Bass fishing … in the winter.
It can and does happen, but only for those who don’t mind a little cold and wind. It’s not magic, but more hard work than anything. And you need to pick and choose weather conditions that will allow you to fish at least for a few hours on a cold winter day.
For the most part, I used to think that bass fishing pretty much tanked after about mid-November, surely by the first of the year, if not much sooner. All those fish just shut their mouths and went straight to the bottom and hibernated until next spring, just like bears do, right?
Wrong. Actually, bass, especially largemouths, are quite active feeders throughout the winter and are often the catch of many ice anglers during the winter ice-fishing season. No, you won’t catch them on topwaters, fast moving swimbaits or with traditional warm water tactics. But if you slow down, down-size a bit and fish during warmer portions of the day you might just surprise yourself. Various lures will excel at this time and we are talking basically about water temperatures that run from 44 degrees down to 36. A mild winter can see water temperatures in the low to mid-40s all winter long, certainly not too cold to catch fish.
So, here is a basic game plan for cashing in on a surprisingly good bite for larger-than-average fish during the winter ahead:
For now, we are enjoying the success of ½ ounce blade baits like the classic Silver Buddy and the Damiki Vault and fishing them on 20-pound braids with medium light spinning tackle. Casting them far from the shoreline in small lakes and ponds, we utilize a “lift and drop” retrieve style that seems to catch most of the fish. Blade baits vibrate very aggressively, and a wrist snap or lift will cause them to give off vibrations that could trigger bass to strike. Most strikes occur as the lure falls back to the bottom, so keep a tight line and strong attention to your rod tip for any sign of a hit.
Lipless crank baits, like the classic Rat-l-Trap, can be worked in a similar fashion but become a better weapon once shallow waters warm up a bit after a few days or sunlight that put the shallows in the 45-degree range. Don’t ignore rocky, rip-rap shorelines that can hold heat from the sun along exposed banks that receive hours of mid-day sun.
Although it appears to be quite “old school,” tossing ½ to ¾ ounce spinner baits or No. 5 Mepps spinners can also coax some fish, especially bigger bass on a warm sunny day. In each of the last two winters I have taken a 5-pound bass on the Strike King spinner bait with a stinger hook. Fish them slow and in and around any available cover. You might not catch many bass on these, but they are generally larger, 3-pound-plus specimens.
The ever-popular Ned-Rig (a short piece of plastic worm on a mushroom jig head) has changed the game over the last 15-years with it’s ever finesse applications to shoreline hugging bass when the winds are cold. Most are no longer than 4-inches, yet both smallmouth and largemouth bass find this option to be a wintertime treat. Popular jig heads are the Schrooms in 1/16 and 1/8th ounce and the Z-Man ElazTech Trailers that are both durable and effective for lethargic winter bass.
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Due to boating restrictions on many regional lakes, much of this fishing is done from shore and often along windward banks that receive the benefits of sunlight. Sometimes, long, slow-tapering shorelines with sparse weed beds or wood cover can hold fish as well. Marina docks, bulkheads and sunken brush can also be good locations to key in on winter bass.
We fish smaller public and private venues and often find fish near deeper green weed beds where other species like crappies and bluegills may also be finning. Long casts are sometimes needed to reach these fish, hence the call for lighter braided lines and sensitive rods when fishing blade baits with the lift and drop method.
Submerged wood and brush piles will hold some fish all through the winter but may be best suited for the finesse tactics of the Ned-Rig baits rather than that of the heavy metal blade baits. Again, green weeds seem to hold more fish than dying weeds or barren bottoms or sparse rock and clay.
The many shallow ponds of the Delmarva Peninsula, with their darker, tannic water, are ideal proving grounds for winter bassing and can be easily fished from kayaks during the cold months. The deepest waters are usually confined to the dam breast areas of each lake and may even offer an option of vertically jigging the Damiki Vault or Silver Buddy to imitate native golden shiners, one of the bass’ favorite meals on the Eastern Shore.
As I get older, I find that the cold and wind just don’t like me as much as they used to. Sound familiar? That’s why I pick either stable weather with a slight breeze or the second, perhaps third day of a warm spell where 50-degree temperatures can pop the water temperatures up just enough to get fish into a feeding mode.
Watch the weather closely and choose days that have consistent temperatures for several days, some cloud cover or some mild 5-10 mph winds to put a little chop on the surface. If I feel up to it, I will head out at the onset of an approaching cold front which comes with a falling barometer. Three hours ahead of an oncoming front can kick off an incredible winter bass bite.
Clearly, not all of us are retired and have options that allow us to just drop everything and go when the conditions seem ideal. Most of us just have to go fish whenever we can. But keep in mind that some of the biggest bass of each year are those taken in the winter under less than ideal conditions. Good luck in bass fishing this winter.