Fish are cold blooded animals. As the water temperature drops and their bodies cool, they slow down. They don't feed as much because they can't move very quickly. Their feeding turns from aggressive pursuit to methodical ambush. Cold seatrout will tend to semi-bury themselves in a muddy bottom seeking warmth or insulation from the mud. If and when they do feed, they will not move fast or far for food.
A slower bait presentation is needed. If you are fishing an artificial bait, a small, slow crankbait or a jig fished on or close to the bottom is in order. Fish slow and methodical, and with lots of patience.
Look for Deeper Water
In a lot of cases, deeper water will mean slightly warmer water. Fish aren't stupid. They know how to migrate to areas of warmer water.
Deeper holes in creeks, channel cuts - anywhere the water is deeper - is where you are liable to find fish congregated. That's because they are looking for warmer water. It's the same reason we go indoors in cold weather - to find warmth! Plan to fish deeper and slower.
Look for Shallow Flats
On sunlit days, shallow water will tend to warm up from the sun as it reaches higher into the sky. Baitfish will tend to migrate to this warmer water, and of course the predator fish will be right behind them.
I look for mud flats and grass flats along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) at high tide. I like to fish a day where the high tide will be around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. That gives the sun plenty of time to warm the shallower water, and the fish time to move onto these flats.
Your lure selection can vary a bit on these flats from what we talked about earlier. That's because the water has warmed a bit, and fish are actively looking to feed. So the cold water syndrome will have abated slightly. A lot of this will be sight fishing, and it will mean casting baits that match what the fish are feeding on in this shallow water - shrimp, crabs, and small baitfish.
Fish Ahead of a Cold Front
Cold fronts mean not only cold air and water, but also high pressure. Biologists tell us that fish will "feed up" ahead of a cold front. The reason they give? Fronts generally mean winds and storms. Water is stirred, and bait - or food for the fish - becomes harder to locate and catch. So the fish will feed more ahead of the front.
The relative pressure will drop as the front approaches. Every storm is a mini low pressure area of its own. So as the rain and wind approach, the pressure drops. The fish sense this pressure drop and instinct tells them things are about to get sloppy. So they tend to feed more to last until the water clears. That is at least a part of the reason that they tend to have lock jaw and not feed right after the front goes through.
So, watch the weather and plan you trip to be a day or two before a cold front rolls through. In my experience, you will catch more fish during this interval.
Bottom LineI realize that on days when the air temperature is 10 degrees and saltwater ice is forming along the docks and shore that you will probably not catch any fish. I can tell you I won't catch any fish on a day like that - because I won't be out there!
But on days where the weather has warmed a bit and the sun is shining, I will be trying to observe these tips to find and catch some wintertime fish.