February 13, 2023
By Frank Sargeant
Winter in the South is a far cry from the winter much of the rest of the nation endures. But don’t let anybody tell you it doesn’t occasionally get downright brisk here in Dixie, even on the coast. A few freezing nights in late January can make the snowbirds from up north pretty unhappy—but they make coastal anglers very happy indeed.
That’s because the cold weather herds up all the seatrout, redfish and sheepshead from the bays, sounds and bayous and pushes them into deep holes well inland, sometimes into creeks barely wide enough to float an alligator. In these areas they seek refuge in the tannin-stained water flowing out of the coastal marshes and woodlands, which is usually significantly warmer than the water on the salt flats.
This makes it easy to get at them in a variety of small boats, particularly kayaks and canoes. These mini craft are ideal for many areas because they enable easy access to waters that don't have boat ramps. Their extremely shallow drafts allow anglers to slip into the shallowest of creeks in search of deeper potholes upstream, too.
The silent approach they allow is a huge plus in fooling fish that are sometimes exceptionally nervous in the confined waters of the creeks and bayous. And the low profile afforded by these crafts means less of a chance of spooking fish, even in clearest of water.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Backwater action typically gets underway across much of the South between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is when the first really severe cold fronts blow in from the northwest and send both air and water temperatures plunging. Anytime the water gets below 60 degrees, the fish are likely to head for the backcountry creeks and holes, making a 'yak an ideal tool for getting at them. They'll stay put usually until early March, depending on how soon things start to warm up; the fish move out sooner in Florida than in North Carolina, obviously.
While the action may turn on overnight on a big front, the fish often won't start biting until the weather settles a bit. It's usually best to fish the third or fourth day after a front, when that icy northwest wind has backed around to the east and slowed to a gentle breeze and the sun is shining bright.
And forget the dawn patrol. Though most of us enjoy a sunrise over the water, in winter the fishing often is best in the afternoon because the water is warmest then, particularly on sunny days.
A sunny afternoon after a strong full-moon or new-moon low tide that exposes lots of mud or dark sand bottom is ideal. The bottom soaks up the heat, and the fish move in to bask in the "spa" as the tide rises.
To locate spots, study navigational charts of the backwaters in your area, but remember many of the best are uncharted; that is, they’ve not been sounded for depth because they’re not considered "navigable." Google Earth is a good starting point for these areas.
In general, the deep holes are at sharp bends in the creeks. Other potential deep-water areas are where larger bays pinch down into narrow channels—the tidal water flowing in and out often scours these areas deeper than in the open water.
There's likely to be a hole anywhere a bridge crosses a creek because bridge builders often dredge up soil from the river to make an embankment to raise the height of the bridge. Not only that, but bridge pilings and riprap usually have an abundance of oysters and crabs that attract gamefish.
Other likely areas are where smaller creeks dump into larger creeks. These often have a shallow oyster bar at the mouth and then a drop just outside the bar. The drop may only be three or four feet, but that’s often enough to hold a lot of fish in winter in the backcountry.
Live shrimp tail-hooked on a 1/0 short-shank live-bait hook is a winner in the backcountry, but shrimp can be hard to find at baitshops in winter. Artificials like the D.O.A. Shrimp and Vudu Shrimp, and scented lures like Berkley GULP! Shrimp and Fishbites Fightin’ Shrimp, are all good choices, particularly for redfish. Fish them on 1/8-ounce heads in water up to 5 feet deep and 1/4-ounce heads in deeper water.
Artificial shrimp are also winners for trout, as are slow-sinking twitch baits like the classic 52M Mirrolure, fished very slowly a few feet off bottom. Soft jerkbaits, including the scented Z-Man Jerk ShadZ on a wide-gap 5/0 hook and the Slick Lure, are also great for this duty. Make extended pauses between jerks to score on cold-slowed trout.
Anywhere outside South Florida, you’ll want to wear waders or a dry suit when you chase backcountry fish in a kayak in winter. Wet feet and 40- to 50-degree air temperatures will not make for a happy day of fishing.
Of course, you’ll also want to wear a compact, inflatable PFD, especially when wearing waders, in the event you flip. And, as all experienced ’yakkers know, you will eventually flip the boat, so be prepared. Attempting to swim in waders filled with water will lead to tragedy.
Most of the areas you’ll fish might be 3 to 15 feet deep, but you're likely to have to cross bars that are dry or only inches deep to get there. The waders allow you to push or drag the boat across these areas to get at water that flats boats can’t reach until high tide.
You'll also want to dress in layers, with wool or wicking poly next to your skin and at least a couple layers over that so you can peel down as the day warms or cover up if a cold wind starts to blow. Hand warmers and insulated waterproof gloves are also a must if you get out there on days when the temperature is 40 or below.