as the population is distributed over a small area.
In winter, the lake angler has to rely far more on his knowledge of the lake bed. In the summer months, when the fish spend a great deal of time in the shallower areas, they can be sighted, their movements pinpointed and logged. The summer angler may even be able to cast a bait to a big fish he can see. In the depths of winter the angler is fishing blind, but over a smaller area.
Temperature is crucial
Water temperature is probably the most critical factor in winter fishing. Over many years you may acquire a fairly accurate feel for temperature fluctuations, but prior to this a thermometer is useful. I have spent a lot of time measuring temperatures on different waters, logging them and trying to relate the data to particular species. I have derived the likely minimum feeding temperature for the various species: dace and chub—33-34°F; pike and perch— 35-38°F; roach, rudd and bream — 38-40°F; tench and carp — 40-42°F; barbel-45°F. There are exceptions—a barbel, for example, may be caught through a hole in the ice—but on the whole the data provides a fairly reliable guide.
Only in exceptionally cold winters do water temperatures fall below 40 °F for more than a week or two. Recent winters have been mild and the opportunist angler has had a good chance of most species.
For winter fishing, stillwaters fall into two categories—the deep clay or brick pits typical of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire that have a maximum depth of 50-60ft, and the more numerous gravel pits of southern England. Meres and reservoirs fall somewhere between the two. Though it is rare to be able to spot fish, the angler who is at the waterside at daybreak will often witness surface movement and rises. These fish are roach or rudd, or sometimes chub in the stillwaters that hold them. Their activity is an indication that big pike are nearby. In deep clay pits, the newcomer tends to fish the deepest water at the greatest distance. In the coldest part of hard winters perch may well move to pockets of warm water in the deepest holes, but most of the fish will be found within 20 yards of the bank. Even at this range there may be as much as 30ft of water. Perch and pike keep close to underwater snags, submerged trees and ledges, provided these are close to the haunts of small fish. These are often snaggy areas. Rotting weed-beds within 10 yards of the bank, where the depth may be up to 20ft, are the areas to concentrate on. Stillwater species patrol the margins regularly, even in deepest winter, as wind carries natural food there.
In shallow lakes and gravel pits, disregard water less than 3ft deep and concentrate on the deeper channels, holes and gullies. Sudden deeps such as drop-offs close to a gravel bar or, better still, next to the bank are bound to harbour good fish. The shallower the lake, the more important it becomes to locate these fish-holding irregularities.
Mild winter, the water temperature does not drop below the upper thirties for long. Amazingly, you may find pike preparing to spawn in the shallow rushbeds in a foot or two of water during January and February. If so, fish the area alongside the beds where the water shelves away gradually to a depth of 12ft.
About one winter in three, or so it seems, waters ice over. But even then deeper marginal swims can produce wonderful roach fishing, with the occasional perch. Roach are put down with the first rapid frost, but once the temperature has levelled off for a few days, they can be tempted to feed, even at 35-36 °F.
I know several small shallow lakes where most of the water is less than 2ft deep, and the deepest pockets are only 4ft. Yet they regularly produce tench, rudd, and roach.
Shallow lakes are often full of rotting vegetation which is thought to liberate all kinds of undesirable gases. But experience has taught me that deep areas, in close proximity fete to mounds of rotting weed, do pro-duce fish. I believe a lot of the fish lie among this rotting weed in very cold weather—perhaps for security, perhaps because the rotting process raises the temperature a little around the weed, as happens in a compost heap. Sunny days, preceded by frosty nights, are the most productive; you will be amazed by the temperature fluctuation during such a day. An 8am temperature of 33 °F in the margins may have leapt to 41 °F by 4pm .
Track down any feeder streams or ditches that run into the lake. They bring in food; they may well be warmer than the lake; they often hollow out a channel deep enough to prevent suffocation through icing over, or ‘winterkill’; and, above all, they create movement. Movement is most important on small, shallow stillwaters, for again it lessens the chances of freezing.
In lakes where there is an outflow, you may find a correlation between good fishing days and the water runoff. If you have access to, or better still, can control the sluice-gate or outflow, you are at a distinct advantage, for you can bring about the desired water movement.
There is probably less contrast between summer and winter rivers. Temperatures on larger rivers tend to be a degree or two higher than on stillwaters. Remember that the colder the water, the slower the metabolic rate of the fish. Predatory fish such as pike, chub and perch which, in warm conditions move about a great deal for their food, move less the colder it gets. As their energy reserves are lower, they take their prey in water where there is less flow. Their food then comes to them instead.
That is why it pays to wander along rivers, and fish several swims during the day. In cold conditions, the smaller the river the more you should keep on the move.
Following a really heavy flood, fish may be weak from fighting the current. So try areas of dead-slack water. Roach, for example, rest up in static cattle-drinks. When caught, they look washed-out and colourless after their struggles.
When it is cold, many fish—chub in particular—gather in the small, protected pockets that form behind fallen tree stumps or rafts of rubbish. In extreme cold, when a river is iced over, you need to know the whereabouts of feeder streams and warm water inlets from industry.
Temperature is particularly important to the barbel hunter; if the temperature is right, Kennet and Thames barbel are surprisingly predictable. The critical onoff feeding temperature of around 45 °F occurs quite often during most winters. And anything above that increases your chances even further; that is, up to a point where they go off the feed again.
Roach shoals probably move up and down a river more than other species in winter. Once you have got to know a water, you can confidently select a glide with an even flow and wait there to intercept a moving shoal. Roach also show themselves more than other species in winter, so look out for dorsals cutting across the surface at dusk.
On slow moving, small streams, canals and dykes, locating fish is less of a problem. On these uniform stretches, reading the water consists of noting any irregularities. Example 3 is a canalized stretch of the Ivel, a favourite swim of mine. Every chub and roach within a mile tends to converge on that swim.