This can be a frustrating and difficult time of year to fish for esox — wind, cold, wet, and a lot less activity than the good months we had after the feed in autumn.
With a few adjustments and a lot of tenacity we can still have some fishing success, and it’s usually at this time that big trophy fish can show up.
You have to be an extremely versatile angler at this time; fish can be deep to find a thermocline that suits them, and in other instances a bright winter sun can bring fish in the shallows for a few hours to warm up. Now more than ever you need to keep an eye on the local meteorological conditions and adapt.
Here are a few pointers to help you in your winter quest.
Now that the autumn feed is over, pike tend to retreat to their winter layers. They’re becoming less active and their digestive system slows down due to the colder temperatures, but they still need to feed. Those feeding windows can be small and limited to a few areas.
The baitfish tend to regroup in bigger shoals and are less spread around the water during this time. Pike, being a predatory fish, will follow these groups, picking on easy targets and dying fish.
If you fish from a boat, a sonar (fish finder) this will help you save valuable time. If you fish from the shore, find rivers that are not too flooded. Fish are a little more demanding in their calorie intake in rivers as they have moving water to deal with.
For the angler afloat, finding features like drop offs and anything that keeps baitfish together is your starting point. Pike are never too far from the food source in winter.
An important point is to try to fish the edge and outside of the baitfish shoal. Unfortunately you can only do this with the help of a fish finder, but nowadays you can get great little units without breaking the bank.
This will give you an idea of how deep you need to fish and brings me to my second point — what fly lines to use?
This fly head tied with Fish-Skull Body Tubing helps push water and establish a presence.
The moods of pike can be quite variable in general, but it’s even more noticeable in the wintertime.
Some days you need to get that fly right in front of their noses in 20- to 30-foot deep water to induce a take, other times they may swim up many feet from the depths to nail a fly that’s presented mid water.
This is when you need a few lines to cope with different scenarios. In winter I mostly fish from the comfort of my boat, and venues averaging 20 to 40 feet in depth. My go-to lines are an S3, S7, and a T12 ( but I try not to use this one too much as it is hard work casting all day).
Low and slow is the key on most winter days, try to fish with the least sinking line you can get away with. It can be long and boring to wait for your line to get down but it’s part of the deal I’m afraid.
Always keep contact with your fly while it’s descending, hits on the drop can happen, and slack on your line can ruin any bite detection.
And now for matching your fly to your line...
Again, we are faced with a very wide choice, but to cut it down, I like flies that are loud and have a noticeable presence in water (see my past article Make Some Noise! How to Tie Loud Flies for Esox Fishing).
When it’s the shortest days of the year and you're fishing deep, colors are not that important, but you want to make it easy for the fish to find your fly. Wiggle Tails, Rattles, and T-Bone type heads tied with Fish-Skull Body Tubing are great.
Having a selection of tungsten cones and disks with you is also important so you can easily change the sink rate of your fly by simply adding the cones at the front of your fly. You can put some glass beads between the cones for creating a louder clicking noise each time you strip.
Don’t give up! Winter fly fishing for pike is hard, but if you find the baitfish and features, you'll know the pike aren’t too far away.
The question is: will they be in the mood to feed that day?
I've spent many hours and days without a bite in winter, but some of my biggest and most memorable fish came in winter.
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About Norbert Renaud:
Norbert was born in France, but has lived in Ireland for most of his life. His father came to Ireland for fishing in the late 1960s and passed the bug onto him. Living in an area that holds 365 lakes and rivers, it's easy to get addicted to fishing. There are little predator species locally to chase on the fly: trout, perch, or pikes… His choice is very easy. He runs L'ile Verte Fishing Lodge and when not behind the stove cooking for the clients, he's either guiding, tying flies, or fishing for himself.