February is a deterrent to a lot of anglers regardless of the craft used simply because of the cold weather. The exposure to the cold is compounded when fishing from a paddle craft because of your close proximity to the water.
Kayak anglers who choose to fish year-round have learned to adapt to the elements, and that’s probably only fair. The kayak angler who is half-in/half-out of the water, wearing just a bathing suit during the summer while the power boater is pouring sweat has to account for more cold-weather exposure that does not affect the big boater as severely.
Dressing for success means wearing both cold-weather and water-repellent clothing, which means no cotton. Cotton absorbs water and is of no value — it’s even detrimental — when wet. Dressing in layers that allow movement is tantamount. Here’s a secret that many beginner kayak anglers don’t consider: you get wet when fishing from a kayak. Water enters the boat from spray, paddle splash, waves over the side and, hopefully, putting fish in the boat. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, you need to prepare to get wet.
While on that subject, let’s talk about scupper plugs, devices designed to plug up the scupper holes in a sit-on-top kayak so water won’t get in. Scupper plugs serve no real purpose. Scupper holes allow water to drain through the kayak. Sometimes water splashes up through them, then drains back out. If you want to sit in a puddle of water, put your scupper plugs in. If you are worried about water welling up through the scuppers, lighten your load or get a bigger boat.
Of course, just getting out on the water is often sufficient to a kayak angler, but to catch fish, there is an equation that all anglers must balance to be successful. That equation is finding the warmest water available and targeting the coldest-natured fish that are accessible.
A trophy largemouth bass that’s laid up in a ditch in 50 feet of water out in the middle of Lake Moultrie probably isn’t going to be in any danger from a kayaking angler. On the other hand, that same fish, holding off a long point in 15 feet of water in a local water-district lake, might be.
Much of cold-water fishing is just fishing; it doesn’t matter what you’re fishing from. Slowing down presentations, trying to elicit reaction bites and using smaller baits and line still comes into play whether you’re fishing from a $400 kayak or a $60,000 bass boat. Like any other time of year, range is the biggest limiting factor on a paddling angler. You can’t run all over a major impoundment trying to find fish, so you need to do as much at-home study as possible to locate an area that’s accessible by kayak, and then work it thoroughly.
Targeting warmer water is fairly simple from a kayak. Look for warm-water discharge areas like power plants, industrial operations or simply rain water washing in from storm drains. Short of warm water entering, look for areas where existing water warms more quickly or efficiently. A mud flat in the back of the marsh, out of the wind, that gets sun all day will warm quicker than surrounding areas. A cove or channel with southern exposure and a northern wind-block is another no-brainer, especially after a long spell of north wind.
While all fish species can be caught during the winter, some species are more cold-water tolerant, even cold-water loving, than others. A blue catfish, rainbow trout, redfish or striped bass might be a better target than a sunfish that goes nearly dormant in winter.
Another thing to consider when chasing winter fish is how far of a paddle it will be to get to where they’re holding. Those calculations need to factor into your pre-trip planning. Once you get there, will you tempt those fish with live bait, cut bait or an artificial bait that will trigger a strike.
Speaking of eliciting strikes, the pro bass circuits may have turned their noses up at Alabama and umbrella rigs, but kayaking anglers love them. A-rigs can be cast or trolled and get even a lethargic fish’s attention. The same can be said for vertical baits like spoons, lipless crankbaits and horse-head jigs.
A final thought about winter fishing is targeting smaller bodies of water like farm ponds, sloughs, water-district lakes and the like. Fish in smaller waters are not at the angler’s mercy and can be more finicky than big-water fish.
For small bodies, weather plays the most-important factor in fish activity since current, wind and water levels aren’t very big factors. Small-water fish suffer through adverse conditions when times are bad and gorge themselves when a string of warmer, sunny weather causes the ecology to come back to life for a brief period.
Add in that farm ponds and the like are mostly inaccessible to power boaters and get very little fishing pressure except during the spring and summer. Small waters offer a great opportunity to take advantage of one of the primary reasons you got into a plastic paddle boat to start with — they can go anywhere.