American Fly Fishing

Bass + Poppers = Winter Magic
By Lynn Burkhead

Standing there, with a bunch of empty fly line coiled across the surprisingly warm surface of the water, I could barely refrain from laughing.
   On the one hand, there I was on the deck of Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing guide Rob Woodruff’s boat having just failed at a prime chance to catch an East Texas largemouth bass weighing 4 pounds or more. I had struck hard behind the fish’s boiling surface take, but knew immediately that it was not hard enough. Try as I might, I never could quite catch up to the green-and-black-tinted bass as it crashed toward a submerged bed of Hydrilla. Eventually, the inevitable took place, a bit of slack line caught up to the fish, and in a somersaulting cartwheel fashion, the bass launched itself airborne—with contempt, it seemed to me—and emphatically threw the size 1/0 popper back in my general direction.
   But on the other hand, I was on the deck of Woodruff’s Xpress bass boat in late winter, flinging frog-colored poppers at largemouth bass. And all of this just three days after a severe ice storm and frigid temperatures—in the teens—had gripped the region for the umpteenth time during the good old-fashioned winter of 2013/14.
   I figured this was hardly a time to complain about anything: Bass. Poppers. In winter. Nope, I had no complaints at all.
   Nor would any fly angler fishing the Pineywoods region near Pittsburg, Texas, where not one, but two power-plant impoundments crank up the heat every winter while setting out a big welcome mat for bass anglers looking for a cold-weather fix. Lake Welsh and Lake Monticello boast winter fly fishing as good as it gets. At least, that is, without hopping on a jet and heading to a tropical paradise in the Caribbean or to a bass haven deep in the heart of Mexico.
   “These are two great lakes for fly fishermen to target in East Texas, especially during the colder months,” says Woodruff. “In fact, late winter and early spring are the prime times to hit both Welsh and Monticello. Depending on how much power generation there is, you’re actually going to be fishing conditions that you’ll find on other lakes six to eight weeks later.”


Welsh: Pineywoods’ Popper Heaven
Sitting just east of Pittsburg, Welsh is a 1,269-acre reservoir impounded in 1976. While the lake-record largemouth is a 15.23-pound behemoth caught in 1983, this fishery isn’t really known as a lunker factory. Florida-strain largemouth bass, famous for their impressive growth rates, were stocked twice in the first years after the lake was created. The supply of warm water keeps Welsh’s bass a bit more modest size these days. The lake’s temperature rarely drops below the upper 50s, even in the coldest of winter weather.
   “Because of the constant warm water, they have a high metabolic rate and tend to grow really fast and, therefore, they don’t live quite as long,” explains Woodruff. “In recent years, the biggest fish we’ve been landing have been upward of 6 pounds. This last winter [2013/14], our biggest fish went just past 6.5-pounds.”
   With a mixture of primary and secondary points, an island, cattails, sunken timber, laydown logs, beds of Hydrilla, and stands of coontail, Welsh abounds in bass-attracting structure and cover for anglers to target with poppers. And with East Texas experiencing its coldest winter in a quarter century last year, there were few days that Welsh’s three generating units at the coal-fired electrical plant weren’t discharging warm water. According Woodruff, that situation made for some epic fishing.
   “Most years, the warmer water tends to be in the southern half of the lake since the discharge is in about the middle of the lake and the uptake is at the southern end,” recalls Woodruff, who has fished this water steadily since 1990. “But there is some circulation through the lake and this past winter, there was so much power generation that even the northern half had some warmer water.”
   While East Texas occasionally has frigid weather like that described at the outset of this story, the truth is that most winter days see low temperatures dip into the 30s and highs reach into the lower 50s, tailor-made conditions for winter popper fishing.
   “I’d say it probably has the most viable number of days of popper fishing that you can find anywhere in Texas,” adds Woodruff. “Most years, there are up to six months that you can catch fish on top here.”
   How good can the action be? 
   “There have been some winters with days where you’d go down the bank and catch a fish on just about every cast,” says Woodruff. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a 100-fish day there, but we have had several 50-fish days. In fact, back in 2012, I hit a 14-day stretch where I fished Welsh with clients on eight different days. It was during February and March and we averaged 36 fish a day on those trips with numerous fish in the 3- to 3-and-a-half pound range. And we rarely threw anything other than poppers.”
   Woodruff is something of a popper specialist, keeping a huge box filled with poppers of various shapes and sizes, and faces that are either cupped or flat. He insists all his poppers have weed guards—necessary at Welsh because Woodruff espouses fishing them around the lake’s laydown logs, across the edges and potholes of Hydrilla beds, over coontail stands, near the edges and irregularities of cattail stands, and near man-made fish attractors.
   “You have to throw poppers as tight to cover as possible,” he advises. “If you’re not occasionally getting stuck, you’re probably not putting the popper into the right spots.”
   When a popper does find the right spot, Woodruff says to retrieve it back to the boat in a cadence that the fish want. Some days, that will be with a faster retrieve; other days, it will be with a slower retrieve with plenty of pauses.
   “Keep the rod tip pointed into the water,” he further advises. “Give the fly a good, solid pop that produces an audible sound. And fish it all the way out toward the boat.”


