Using Winter Downtime Productively
By Michael E. Little
The days grow shorter, the chill winds of winter blast down stream and temperatures plunge. Ice forms on the rod guides as you make one more retrieve and you suddenly realize fishing is no longer fun; it is just too blasted cold and you resign yourself to the reality that the fishing season is finally at an end. Returning home, you reluctantly pile your gear in a convenient corner, and turn to other distractions. Your only thoughts of fishing center around last year's triumphs, last year's successes. But no matter how successful this past season, wouldn't it be nice to do better next year? Winter downtime offers a great opportunity to improve your skills and next spring's fishing success. Here's how:
Analyze the Past
Reflect back on last year's fishing. What did you do right? What did you do wrong? What did you learn? Much insight can be gained from reviewing the past season's fishing; and let's face it, fishing is a learning experience. Sometimes, the learning comes easy, and at other times, the acquisition of knowledge can be more difficult. Painful even. Embarrassing. Humiliating.
This past fall, I had a humbling experience. For months, I had been tearing the smallies up on one particular lure, but as the days grew colder, and the river level dropped, my success rate sunk out of sight, until I was returning home without even the stink on my hands. In late fall, I stopped in to talk with a rancher and he asked if I had come to fish. "Nope," I replied, "the fish have moved to wintering holes and are gone." He looked at me like I was addled, said he'd been catching fish with no problem and asked if I wanted to join him. Having nothing else to do, I responded in the affirmative, secretly thinking he was wasting his time. He dug through the bed of his truck, moving logging chains, fuel cans, fence stretchers, empty oil cans, spare tires, cans of nails, flattened beer cans and miscellaneous tools until he found his "tackle box", a Folgers coffee can with a few old Rapalas sliding around on the bottom. Then, after more scuffling, he unearthed a raggedy Zebco spin caster, and together, we walked down to the river. As we talked, he stated casting and began getting hits immediately.
Crow, anyone? I was stunned, and felt more than a little foolish, after all that "wintering hole" business I had given him. He encouraged me to join him, so I changed my lure type and started catching smallies. This rancher, with his coffee can and snoopy rod, taught me a valuable lesson: you gotta stay flexible. When the smallies stopped hitting, when the water level dropped and temperatures plunged, I assumed the fish had moved to their winter quarters. Wrong. Next fishing season, I'll be more flexible and not assume the rascals have left town when familiar patterns stop working.
Fishing is a learning experience if you want to improve your skills and success rate; otherwise it's just killing time. I watch lots of fishing programs on television, in hopes they will have something of value on smallie fishing or methods that can be applied to smallie fishing. Bill Dance, who said "I'd rather catch one nice smallmouth than twenty largemouth bass" (hooray!), has done shows specifically on smallie fishing, though they are rare. And In-Fisherman carries a fair amount of television segments on the bronze beauty and are known for their enthusiasm for smallies. A fair amount of smallie information can be found on the Internet, though RiverSmallies.com is by far the best Web site I've seen. I love their dedication and single-mindedness of purpose. And your local State Fish and Game department folks are good to talk with about smallie fishing opportunities and stocking programs.
Smallies are becoming very popular in places you wouldn't expect and F & G is how you can find out about them. Finally, dare I say books? As an avid reader, I have found winter to be an excellent time to crack the books. Some of what you read, you already know. Some of what you read, you know from your own experience, is just plain wrong. But some of what you read will be new and worth a try.
A number of years ago, while on a family vacation in the Boundary Waters with my family, reading saved the trip! We arrived just as the mayfly hatch was getting into gear, and while we caught fish for a couple days, it soon proved impossible to catch anything. The smallies were locked in on natural forage and refused to look at anything else. Dynamite and carbide bombs came immediately to mind. Prior to the trip, I had read an article about using dry flies and plastic bubbles for smallies. It looked like an interesting pattern and I bought a bubble, a few dry flies and some line dressing but never had the opportunity to try the method out. At the peak of the hatch, when everyone in camp was getting skunked, I got desperate enough to give this arcane bubble and dry fly method a try. The result was I fed the camp for the balance of the week. What a joy!
You know the kinds of features that hold smallies. You've seen bends, breaks and feeder streams that were great producers. Using your fishing knowledge and some good maps, you can identify probable spots to fish. One of my biggest thrills is fishing new water; and by studying maps, I can identify areas likely to be productive. After targeting a potential area, I get out and explore, checking on access and entry points for shore and canoe fishing.
