April 30, 2015
By Dan Johnson
From walleyes to white bass and lake trout to largemouths, knowing how to play the wind can mean the difference between a banner day and a trip you'd rather forget.
With the exception of dead-calm days, wind is an ever-present factor affecting when, where, and how to fish for a variety of gamefish. And even in breathless conditions, the after-affects of recent gusts can still affect the underwater world.
Depending on its strength, duration, and your location when it starts to blow, wind can be a blessing or a curse. When you're trying to stalk close to a streambank and pitch a short cast to a basking trout, wind is your friend because it ripples the surface, making it harder for fish to see you.
Conversely, if you're caught far offshore in a small craft during a gale, wind can be your worst nightmare. On waters ranging from the massive and unforgiving Great Lakes to shallow, easily windswept inland waters and even canyon reservoirs that act like hard-rock wind tunnels when the breeze blows, wind can make fishing impossible and threaten your life.
To simplify the task of making wind work for you, we've assembled the following tips and scenarios.
Walleye Bite Igniters
Whether it shatters a glass-calm surface with a classic walleye chop or whips up a sea of frothy whitecaps, a stiff breeze reduces light penetration, sparking a number of chain reactions beneath the waves.
On the walleye front, it encourages hungry 'eyes to leverage their low-light visual superpowers into a feeding advantage over baitfish. Walleyes that during calm weather held on or near breaklines on the edges of shallow feeding areas charge into skinny water to feed. Adding to the attraction, eddies or circular gyres formed by wind-driven water currents collect plankton and other food items along the windswept bank, attracting baitfish and in turn, larger predators.
Offshore, clouds of tiny, light-sensitive zoo- and phytoplankton rise in the water column in response to dwindling daylight. These building blocks of the food chain are often accompanied by an entourage of small baitfish and large predators. When the parade reaches comfortable water temperatures and oxygen levels near the surface, feeding binges of epic proportions can transpire.
How Wind Affects Trout
Few fish are as susceptible to the whims of the wind as trout. When a breeze ripples the surface, hungry browns, rainbows, and lake trout gorge on baitfish and other sustenance in surprisingly shallow water.
Points, inside turns, and flats in depths of two to 15 feet are all prime lies, and it's a great time to cast or troll a variety of presentations, from spoons and soft-plastic swimbaits to hard-bodied, minnow-imitating stickbaits.
But everything changes when the breeze subsides and the surface flattens — particularly on a bright, sunny day. "You can forget aggressive tactics," says longtime trout fishing guide Bernie Keefe, who plies Colorado's high-mountain reservoirs. "But you don't quit fishing."
Keefe copes with calm by finessing 4- to 5-inch-long, soft-plastic tubes and shad baits, in shades of gray, green, or brown. "Rig them on a light jighead, make a long cast and pull the bait along bottom, alternately dragging, twitching, and pausing it for up to 15 seconds at a time," he says.
Bass In Heavy Seas
Strong winds can make boat control challenging, but the rollers they rile often trigger feeding sprees among a variety of gamefish.
If largemouth bass are your passion, keep in mind that bucketmouths hunkered in a shoreline weedbed often strap on the feedbag in a blow. Slashing a suspending jerkbait in the wave troughs along the weedline or above weed tops can produce violent strikes, as can slow-rolling a hard-thumping, Colorado-blade spinnerbait.
Smallmouth fans should note that while waves can also spark hot bites in rocky shallows, they can also force bronzebacks a bit deeper if toothy northern pike move onto reef tops. Pike love all but the most extreme winds, and hungrily prowl weedlines and wave-tossed rocky structure.
In fact, wind-whipped rocky points at the mouth of a bay or offshore rock structures can be overlooked hotspots for big pike. Conversely, when the wind dies, so does the action as pike filter off to deeper haunts.
Fishing Wind-Driven Currents
That wind whips waves across the water is no surprise. But few anglers fully realize the currents this process creates, both at and beneath the surface.
For starters, a steady wind blowing in one direction establishes a surface current moving toward shore. In warm, sunny weather, this piles warm water along the windward bank. This can be a huge factor in the springtime, when baitfish and predators including panfish, bass, walleyes, pike, and other gamefish are attracted to water temperatures warmer than the main lake.
On the other hand, wind pushing frigid surface water against shore after a cold front arrives can shut down a hot bite faster than anything.
In extreme cases, strong, sustained winds in one direction can actually cause water levels to drop significantly on the upwind side of the lake. On Lake Erie, for example, a steady wind from the west can push enough water eastward to lower water in the incoming Detroit River — located on the upwind side of the system — so much that boat ramps become unusable overnight.
It's worth noting that due to the Coriolis force — a product of the Earth's rotation that affects the direction of moving objects — currents don't mirror wind direction, but are bent to the right in the northern hemisphere. The amount of deflection depends on the size of the lake, with a max of about 45 degrees occurring on the high seas and massive inland waters. Deflection also increases with wind speed up to about 14 to 18 mph.
Wind-driven currents don't end at the surface. All that moving water has to go somewhere, and typically it gets diverted when it hits the shoreline, which sends it back across the lake in the opposite direction. This "reverse current" is also affected by Coriolis force, which means it careens off the bank like a pool ball bouncing off a cushion, at another angle to the right of the surface current.
All of this sounds complicated, but is worth understanding. Reverse currents can have a big impact on fish location on offshore structure. For example, on Minnesota's legendary walleye factory Mille Lacs Lake, veteran fishing guide Mike Christensen factors subsurface flows when attacking reefs with slip-bobber rigs, jigs, and crankbaits spring through fall.
"Walleyes love incoming current," he says. When the wind first picks up, he often anchors on the upwind face of a structural complex. "It's hard to go wrong on the windward side at that point," he says. "However, if the lake has seen two or three days of steady wind, a reverse current can develop, causing the current to flow against the wind. When the leeward side of the structure gets hit by that current, walleyes often abandon the upwind face and slide around the back."
Wind-generated currents move more than water, of course. Clouds of plankton can be pushed around by the flow, taking with them small baitfish and larger predators. Here, too, understanding where the current is heading can help you play the wind and intercept concentrations of active gamefish other anglers miss.