Warm Water…Hot Bites!
By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson

Got a bad case of cabin fever? Don't despair. Diehard open-water anglers can have great fishing this very minute even in the coldest reaches of the far north. No need to count the days until spring. Try hot-water discharges at power plants and factories instead.

Anglers like Illinois Smallmouth Alliance President, Jon Graham, or outdoor writer/broadcaster, Chauncey Niziol, describe this winter pattern as, "Unbelievable." It's more than hot. It's steaming, and just what the doctor ordered to cure those mid-winter blues.

A bored Graham was sitting at home reading fishing magazines and thumbing through outdoor catalogs a few years ago when one of his friends turned him onto to discharge fishing. Since that day, his winter success centers on select Midwestern reservoirs built to cool the water that pumps through nuclear or coal-fired electric plants. Their discharges yield tremendous fishing even when temperatures hover near zero.

All reservoirs have been stocked. Most of these reservoirs contain gamefish native to the streams and rivers that empty into them. True, a few are off-limits in winter, closed to serve as bird sanctuaries for migrating waterfowl. But, many remain open to shore fishermen, and some will even allow boaters.

Niziol's cold-weather fun focuses on Lake Michigan near his Chicagoland home, but other Great Lakes have utility companies discharging hot water along their shores as well. Many hot water discharges host every fresh-water gamefish and panfish species you can name from trophy smallmouth, striped bass, white bass, channel catfish and crappies to Cohoes, brown trout and steelhead. Best of all, winter action can be the hottest you'll see anytime…anywhere. One late February day, Graham and two friends caught 63 smallmouth bass in one three-hour period at a reservoir near his home in downstate Illinois. Graham landed a 4-pound, 12-ounce smallie among them. A friend had a 5-pounder a few minutes later. That's not to mention the dozens of white bass they hooked, too.

"It was amazing," said Graham, 29. "I never saw fish stacked so tight. It was the best day I ever had for smallmouth in my life. I was so geared. It was like living in a dream."

Niziol, 45, said he's had days when he's hooked 20- to 25 fish. They include brown trout ranging from 3- to 8 pounds, steelhead over 10 and smallmouth from 1- to 4 pounds. The tactics Graham and Niziol use can be duplicated at hot-water reservoirs throughout the Midwest and anywhere on the Great Lakes.

When to go

Discharges from power plants and factories are key locations in winter for two important reasons. First, warm water fuels the food chain. Never mind that the air is frigid. The water stays warm enough to spark the growth of zooplankton. In turn, that attracts minnows that draw gamefish. Secondly, the warm water raises the body temperature of fish, so they shake off their normal winter lethargy and feed.

But, power plants don't operate 24 hours a day. Graham knows when Powerton Lake near Pekin in downstate Illinois is ready for action as soon as he steps from his car in the parking lot. Thick steam rises from the water's surface. Sometimes, heavy frost covers the ground. Both are signs the plant is pumping. Niziol said anglers from miles around know when it's time to head to the water near the Waukegan power plant north of Chicago for trout and salmon or to the Dean Mitchell power plant near Gary, Ind., for trout, steelhead and smallmouth bass. Smoke in the sky is the signal.

Fishing can remain fair to good for hours after the plants stop pumping hot water. But, action is best when water flows. Some power plants offer call-in services. Fishermen can phone ahead to find out if the plant is at work.

Tackle basics

Spinning gear is recommended whether fishing for smallmouth or crappie at reservoirs, big steelhead and brown trout on Lake Michigan or walleyes on Lake Erie. Longer rods make long casts easier in brisk winter winds. They also help make good hook sets. Use 7- to 9-footers for inland work, like St. Croix’s Avid AS86MF2. Great Lakes fishermen use noodle rods that stretch to 12 feet and more. Adjust the action and strength to suit whatever species you seek. For crappies, light-action rods can cast tiny jigs of 1/16th of an ounce. Choose a rod that will handle jigs up to 3/8ths for smallies or larger gamefish.

Finesse is needed; discharges tend to have cleaner, clearer water. Use light line in the 4 to 6-pound range. Ten-pound mono is the absolute most to consider even when fishing for the big ones. Loosen drags.

Bait is simple. Anglers line the bank at places like Clinton Lake in downstate Illinois to cast 1/16th or 1/8th ounce Fuzz-E-Grubs or a jig and twister off bridges where the hot water flows. Color choice is white, chartreuse or orange. Tip jigs with a wax worm or a piece of nightcrawler. Let it settle to the bottom, then reel back slowly just over the top of the rocks. Limits of slab crappies with bonus walleyes, striped bass and white bass are common.

Graham's favorite bait for smallmouth bass is a hair jig dressed with a big 3 or 4 inch minnow. The combination imitates the size of the forage that remains at this time of year. He sometimes substitutes a regular round-head jig or a bullet-head jig and a 3-inch twister. The weight varies from 1/8th to 3/8th ounces depending on the speed of the current created by the plant's pumps. He wants just enough bulk to keep the bait down near the bottom as he lifts and drops, lifts and drops, letting the current push it a few feet at a time.

Use scent.

Great Lakes anglers use egg sinkers or pyramid sinkers or the new NO-SNAGG sinkers from Lindy Little Joe to carry their streamer flies and flies of basic black with gold, chartreuse or orange out and down. Tip with cutbait or a piece of 'crawler. Leaders should be 24 inches in muddy water but, they may extend 50 inches and more in clear.

Location

Some spots at hot-water discharges hold fish certain days while others do not. Graham gets a clue by watching seagulls dive to the water's surface for wounded minnows. Gamefish are close by. "If I am standing 50 yards away from the birds, I am in the wrong place," Graham said.

Both Graham and Niziol encourage anglers to get away from the crowds and try new spots. On the Great Lakes, where boats are allowed, target the line where the water color changes between the discharge and the main lake.

Take advantage of hot-water discharges. The winter action will warm your spirit.