Story by Capt. Brian Holden
Thirty years ago, when I was new to the guiding business, I would start my day in the coffee shop in the wee hours of the morning doing my best to absorb the profound wisdom of the Old Salts in the room.
After all, these men had all but invented guiding on the Gulf Coast and every word they spoke was gospel. Who ever heard of a fisherman lying, right?
Every morning after a fall cold front came rolling into town and slamming the coast with high winds and cold air, the coffee shop would be quiet. If it was a strong front, that quiet would remain for several days. One morning, when the Old Salts returned, I was feeling bold and asked, “Where did everyone go, and why was no one fishing?” “Stupid Yankee, fish don’t bite during a cold front!” was the universal and unchallenged response by the Old Salts, so again I took it as gospel and moved on.
As the fronts became stronger and more frequent, the coffee shop became less and less busy because the Old Salts had moved on to their “other job,” duck hunting, guiding big game hunts on a South Texas ranch, or working in a refinery. It was not until March that the Old Salts reassembled at the coffee shop with fishing on their mind.
Within a year, I was charged with looking after 20 anglers a day well into late November. Usually, they stayed for two or three days, and if a cold front hit during their stay we were faced with a dilemma. Since everyone knew that fish didn’t bite during cold fronts, we had to either find something else to do or refund A LOT of money.
Photo Courtesy of Macala Elliott
Some people were happy with a duck or hog hunt, but the non-hunters pressured us to go fishing. In an attempt to prove how foolish this demand was, I and several other guides would take them out in the wind and the cold to catch nothing, helping them realize the folly of their ways. What we learned in a few short weeks would turn the coffee shop on its ear, and usher in the new era of the full-time fishing guide.
As it turns out, fish DO eat during and after a cold front, and with such ferocity that sometimes it almost seems unfair how many are willing to take a bait. In addition, they continue to eat every day all winter long! Could it be that the Old Salts may have gotten this one wrong?
The Technology Factor
In fact, I do not blame the Old Salts. I think “the great winter fishing lie” may have been propagated in no small part to keep people safe. Back then, most guides ran 16 to 20-foot wooden skiffs with 50-horsepower motors that were unreliable at best. The boats were flat and rough, and the idea of spending the night out in a cold front because the engine wouldn’t start seemed nothing short of life-threatening. Cell phones did not exist, and the year-round fishing attire was a pair of starched Wranglers and a faded and starched Columbia fishing shirt, rounded out with a pair of flip-flops. There was a big margin for error where a lot of things could go wrong. Canceling under the guise of fishing failure was the best thing to do.
Fast forward 30 years, and the boats are bigger, faster, smoother and far more reliable. The small outboards are 200 horsepower and the big ones can exceed 400. This reduces the time it takes to get back to the dock by 80 percent. Every boat has multiple cell phones, and TowBoat US or SeaTow are a phone call away in an emergency. As if that was not enough, the sky is the limit on the variety and performance of foul-weather tech clothing to keep you warm, dry, and comfortable no matter how bad the weather gets.
Rods are lighter and far more sensitive, and reels are usually filled with spools of braid instead of monofilament making that soft bite from a cold fish easily detectable. Lures have been designed with slower presentations in mind, accounting for the reduced speed and motivation of cold winter fish.
Now I’m sure you are asking yourself an obvious question, and it probably sounds something like “Great, we know we can survive and even be comfortable on a winter fishing day, but why would anyone want to go fishing in the winter?” I’m glad you asked because the answers will astound you.
The Four Cs of Winter Fishing
1. COMPETITION. The bays are wide open, the boat ramps are easily accessible, and there are no boats on the water. All the great fishing spots are yours and yours alone.
2. CONSISTENCY. Fish move much less in winter, and as long as there is comfort and adequate food, they may stay in one area for months. This means less time looking and more time catching. Also, because most of the shrimp and baitfish migrate out of the bays in the winter, there will be a lot less food overall so your offering will be much more appealing than it would in summer.
3. COMFORT. After all the talk about foul-weather gear, the fact is the average daily temperature on the Gulf Coast between November and February is 68 degrees. There are exceptions. In fact, there are days that are downright cold, but on average it is the same temperature that you set the thermostat to in your house for maximum comfort. And proper attire on cool days will still leave you more comfortable than anything you wear in August when the temperature is 102 degrees.
4. CONVENIENCE. During the winter, your fishing day does not need to start at 6 a.m. As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t. The warmer water later in the day will make the fish more active. Sleep in, grab some coffee, and hit the water at 10 a.m. You won’t miss a thing. In addition, you’ll be able to book a guide for the day you want. Most guides are sold-out most days from March through October, but in winter they have available dates that fit your schedule. At least they will until everyone discovers the attraction of winter fishing. Then, who knows?
I do not begrudge the Old Salts for their philosophical shortcomings. As a matter of fact, I miss their stories, the camaraderie, and the friendship. I fear that generational wisdom is no longer handed down in a coffee shop, but rather on a Facebook page or a YouTube video. I do not claim to have invented winter fishing, but I feel I was a part of a group all over the Gulf Coast whose drive and determination collided with modern equipment and opportunity to tap into an underutilized fishery.
After a quarter century of learning, honing, and practicing, it is time to reveal it to the masses, so they too may enjoy fishing year-round.
Brian Holden has spent the majority of his life chasing fish in both fresh and salt water throughout North America. He now focuses his energy on the central Texas coast where he has been guiding and teaching anglers for the past two decades. For more information or to schedule a trip, text 361-386-0410 or email email@example.com.