|Cold weather fishing! To me there is no more enjoyable time of year for fishing as when the water temps drop to below 50°. The rewards are big fish, small packs of boats and a solitude you don't really get any other time of year in the West Basin. Along with those perks there comes hazards and I'll pass on what I've found to help over the years.
1. Dress warm. It's not fun if you get cold. Gore Tex/Thinsulate combinations are great. I use Cabelas guide wear. There are other good ones out there and they all have the same features that I know of. Even better would be the Mustang or Stern Insulated Floatation suits that are similar to what the Coast Guard wears. If I was buying now that is what I would go for. Stay away from the cotton work clothes, they just won't get the job done unless you are moving around a lot. Gore Tex and Thinsulate come into play with Boots and gloves also. When the temps are over 25° I just wear insulated boots but when it gets colder I wear the Sorel type insulated to 100 below rubber boots. These things will keep your feet warm no matter how cold it gets. Gore Tex is important with boots and gloves as well as clothes because if you get too warm the moisture will wick out from them. Wet equals cold! I've tried the electric suits from Gerbing and found the one we used to be a real power hog and clumsy with the heavy cord you need to plug into. We've retired it!
Those little chemical heat packets are great for keeping your hands warm. Stick one in some oversized gloves or just put them in your pockets and keep your hands warm that way. My girlfriend even puts one in each boot. There are some chemical heaters with adhesive that you can attach just below the nape of your neck. It helps warm blood going to your hands and head and makes a big difference in feeling in our hands and ears. The same thing can be done at your lower back to warm the blood going to your legs and feet. Also carry more of the chemical heater packs than you need because I've found an inordinate amount of them either don't last long or don't work at all right out of the package.
2. Boat tips:
a. Make sure your boat is in good working order. Radio working, outboard drained on previous trip, battery's charged and an auxiliary motor is especially recommended because chances are you'll be alone out there.
b. After years of fishing in an open boat I finally broke down and put a cover on my boat this year. Man, Why did I wait so long! This is a fully enclosed cover that encloses the driver and passenger seats with the back of the boat open for fishing. If the sun is shining that is all the heat you need. I've got a disposable propane heater from Coleman to use this winter but haven't used it so far. I've had warnings to not use it and they are probably right but the temptation of warm air is too hard to resist.
c. Keep your boat neat and tidy. I use nothing but crankbaits at night and 99 percent cranks during daylight hours. There's no need to have a bunch of tackle and gear lying around. Nobody is as nimble or coordinated when it 35° as when it's 75°. Keep your trip hazards to a minimum. When you take off a lure either have a handy place to get it out of the way or put it back in the tackle box right away.
d. Launching: If you are the first to use a ramp it will probably be dry but as boats use the ramp the water that drains off them could turn to ice. Carry a bucket of road salt or small stones to help with traction. You may also have a boat that is frozen to the trailer bunks. I dunk it in the water, wait a few minutes while the engine is warming up and then use the outboard to assist in getting it loose. If you have some buddies around, rocking the boat helps too. I make sure both engines are working before leaving the dock. 4 stroke kickers are notoriously hard starting in cold weather and I'd rather fire it up at the comfort of the ramp rather than on the lake with a chop going on.
e. Ice at the ramp: Ice will bust taillights and tear off license plates. Thin ice can be broken easily but if it's a 1/2" or so you will need a spud bar or something to break it up as you back in the water. I like to have somebody at the back of the boat breaking ice as I slowly back the trailer in. Something that works even better is to follow the duck hunters out. Those steel and heavy aluminum boats work out great as icebreakers.
f. Retrieval: Before picking up your boat check for ice on the ramp and salt or throw some stones on it if needed. When you pull out make sure no ice is trapped between the bunks and bottom of the boat. If it is back the boat back in and get it out of there. It puts pressure spots on your hull and can cause warping or worse yet, holes. After pulling out, I pull the kill switches and crank both engines (while vertical) for a few seconds to make sure all water is drained from the engine and pumps and also make sure all live wells are empty and live well pumps are run dry for a couple of seconds. Also make sure to pull your hull drain plug.