Monticello: Big Bass Possibilities
If Welsh is one of the state’s better kept fishing secrets, the nearby 2,001-acre Lake Monticello—also a power-plant lake, which was impounded in 1972—is one of the state’s most popular bass fisheries. With a record largemouth of 14.09 pounds and a slot limit change in the late 1990s that protects bass in the 14- to 24-inch range, this Titus County fishery is known for its trophy-size lunkers.
   “Monticello tends to be a better big-bass lake,” says Woodruff. “I’ve had several trips in the winter months when we caught a half-dozen bass over 6 pounds in a single day. The biggest one that I’ve caught on a fly at Monticello was just shy of 9 pounds, but there are numerous fish in that lake that are even bigger.”
   Even the average-size bass are nothing to sneeze at. Woodruff says that on a typical day at Monticello, fly anglers can expect to catch a dozen or more fish weighing 3 to 6 pounds. East Texas professional bass fishing legend Kelly Jordon, a multitime tournament champ on the BASS, FLW Tour, and Major League Fishing circuits, agrees with Woodruff, noting that Monticello holds “lots of 4 to 6 pounders.”
   James Caldemeyer, another well-known East Texas professional bass angler and guide, also gives Monticello an enthusiastic thumbs-up for quality bass. “Double-digit fish are rare but not unheard of,” he says. His personal best was a 9-pound fish. He says that the “numbers of 3- to 6-pound fish are significant at Monticello and the lake is lots of fun during the winter months when all of the other area lakes are cold and dead.”
   Like Welsh, Monticello fishes better as the weather gets cold. But the jury is currently out in regard to how active the coal-fired power-plant lake will become due to changing environmental regulations.
   “What Monticello will be in the future is hard to pin down right now,” explains Woodruff. “This past year was supposed to be a transition year down to just one generator going in the wintertime as opposed to three in the summertime. But it was so cold last winter, they had to fire up all three more often to meet the power demands. As a result, the fishing was really good last winter, the best it has been in a few years.”
   But Woodruff says all is not necessarily lost if the lake returns to a more normal wintertime status. “If the water is cooler year-round, that will allow the bass’s metabolism to be more like it is in other East Texas water bodies. That could mean that a fishery already producing plenty of bass just under 10 pounds could get even better. In fact, it seems to me that the bass size has already increased at Monticello since the water isn’t as hot as it once was.”
   But how will a changing fishery affect prospects for popper-fishing enthusiasts? Will subsurface techniques become more
important here? 
   “Monticello is still a really good lake for poppers right now,” says Woodruff, who has caught bass up to 8 pounds on the surface. “It can be as good as Welsh for poppers, especially in the arm of the lake that extends under the railroad trestle. But subsurface flies around the standing timber—it has a fair amount of that, along with cattails, riprap, and some Hydrilla—are usually more of a factor here than on Welsh.”
   Such offerings are especially important near Monticello’s warm-water discharge and areas that provide current. “On Monticello, there is often enough water movement that you need to pay attention where the down-current side is around structural features and cover in the water,” explains Woodruff. “Like trout do in a stream, the bass will usually position themselves in the lee of that current and wait for it to bring food items their way.”
   When there is current from wintertime power generation, Caldemeyer notes such places are prime spots to target, and he says, “The bridges will [also] hold large numbers of fish as they relate to the current moving while the stacks are generating. In the winter, most of the fish activity revolves around the stacks. If they are running, the fish are biting!”


