Winter is absolutely not an excuse to put away your fishing tackle and paddles. It's actually a great time to catch schooling fish, so get up and go dancing. Admittedly, fishing in the winter requires more advanced preparation with respect to dressing appropriately. For kayak or canoe anglers, dressing for the weather takes on a whole new meaning. Hardly noticeable, even welcome in the summer, water dripping into your lap from the paddle on a 40-degree day is quite uncomfortable. Likewise, dipping hands and feet in the water, unprotected, can be bitter.

Becoming widely available in the late 1980s, neoprene clothing changed the face of cold-water sports. Kayak angling is no different - everything from pants to jackets, gloves and socks. One of the most versatile and economical pieces are neoprene chest waders. Better to buy the footed kind and pair them with slip-on wading shoes than the cumbersome, heavy-lugged, booted variety.

Layering of clothing is a better fit where movement is needed over wearing a heavy insulated jacket. Avoid water-absorbing cotton. Lycra, polar fleece, polypropylene - any synthetic cold-weather clothing works well. Whether fishing in rainy weather or not, use a rain jacket for the outer shell. Top it off with a toboggan-type hat. Life jackets should always be worn during cold weather, and the inflatable varieties fit that bill perfectly.

A number of schooling-prone reservoir species come to mind for winter fishing, but the top three would have to be striped bass, white perch and spotted bass. Not every reservoir in the state has all three, but all are known to school in even the coldest weather.

Cold water temperatures in February will cause baitfish, typically threadfin shad in most reservoirs, to layer up over deeper channels and flats. Threadfins begin to lose their ability to orient themselves correctly once water temperatures dip below 45. An extended dip below 42, and die-offs begin to occur. The best natural indicators of the locations of fish feeding on these roaming schools of bait are birds - sea gulls, terns and loons - diving into the schools of bait.

Now that we know how to dress for the dance and who our most likely date will be, let's focus on courting those fish from a kayak or canoe. Learning to "read water" helps make up for a lack of sonar and the ability to run 20 miles in a day trip. That means your access points will need to be fairly close, say within a half-mile of where you intend to fish.

Bridge crossings tend to fall high on the list for a variety of reasons. No. 1 is bridges usually cross deep water and they can put you right on the action, assuming there is suitable access to the water via some type of right of way. The second is that bridges allow for scouting of a potential area in advance of putting in to fish. If you see birds working the area a day or so before and there's no major change in weather patterns, chances are good fish will school again the next morning.

Lacking good bridge access, look for public areas that provide access to main-lake channels. A state park or public ramp area on a long point is ideal. Kayakers aren't limited to putting in only at paved ramps, and picnic/recreation areas are likely to be deserted in the winter, which will save you lots of paddling to get to the right water.

Last, avoid moving from one flock of birds to another when you're on the water. Let the birds show you where to fish and work that area. It's a misconception that one school of fish moves from one side of the lake to the other every 30 minutes. Recognize the school has sounded and keep working the area, even after the birds, and other boats, leave to chase another school. It will save you a bunch of paddling.

 

Dance a jig

The list of what baits to use when fishing during the winter can be a long one. Most anglers have their favorites, but one of particular use to electronics-deprived anglers is a jigging spoon. Jigging spoons serve more than one purpose for kayakers. First, make sure you match the size of the jig with the size bait in the area. Look for dying shad on the surface or pick a medium size to start; chances are you'll foul-hook a shad, and then you'll know for sure. When in doubt, err on the smaller side. Fish the jig vertically, snapping it straight up and allowing it to fall on a tight line. This action closely resembles the erratic behavior of a cold-shocked shad and will elicit a reaction strike even when fish are not actively feeding.

Another benefit of the jigging spoon is as a depth indicator. In colonial times, seafarers used to measure water depths by tossing out a lead weight on a string and measuring the distance to the bottom. Kayakers can keep track of the bottom in similar fashion, using the jig to hit bottom, them marking the spot on your line with a permanent marker. Any substantial difference in depths means you're right on the edge of a drop off or channel.