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Red hot fishing in record cold weather: Secrets from an award-winning angler

A citation rainbow trout rests on the snow. (Stephen Miklandric)

Imagine if you were trying to win the Creel Angler of the Year award from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF).   There is a good chance you would go fishing almost every weekend of the year, even during the winter months, just to accumulate the dozens of trophy fish needed to win the award.

Stephen Miklandric, three time winner of the VDGIF Creel Angler of the Year award, is vying for his fourth title this year.  Stephen has been out on the water every weekend since January 4 catching an amazing number of trophy citation fish.

Since early January, Stephen has caught 69 citation fish in six different species!   That’s more citation fish landed this year than most fishermen will catch in a lifetime, and he has recorded those numbers during the cold and snowy Polar Vortex Winter of 2014.

A 92 lb blue catfish caught on February 20, 2014 on the Tidal James in Prince George County. (Stephen Miklandric)

I caught up with Stephen Miklandric this month to discuss his winter fishing success and to learn some of his secrets for catching trophy fish.   In addition, I wanted Stephen to take me fishing so I might have a chance to catch a trophy fish myself.

Stephen was happy to cooperate with both requests and below is our interview about catching Virginia citation fish during the winter.   And, yes, he helped me to catch the biggest freshwater fish of my life, a 38 lb 5 oz citation blue catfish a day before our latest March snowstorm.  My fish photo is at the end of this article.

Below Stephen shares some of his winter fishing stories and tips:

Kevin Ambrose (KA): Which species of fish are most active during the winter in Virginia?

Stephen Miklandric (SM): I have the most success with trout (brown, rainbow & brook), blue catfish, muskellunge, chain pickerel,, crappie, and yellow perch.   These species of fish are active during the winter months.

KA: Where do you fish most during the winter season?

SM: I fish the streams of southwest Virginia for trout, the New River for muskies and walleyes, the Tidal James River for blue catfish, and the Suffolk Lakes for chain pickerel, crappie, and yellow perch.

KA: What is your favorite bait or lure for catching trout, blue catfish, walleye, and muskellunge in winter?

SM: For trout, I really like Mepps and Joe’s Fly spinners. Trout Magnet Jigs work exceptionally well in winter as well.  For the muskellunge, I like Storm’s Kickin’ Minnow in a perch or fire tiger pattern. For the walleye, I use two rods.  The first is rigged with a Rapala Husky Jerk Bait in a glass perch pattern and the second is rigged with a Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub jig.  For the blue catfish, I catch fresh gizzard shad and use them as cut bait.

A limit of citation brook trout caught in winter in southwest Virginia. (Stephen Miklandric)

KA: What is the largest fish that you have caught during the winter in Virginia?

SM: I caught a 50” 92 lb blue catfish this year on February 20 on the Tidal James in Prince George County.  That is my biggest fresh water fish that I have caught during any season.

KA: What is the coldest temperature you experienced this season on a fishing trip?

SM: The coldest temperature I experienced fishing this year was -12 F while fishing for trout in southwest Virginia.  The pools of the creek were frozen but the rapids were open.  I floated lures down the rapids under the ice in the frozen pools.  The trout would strike the lure and would I retrieve the trout from under the ice into the open, fast-flowing current to land the fish.

KA: How did you keep your fishing line from freezing to eyes of the rod?

SM: I submerged the entire rod under the water up to the reel to keep the line from freezing to the rod.  The flowing water, of course, is above freezing.  I reeled the line and fought the fish with the rod completely under water.

KA: Have you ever fished in a snowstorm?

SM: In November of 2008 I fished Cripple Creek for rainbow trout in southwest Virginia during a snowstorm that dumped over a foot of snow while I fished.  On that day, I caught four citation rainbow trout.  Recently, on March 7, 2014, while on a fishing trip to the New River for muskie and walleye, I awoke to find my boat covered with several inches of snow.  I took a 5 gallon bucket and filled it with hot water from my hotel room’s bathtub and poured it into the boat to melt the snow.  It took 24 buckets of hot water to melt the snow off of my boat before I could go fishing.

A citation muskie caught on the New River on March 6, 2014 that measured 44 ¼” and weighed 22 lbs 3 ozs. (Stephen Miklandric)

KA: What is the most important aspect of preparing for a winter fishing trip?

SM: Dressing properly is the most important part of winter fishing.  I dress in layers with an outer waterproof shell to break the wind and to keep the moisture out while paying particular attention to my hands and feet.  Numb hands and feet can ruin a fishing trip.

KA: Do you have any advice for fishermen who want to fish during winter.

SM: Fishing in the winter is as simple as fishing in the summer but you have to be mindful of how you dress and be very mindful of the dangers of falling into cold water.  Hypothermia can occur very quickly to a fisherman submerged in the water during winter.  Also, you have to know what species of fish to target for the winter.  Some species of fish that are active in the summer are not active during the winter.

KA: What are the typical Virginia water temperatures that you encounter during the winter months.

SM: The most common water temperature range during winter is 37 to 47 depending upon the weather conditions.

KA: Do you throw your fish back?

SM: With the exception of a few trout, I release all of the fish that I catch.

On March 7, 2014, Stephen Miklandric awoke to find his boat covered with several inches of snow. He took a 5 gallon bucket and filled it with hot water from the hotel room’s bathtub and poured it into the boat to melt the snow. It took 24 buckets of hot water to melt the snow before he could go fishing on the New River. (Stephen Miklandric)

KA: What are your fishing goals for 2014?

SM: I hope to win my fourth VGDIF Creel Angler of the Year award in 2014.

KA: What are some of your past fishing accomplishments?

SM:  I have achieved VDGIF Level IV Master Angler status.   I’m the fifth and youngest angler to achieve this title.  I’m two species away from having citations in all 25 species of game fish in Virginia.  If and/or when I do that, I’ll be Virginia’s first ever Level V Master Angler.

I have also won three VDGIF Creel Angler of the Year titles:

–          I won in 2008 with 148 citations with 14 different species.  (State Record)

–          I won in 2010 with 103 citations in 18 different species of fish.  (State Record for most number of citations in different species)

–          I won in 2012 with 164 in 15 different species.  (State Record)

–          I currently have a lifetime total of 655 Virginia freshwater fish citations comprised of 23 different species.  This is the most ever recorded in Virginia by one individual.

Hopefully, we can check back with Stephen later this year for a status update and to get some spring or summer fishing tips.

A 38 lb 5 oz citation blue catfish caught by Kevin Ambrose on March 15, 2014.  The fish was caught at one of Stephen Miklandric’s favorite fishing holes on the James River.  (Stephen Miklandric)
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