I was out "exploring" one day last summer, when I spotted a beautiful stretch of river that screamed "smallies", so I stopped at a ranch looking for the boss of the outfit. I was told the owner of the 8,000 acre spread was a couple miles away haying. I headed out to find him. For 2 hours I drove all over creation and finally caught up with him. After explaining that I was a smallie maniac, would leave not trash behind and practiced catch and release, I asked if I could fish his river. He quickly gave his permission, so I went back to the river and caught some nice smallies. Great fun! Later, I was told the landowner seldom let anyone fish his property, but I think most people just start fishing without bothering to ask permission. Having someone ask permission was new to him and he seemed a bit surprised. I have never been denied where I asked permission to fish.
Approached respectfully, you'll often find the land owner a willing accomplice and will often identify holes for you. Next year I plan on taking a small mesh bag along to pick up litter. Picking up beer cans other people were too lazy to haul out, kinda goes against my grain, but it's a small thing. When a landowner realizes I'm actually helping clean his property up, invitations for a return visit shouldn't be a problem.
Do It Yourself
Winter is a great time to get involved in lure and rod making. Hook up with a good component supplier, whether a local bait shop or a mail order outfit, buy the stuff you need and go at it. Both of these hobbies can yield very positive results. Some of the reasons to make your own lures are:
- Save money! You can build a $3 lure for $.20-$.30 each.
- You don't have to get fancy; build your lures to catch fish, not fishermen.
- Build lures for your stream conditions. If the current is fast, scale down the spinner blade size so the lure doesn't get up on top of the water. If conditions are weedy, switch to a single hook design instead of trebles, etc.
I have been building my own jigs and spinner baits for some time. It is not particularly expensive to get into and offers distinct advantages over "store bought". The process is fun and gives a sense of accomplishment, particularly when your efforts prove successful with the bronze devils.
Here are some reasons to make your own fishing rod:
- Save money! You can custom build a $500 rod for about $200 using the best components available. Want something less pricey? Not a problem! Blanks, guides, reel seats and handles can be had in a wide range of prices. Cheaper components will cost you some performance but the resulting rod will cost less than half the price of anything you could buy over the counter of similar quality. And yours will be a better rod.
- A custom rod is longer casting, more accurate and more sensitive to light bites.
- A custom rod gives better hook-sets, less line twist and less line wear.
- Match your rod to your exact fishing technique; jigging, cranking, live bait, etc.
- Production fishing rods are built for the average reel, the average line, the average lure weight, and the average fisherman. A rod you build can be finely tuned for specific a specific reel, specific line, specific lure weight, and specifically for you.
Note that rod building is not easy, not simple. But it can be done. It will require a fair amount of research on construction methods, techniques and a thorough understanding of what you are actually looking to build. There is lots of expensive fancy equipment that will make the task easier but a fine rod can be built without it. All it takes is time.
Restock and Reevaluate
I hate to admit it, but I lose lots of lures; some are thrown off, some are lost to snags and some leave town in the jaws of a fish. Winter is a good time to restock those lures, swivels and other items that went missing in action. This is also a good time to reevaluate what's in your tackle box. When I look at my setup, most of it makes sense. My soft side nylon tackle box has four plastic tackle trays that I have cleverly assigned to live bait rigs, crank baits, spinner baits and surface baits. But going through each tray, I find baits that are bent up, chewed up and beat up. Now a good time to repair or replace productive lures that were battle damaged. Those lures that hooked a fisherman (me) but have never a fish, I'll retire to the "failed great idea" pile behind my house.
I also reevaluate everything in the box occasionally. Extra reel spools and extra line makes sense, as do a stringer and needle nosed pliers for hook removal. A copy of current fishing regulations, insect repellent, sun block, Band-Aids, hook sharpener, line clippers, and head lamp for night fishing make sense for me too. Whatever you carry, an occasional review and general house cleaning can bring efficiency and reduced weight to lug around next year.
Many people dislike this aspect of equipment ownership and consequently, seldom or never perform any type of preventive maintenance (PM) on their fishing gear. While I don't find it particularly "fun", it's really no big deal and I take a certain amount of pride in my equipment, particularly the older stuff, that still performs the way it did 20 years ago, when new. Like checking your engine oil or brushing your teeth, PM is a necessary to make your equipment last.
I used to own a boat and sailed often. A friend asked if he could bring his fishing rod on-board and fish while we sailed. I shuddered, having mental image of him rearing back with a big ol' musky lure, snagging my main and ruining a $2000 Dacron sail. I politely said, "No way man!" but each time we sailed, he would ask again. Finally, I relented on condition that he only troll and he was happy as a kid at Christmas. On our next sail, he brought a rod and reel that were caked with dried mud and looked is if it came from the trash heap. The white fiberglass rod was permanently stained by the mud and the whole outfit was the most sorry looking setup I'd ever seen anyone lay claim to. He loved to fish but hated to take care of his equipment. It showed.