Winter’s not far away and anglers all over the country are stashing tackle, covering boats and looking forward to another great season next year. A few, however, are just warming up for the fantastic months ahead. They don’t care if the thermometer is in the 30s or if the local lake is rimmed with ice. When they head to their favorite winter holes, they won’t be counting seconds before they drag a bait across the bottom a few inches. Instead, they’ll be burning spinnerbaits and crankbaits, maybe even chugging topwaters across the surface—and be catching boatloads of fish. These guys are working the warm water discharges of power plants, water treatment facilities and even the outflows of industrial sites.
Virtually any warm-water discharge will hold fish in the winter. Coal-fired and nuclear power plants, even wastewater treatment facilities pump out a steady stream of tepid water that draws bait by the ton and bass and other gamefish by the truckload. Stripers, largemouths, smallmouths, catfish, crappie, hybrids and white bass flock to discharges in freshwater, and a variety of in-shore saltwater fish gather around warm-water outflows, also.
Power plants typically use water from a lake or river to cool generators and then dump that water back into the same lake or river. While nuke plants typically run all the time and therefore pump a constant flow of heated water, coal-burning plants often run only during periods of peak demand. In other words, they don’t always pump hot water back into the lake. And when they don’t the fish usually don’t eat, especially later in the winter when the rest of the lake is ice-cold. The action can come to an abrupt halt. The fish, however, don’t leave; they just wait for the next dose of heated water to start flowing.
It’s almost as if the fish become trapped in that warm water. Why not? If the surrounding lake or river is hovering in the low 40s, there’s no reason for fish basking in the 65-degree warmth of a power plant discharge to go anywhere else. They are in their own little universe, chasing bait across the surface and crashing lures with reckless abandon while the rest of the lake is shivering through another frigid winter.
Larger power plants pump out millions of gallons of water a day, creating a powerful current that can make handling a boat challenging and finding fish a chore. But veteran power plant anglers know that the strong current actually puts fish in predictable locations. Submerged ledges and humps, eddies along the shore and edges between current and slack water all hold fish. Although bass, stripers and other fish will move into the fast water to feed, they typically hang in places that offer a respite from the constant flow, darting into the current to grab a passing morsel of food. With a little practice, you’ll find those current breaks and you’ll catch a bunch of fish.
So what do you use? It’s tough to beat live bait in the winter, but lures that mimic shad can be just as effective as the real thing. Soft-body shad baits, also known as swim baits, are killer. Crankbaits can be fantastic, as well, and under the right conditions, so can topwaters.
It’s hard to believe that a bass or a striper will bust a Zara Spook when there’s snow on the deck of your boat, but what’s happening above the water doesn’t matter to the fish. As long as their world feels like summer, they’ll be acting like it’s summer.
It’s not summer, of course, which is why it’s extremely important to wear a life vest all the time. Falling over is never fun, but in the winter when you’re wearing multiple layers of clothes, taking a plunge can actually be deadly. Keep an extra set of clothes in your truck, don’t fish alone, and have a plan if you do fall into the drink.