3. Fishing: Daytime trips usually are deeper open water trips anywhere from a mile off shore to several miles off shore. This goes for pre and post ice trips as the fish are staging for the spawn. I typically only run 4-5 lines even if allowed more by law due to lack of dexterity if you get busy and cold. 2 inline boards off each side and maybe a flatline with a Ripstick or other shallow diver off the back run way way back (200 feet or more). I start with an 800 Reefrunner 80 back on an outside line on one side of the boat and 100 feet on the other no matter the water depth. I rarely fish deeper than that but if you feel the need to I would run a snap weight or something on an inside line and try to keep the lead short. Inside lines will be significantly shorter leads anywhere from 10 feet behind the board to 50 feet and they will generally be deep divers as well but Husky Jerks, Rogues, DJ's, and other smaller bodied less radical lures are started with inside. I change these 2 lures around constantly as the day goes on because they are the easiest to tweak. Like Travis I like to do a lot of turning. This gives a lot of speed variations and it's a good indicator of what the fish want in speed without having to adjust you throttle all the time. In cold water I like speeds under 1.3 MPH and sometimes get into the .7 and .8 range. If you are S-turning even at these slow speeds you will have outside lines going much faster. If these lures are taking more fish then it's time to speed up.
4. Night fishing: Night fishing is almost always done on some type of structure although there are those rare trips that an offshore bite will be better. I like to look for areas with nice developed bait balls but not an overwhelming amount of them. You typically don't mark many fish in shallow water on structure but if there is bait there there will be walleyes. Blue silver Husky Jerks (size 12 and 14) and Mooneye or Gold clown ripsticks run 30-80 feet back have caught more night eyes for me than any other colors but I feel that the night eyes are more into tune with color than the daytime walleyes are so be prepared to change colors often if you are on a slow bite.
I also have a night time rule of thumb that I use for speed. 1 MPH I like rogues, 1.5 I like Husky Jerks and speeds around 2 MPH I like ripsticks. Deep divers can be used but you will need to use extremely short leads on them and I've found that real slow is better so that they have a rolling action rather than a tight wobble. For extremely shallow (3' or less and shoreline bumping) I have a couple ripsticks that I cut the bill off of so they don't hardly dive at all. Rogues are also good for very shallow water.
On a quiet night listen for shad breaking the surface, trying to get away from predators. That's the best sign that I know of that fish are feeding. Don't try to drive your boat right through the feeders but extend your boards out and try to get your lures through the fish without spooking them with your boat.. 100-200 feet away should be sufficient. Occasionally you may come up on some shore anglers that you did not know were there. Be polite and get out of their fishing zone as quietly and quickly as possible. Don't get in an argument with them. They deserve some space since they aren't mobile like you are.
I've used all kinds of lights on my boards at night and the Thill Bobber light sticks work wonderfully because they are so light and so far they've been pretty reliable and if mounted on top of the board can be seen easily by other boaters. I drilled an 1/8" hole in the top of my boards and the reamed it to make tight fit for them. some people use a diffuser for them but I think they work fine without a diffuser. The chemical light sticks work well when it's warmer out but in really cold weather they don't generate a lot of light. Recently I've started using the 8 inch battery operated light sticks in a blue color and I'm liking them more all the time, they are really visible but easy on the eyes. I rubber band them right to the top of the board and the board doesn't get top heavy at all and they are cheaper and last longer then the thills and I believe you can change the battery's in them but haven't had to yet.
For a headlight the Ray-O-Vac type adjustable headlamps work really well but after wearing them for a few hours I get a headache. I found a really small LED light at Lowe's that clips onto you hat visor that puts out great light and because it's so small you forget it's there til you need it. It's not adjustable though so you have to tip your head more with this lite.
It is especially important at night to have things put away and orderly with a good place to keep your net handy. It's also advisable to keep light to minimum when you don't need it but to never turn off your navigation lights. Some guys have super spot lights on the back of there boats. It may not always hurt the fishing but it sure plays havoc on the other boaters night vision.
Most importantly keep a look out for other boaters and other obstructions on the water. If you have a chance to get out before dark it wouldn't hurt to take a quick trip through the area you plan on fishing to check things out beforehand. One of the biggest surprises I ever had was trying to troll through some nets at night.
Be safe and have fun!