Flies and How to Use Them
When it comes to poppers, Woodruff most often uses size 1/0 flies, occasionally smaller, tied with rubber legs and, to a lesser degree, some form of hackle. His favorite fly colors are chartreuse, white, or frog-green patterns most of the year. In the fall, he occasionally ties on a shad-imitating popper with blue/silver and black/silver color combinations. And during low light, he sometimes opts for a black popper to give the fish a good silhouette against the sky.
   While poppers are effective on both lakes, as are Dahlberg Divers, Polk’s Dirty Rats, and Abney’s Upside Down Frogs, neutral-buoyancy subsurface flies with plenty of built-in tantalizing action are what Woodruff specializes in at the tying bench. In fact, his subsurface patterns, such as the Lake Fork Leech, Swamp Rabbit, I.C. Fly, Sili Shad, Rob’s Patassa, and his new articulated Dizzy Shad, have all found their way into catalogs, fly shop bins, and fly boxes all over Texas and the South.
   Because of the warm-water discharge on these lakes, day-to-day weather changes during winter aren’t much of a factor in determining tactics. “You can pretty much throw out what the weather is doing most days, since it just doesn’t have the impact on these lakes that it does at others,” confirms Woodruff. “The barometer—especially when it is really high after a cold front passage—is an exception, of course. But you’ll see these fish being active most of the year due to the warmer
water temperatures.”
   Because of the warmer water and current found in both lakes, fish will set up housekeeping in different spots as the winter season goes along.
   Woodruff advises, “You probably need to pay as much attention to the temperature and current as you do the depth [when reading your sonar]. The water temperature can vary greatly from one section of the lake to another, from one creek to another, and the fish will key in on that and position themselves where they’ve got the best thermal profile and ability to feed.”
   What about the annual spawning phases here? Woodruff says the bass start spawning on these power-plant lakes as early as the full moon around the winter solstice. “So the pre-spawn starts most years in late November or early December on Welsh and Monticello,” he explains. “The spawn itself is usually in mid- to late December, January, and on into February. And the post-spawn is typically when the pre-spawn is occurring at other area lakes.”
   Anglers must also consider three other seasonal concerns on Welsh or Monticello. All involve safety, the first for the angler and the latter two for caught-and-released fish. On some days, especially when northerly winds usher in subfreezing temperatures, the wintertime fishing can have a surreal Alfred Hitchcock-like film quality to it as vast amounts of steam roll off the water and waterfowl and other birds take flight through
the mist.
   “It can get so foggy during cold weather that it can be hard to navigate and you have to rely on a GPS to slowly get around,” warns Woodruff. “Sometimes, you can even get ice forming on the deck of your boat, so you have to be careful there with
your footing.” 
   Woodruff asks that anglers make fish care a prime consideration, too. “In the wintertime,” he explains, “caught bass are coming from very warm water into much colder air temperatures, so you have to be careful with fish. You don’t want to lift them out of the water for very long at all. In fact, on the coldest days, it’s best to never remove them from the water as you’re unhooking the fish.”
   Similar care is needed in the summertime, albeit for a different reason. That’s when the combination of near triple-digit air temperatures and very warm water produce great stress on caught bass. Woodruff advises landing and releasing bass very quickly, fishing during the cooler nighttime period, and even taking a couple of months off until fall arrives.


Fish and Food
Fly anglers who love casting poppers for bass are not likely to get bored at Welsh or Monticello, but all that fishing is likely to make them hungry. The Pittsburg Hot Link Restaurant is a must-visit eatery for those who enjoy sampling the better-known culinary hotspots of Texas. The town of 4,497 people also has numerous bed-and-breakfast inns that allow visitors to sample the region’s springtime peaches, blueberries, and strawberries. Afterward, guests can visit the Witness Park and Prayer Tower, a notable town landmark with four Paccard bells from France that were donated by local businessman Bo Pilgrim of Pilgrim’s Pride chicken fame. And then there’s the Ezekiel Airship Museum, along with the Texas Rural Heritage/Farmstead Museum, and numerous antique shops around the town’s historical Main Street.
   But of course it’s the fishing that brings most anglers to this beautiful Pineywoods region of East Texas. And for plenty of good piscatorial reasons, too—even if those reasons, the spunky largemouth bass of Welsh and Monticello, enjoy playing the rude host when a popper is tossed their way on a winter day.


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