By William D. Anderson

Late Winter Fishing

By William D. Anderson

Every winter season brings its own unique set of conditions. Some winters are milder than others. Some bring a lot more snow than others. One thing that is common to every winter season is that it can be a great time to catch some big fish�if you know where to go.

If you can find open water, you can usually find fish in late winter. When most areas on a body of water are covered with several inches of ice, any open water typically is created artificially by the warming from some type of discharge. This warm, open water will usually attract fish. Another cause of open water is current, which can keep water from freezing. Cold water and current tend to school fish tightly in certain areas. It�s also the case that some species of fish naturally tend to migrate into certain areas during the winter months.

Let�s start with artificially warmed water. Every species has its own temperature preference. It can be difficult if not impossible for fish to find ideal conditions during late winter so they seek out areas that provide them with other benefits such as food, cover and oxygen. A warm water discharge will attract baitfish and help speed up metabolism. Discharges that have nearby cover will hold more fish than discharges that do not, but all warm water discharges will hold fish at times. Even if the temperature difference between the inflow and outflow is only a couple of degrees, baitfish will seek out the warmer water and the bigger fish will move in to feed on them.

So where can you find these warm water discharges? There are many around the Great Lakes. Most power plants require water to cool machinery and in some cases the water being discharged can be 20 to 30 degrees warmer than what was taken in. Factories, oil refineries and treatment plants are all good places to look. Be careful though, as some of these areas may be off limits for security reasons.

On the Great Lakes, one of the most sought after late winter species around discharges is the brown trout. These fish can grow quite large and put up a great fight. They can also be caught on many different types of lures and live bait. In-line spinners are a favorite lure, and small cranks baits and spoons will also work very well. Minnows and the good old worm and bobber are also good ways to catch them. Heavier gear is often required because brown trout can grow up to 40 pounds, and fish in the 20-pound range are common. Walleye, bass, rainbow trout, Coho and other species can also be found around warm water discharge areas. Many of the same tactics will catch these fish.

Some of the rivers around the Great Lakes will have enough current flow to keep the water from freezing for most of the winter. If there is no warm water discharge to be found, the fish will tend to school up tightly in certain areas. Walleye and sauger will stack up in deeper holes while bass will look for any area that will provide a break from the current. Very often you can find bass shallow in cold water during the middle of the day when the sun is shining. A good topographical map can help you identify places to start looking for these fish. Bends in rivers, deeper holes and areas with a lot of rocks or boulders are the best places to begin your search.

For walleye and sauger, vertical jigging or pulling three-way rigs can be the best way to catch these deeper dwelling fish. Using jigs tipped with minnows will outperform artificial baits every time. For bass and other species, larger jigs tipped with a plastic trailer, crank baits and blade baits will often work. Tube baits worked slowly along a rock bluff or timber-filled bank will also catch a lot of fish.

Steelhead fishing, one of the most popular types of winter fishing around the Great Lakes, exists in many of the smaller tributaries. Steelhead is a unique species. Most are stocked annually and because there are few places where conditions are conducive, there is very little natural reproduction that takes place. Steelhead also have excellent eyesight and a very keen sense of smell. They tend to migrate at certain times of the year according to sticking patterns, and they are extremely sensitive to their environment. Some of these fish can adapt to their specific streams, and this can cause them to run at different times. Other factors such as water temperature, light, flow and level also can influence steelhead movement.

Even though steelhead can be caught on many different types of presentations, they are known as a very finicky fish. What was working great the day before might not catch a single fish the next day. Drifting wax worms, spawn sacks and worms under a small float are all popular ways to catch them. The key is to keep the bait moving at a natural pace along the bottom. Many types of in-line spinners will catch fish and even a small steelhead can easily bend a cheap spinner out of shape, so choose baits that will allow the blade to spin even if the lure is slightly out of shape.

Another popular type of winter fishing that is more exclusive to the Great Lakes themselves is perch fishing. Certain areas in open water will hold this bottom dwelling fish. Usually the best way to find them is to look for the pack of boats sitting right on top of them. Otherwise it will take a high quality locator to be able to spot these fish on the bottom of deep, open water. Vertical jigging with minnows is the preferred method for catching them in deep water, although when they move in closer to shore they can be caught with many of the same lures that are used to catch trout.

Whether you are looking to fish from shore or boat, you are probably not too far from great winter fishing. Along the south end of Lake Michigan, there are several well-known discharges, such as the one at the BP plant in Whiting, Indiana. Not far from there in Illinois, you can find power plants along the Des Plaines and Illinois rivers. The artificial reef outside the Port of Indiana can hold perch. The water at the mouth of the port will often be slightly warmer due to discharges within the port, which is now off limits to fishermen. Further east at Michigan City, Indiana, the mouth of Trail Creek has been known to produce some large walleye during the winter months.

Lower Lake Michigan is the area I know best, but anglers elsewhere easily can find good late winter fishing spot. Lake Erie has several great steelhead streams along the Ohio shoreline, and a good guide to them can be found on the Ohio Division of Wildlife Web site (

Further north, winter fishing becomes scarcer later in the season due to deeper freezing and generally unsafe conditions. That said, brown trout still can be caught in open water along the Michigan and Wisconsin Lake Michigan shorelines during the winter. A very thorough list of Michigan access sites can be found at the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust Website ( In Wisconsin, anglers can find tributary access along the Lake Michigan coastline at the Wisconsin DNR Website (

There are countless other websites besides these that can lead you new water�even in winter. If you can brave the cold, there are fish to be caught.

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