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Jim Gronaw: Bass adventures in the winter months

By my own admission, I am but a rank amateur in using a bait casting reel. However, I am learning, and may soon feel comfortable chucking all the latest and greatest bass fishing lures with pinpoint accuracy and fluidity of the pros — not!

But, I can get it “out there” enough to make it appear that I might possibly be able to function.

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A few weeks back my buddy Alvie Sickle and I decided to take advantage of a warm day and try for a few wintertime bass at some local ponds. The daytime high was projected to be near sixty degrees and winds were light and the sun unseasonably warm. I thought it might be a good time to break out the baitcaster and give it a go. With water temperatures still right around 40 degrees we thought that any fish at all would be at least a mild success for a January day.

Even when we know we have enough, it seems we can always make an excuse for “one more rod.”

My first toss with the baitcaster resulted in, you guessed it, a backlash/birdsnest result that required some back-peddling and the picking out process lasted several minutes. Despite the snarl, I managed to get it straightened out and was now ready for cast number two. Cast number two was off target, hooking to the left and plopping fairly close to the shore in only a few feet of water. Ah yes, things are going well! Or, at least it’s a pretty day for mid-winter.

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So, hurrying in the 3/8 ounce spinnerbait, I was thinking about what I did wrong on that cast and how I might remedy this less than adequate skill level. About halfway back on the retrieve I had something stop the lure in its tracks, and the rod immediately began bucking under the weight of a heavy fish. To my great joy and overwhelming excitement, a big largemouth bass had hammered the spinnerbait and was not even remotely pleased with the situation.

I wish I could continue on with a great tale of drama, tense moments and an epic level adrenaline rush of a monumental, back-and-forth battle, of which I finally won. But that didn’t happen. What did happen, however, is that I saw how big the fish was, kept on cranking, then quickly heaved the bass up on the bank with child-like glee and celebration.

Game, set and match — me!

Somehow, and for some reason, I had managed to stumble onto my largest open-water/winter-caught largemouth bass, a fish of 20 inches and close to the 5-pound mark. A fine fish anytime of year, I was particularly tickled with it coming from 39-degree water and being my first fish ever on the baitcaster. After a brief picture session and a quick measurement, I watched the fish dart off back into the clear, icy depths.

That fish was no deeper than 2 feet below the surface in cold water. It had struck surprisingly hard and actually fought well despite my “heave-ho” efforts with 12-pound mono. Had that fish been caught in the summer, she would have likely launched herself a few times and maybe thrown the hook and left me broken hearted, once again. But chilly water temperatures and the winter slumber likely limited the big fish to the sluggish, early-round knockout that occurred.

Later that afternoon, my friend Alvie would catch another fine bass, an 18½-incher, on a chatterbait from another pond by retrieving quickly through the shallows.

And although neither of these catches were earth-shattering or record-breaking, it did prove that bass are willing to chase a lure long before the calendar says they are supposed to.

.Warm, mild days in the middle of the winter can lead to some quality largemouth bass catches despite what the calendar says.
.Warm, mild days in the middle of the winter can lead to some quality largemouth bass catches despite what the calendar says.(Jim Gronaw Photo)

In past years, during early or mild, late winter and spring time conditions, I had caught bass on fast moving lipless crank baits when water temperatures were in the low forties. Other lures that had produced well were large in-line spinners such as the Mepps #5 Aglias or Cordell Spots. The classic Rat-L-Trap has been a “go-to” selection for many years now and the Z-Man Chatterbait is another cold-water killer when the conditions are right.

And when are these conditions “right?” Obviously, anytime we have a warm spell in mid-winter where temperatures are well above average for several days can trigger a bite. If you see where warm rain is moving through the region then it is again a good time to hit some of your favorite bass spots as the incoming precipitation can raise surface water temperatures 3-5 degrees.

This situation may also be accompanied by cloudy or turbid water clarity. But don’t let the muddy water scare you as big fish can, and will, move amazingly shallow and strike a lure with force. Additionally, warm southerly winds that push warmer surface water to the shoreline can also concentrate bass and make them vulnerable to a variety of swimming, vibrating baits.

This year we have had an extremely mild winter and many media outlets are showing selfies of locals, Eastern Shore and Mid Atlantic anglers with some impressive bass.

Yes, we’re in for some cold days and some beefy snowfalls. But in between the cold stuff are a few chances to jump the gun with some surprising bass fishing. Give it a shot!

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