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Water temperature and the role it plays in fishing


Increase Your Angling Success...



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February 01, 2009
Just about everyone who has spent much time fishing has learned the buzz words associated with the sport. In the sport fishing arena everyone is enamored with specific details, like how deep are they, what baits are they biting on and of course that often critical piece of fishing information, what's the water temperature?

Depending on the species you're targeting, a thorough understanding of water temperature and how it impacts on fish feeding habits can make a huge difference in fishing success. Some species of fish are very sensitive to even modest changes in water temperature, while others can seemingly tolerate a wider band of temperature ranges. Understanding this bit of fish physiology is a foundation for angling success.

Going fishing with a solid understanding of how water temperature impacts on fishing is one piece of information every angler should research and commit to memory. On the water, these precious bits of information may well pay off in bigger fish and more action!

Water Temperature

And Fish Activity

It's commonly believed among anglers that water temperature dictates both fish activity levels and feeding behavior. This common belief is only true in part. Fish are cold blooded creatures and it's true that in colder water fish are more lethargic than when the water is warmer. Of course the impact of water temperature is relative to the species, but it's true that colder water triggers a somewhat slower metabolism rate across the board. This in turn means that fish need less food energy in cold water to survive. It doesn't mean that fish don't feed in cold water.

Think of it a different way. In cold water fish require less food to maintain their physical condition, but fish still need to eat and when they do it often happens in a big way.

At this point it's important to note that water temperature alone doesn't determine how interested a fish may or may not be in eating. Water temperature is more likely to determine how often a fish eats. In warmer water fish digest their food quickly and are forced to feed more often. In colder water the digestion process slows and fish have the luxury of feeding more sparingly.

Just about every popular species of panfish and game fish in the northern latitudes have adapted to feeding year around in a wide range of water temperatures. It depends on the species, but most fish feed actively enough in cold water that anglers can target them with success.

Understanding Warm Water And Cold

Water Species

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Smallmouth are among the most temperature sensitive of all popular sport fish. Very cold water can literally shut down smallmouth activity. Mark Romanack photos
Biologists categorize fish into groupings by their preferred water temperature ranges. Species like bass, walleye, pike, muskies, panfish, catfish and others are loosely grouped into the category of warm water fishes. Trout, salmon, char and whitefish are considered cold water species.

This cut and dried category system is a touch flawed and can be misleading. For example, northern pike are considered a warm water species, but during their adult life pike strongly favor cooler water temperatures than the other members of this category. On the cold water side, brown trout actually thrive in water temperatures that are as warm as those favored by walleye or bass.

This fact and the fact that fish don't always behave as we expect are evidence that as anglers we have over misrepresented the role water temperature plays in many common fishing situations.

Anglers must learn how individual species react to changes in water temperature. Here's a great example of how a popular member of the warm water group reacts to extreme changes in water temperature. Smallmouth bass are most active and most often caught in cool to warm water. This particular species feeds only sparingly in very cold water, compared to other members of the warm water fish group like walleye or pike.

To be effective as a smallmouth angler it's critical to fish this species at the times of year when the water temperature ranges from the upper 40s to the mid 70s.

Adult northern pike are another prime example of a fish that needs to be targeted during a rather precise range of water temperatures. Big pike are found in shallow water only during the spring and fall when the water temperatures are between the mid 40's and low 60's. When the water warms beyond this point these temperature sensitive fish move into deeper water where they can find this temperature comfort zone.

The logical time to target these fish is when they are in shallow water and more readily accessible to angling methods. During the summer these big pike disperse throughout the lake making them much harder to locate and catch.

Thinking Outside

The Box

After spending the better part of 30 years on the water, I've learned that even what may appear to be credible sources of fishing information often end up being misleading. My favorite example that emphases this point centers on cold water walleye fishing.

When I first started fishing walleyes seriously in the early 1980's it was a commonly held belief among fishing authorities that walleye would not bite active baits like a crankbait or spinner when fished in water cooler than 50 degrees. Somehow the magic temperature of 50 degrees was centered out as the cut off for applying trolling tactics. In water colder than 50 degrees it was suggested that live bait rigging and jigging was the only practical solution.

Unfortunately, I believed this commonly published and angler perpetuated bunk for a long time. Finally a few of us forward thinking anglers started experimenting with popular trolling methods in cold water conditions. What we found was that by simply modifying the trolling approach, we could catch walleye in water much colder than 50 degrees. In fact, the serious fall crankbait bite for walleye doesn't start until the water is well below 50 degrees!

Using crankbaits with a more subdued action like minnow divers and stickbaits turned out to be a major part of the puzzle. Slowing down the trolling speed to 1.5 MPH or below was the second piece of the puzzle. Match up the right crankbaits at the right speed and it's amazing how many walleye can be caught trolling in icy cold water.

These days I typically troll for walleye until ice forces me to put my boat away for the season! Salmon are another good example of how important it can be to think outside the box.

King salmon are famous for being a species that favors cold water. While I believe that given ideal conditions salmon would rather feed in cold water, the dramatic changes in the available forage species across the Great Lakes has created a situation where salmon often are forced to feed in water well outside this comfort zone.

I commonly catch kings in water warmer than you might expect. In the same token, it's also common to catch salmon in water much deeper than we ever dreamed they would live. In both cases the reason these fish are feeding in non-traditional places is because they have been forced to seek out food wherever they can find it.

Thinking outside the box and fishing salmon in warmer waters or in deeper places than normally considered mainstream are ways we can continue to catch fish in an ever changing environment.

Summing It Up

The big picture regarding water temperature boils down to the role it plays in fish feeding activity. Understanding how water temperature influences fish behavior is a serious slice of knowledge. Using this knowledge to target popular species at peak fishing times is the fast track to success.

Spend some time and learn the ideal water temperature ranges for your favorite fish species. Armed with this knowledge it's possible to not only increase angling success, but also to maximize your fishing enjoyment.

The final step is experimenting to learn how to catch certain fish outside of these preferred temperature ranges. By modifying popular angling methods, it's within reach to stretch the window of opportunity and catch fish in water warmer or colder than you might expect. That's fishing at its finest.

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