You’re scraping ice off the windshield, as the truck sputters and grumpily tries to warm its interior. Breathing in exhaust fumes as cold chills pulse down your spine as you hook the trailer to the hitch. The nose begins what will be a full day trickle as your ears already burn from the frost trying to adhear to your lobes. The allure of big lumbering sluggish bass in icy cold water fills your brain as you scramble to the cab of the truck. It’s winter time, and surprisingly some bass anglers hate it.
To an extent, all anglers probably fall victim to “rut fishing” at some point throughout the year, and winter can be the worst time to be in a rut about how you approach your fishing. A few simple facts will hopefully give you better perspective and hopefully some tips on tackle will make your quest to catch bass a little easier this winter.
First, bass don’t need to feed every day. There metabolisms slow to a crawl and they don’t need as much coal for their furnace so to speak. So they don’t have to eat as much or as often. That makes smaller baits a good option or extremely slow moving big baits that they don’t need to run down to satisfy a week’s worth of food requirements.
Second, bass group up and spend a good portion of their winter motionless. They populate an area that has food and deep water nearby and hover there until early spring. So spend time looking for deep concentrations of bait, cover and bass and realize fish use the smallest percentage of the lake of any other time of the year.
Now for the good news. Bass do eat in the winter. They stay near the bait because they need to eat. Also, they stay with their friends, so if one bass isn’t eating today, chances are a buddy right next to him is. They are very keyed into shad this time of year and the shad can be struggling to stay alive if the water temperatures are dipping into the low 40s. So while they are looking for those injured dying shad, they won’t pass up a slow crawling craw right in their face either. They are still opportunists and will seek to eat whatever they can in close proximity.
Having addressed their “tendencies,” here are my 8 choices for targeting and catching sluggish cold water bass and some tips on how to make them more effective.
Deep suspending jerkbaits
I spent a lot of time watching shad die in the winter when I fished on clear water fisheries like Table Rock and Beaver Lakes in the Ozark Mountains. These shad would kick and pause, flutter and float and sometimes sink slowly out of sight. I’ve incorporated mimicking this kick-and-float behavior into chasing winter bass with deep diving suspending jerkbaits. A Lucky Craft Staysee, a SPRO McRip, Megbass Ito Vision 110+1 and a Jackall DD Squirrel all do a great job of twitching and jerking in water 8-12 feet deep. The sound, flash and water displacement in clear water can all lead big bass out of deep haunts to grab a quick easy meal.
Tip: I sometimes weight my jerkbaits so they will slowly sink. When I know I’m fishing for bass deeper than 10 feet over much deeper water, I actually like for my jerkbait to mimic those shad I saw dying for many years on other fisheries. I will add lead golfers tape or a few extra split rings to make my deep suspending jerkbaits slowly sink after a rip or pull so they look like a shad struggling to stay afloat.
A blade bait is a dynamite lure for stair-stepping down steep 45 degree banks into the zones bass are holding. Where a spoon derives its action after the hop or pull as it flutters on the fall, a blade bait attracts on the actual rip and drop.
Tip: I will fish a blade bait like a lipless rattling bait and just slowly wind it along, hoping it bumps a rock or two. I think the subtle vibration, couple with the clinking and clacking over rocks, draws those deep bass in for a closer look and the slow crawl is easy for them to run down.
A jigging spoon has been a staple over the years for deep wintering fish. It looks like nothing, but it casts like a rock, gets to the bottom and into the strike zone with blazing speed and can be worked in place easily on a vertical presentation with a simple snap and fall on slack line.
Tip: Slack is critical so learn to drop or cast the spoon and watch your line as it falls. Think it stopped too early, reel up fast and set the hook. See your line jump, set the hook. I often cast out a few yards from the boat and hop it around to cover a small circular area where I think the bass are holding and being out away from the boat helps me watch my slack a little easier as well.
Another deep small hunk of lead with some flash, a tail spinner has been a hot ticket in Texas lake in colder years. The ability to hop it, wind it, pump it and work it various ways both near the bottom and up in the strike zone make this simple tear drop lure a dynamite presentation.
Tip: I use a lighter one a lot of the time to get a slower fall in the winter. I think a lighter weight really lets the blade work and you can keep the bait in their strike zone for a much longer period on each cast, which is critical in the winter.
When you are fishing deep flats, a lure you can cast and wind slowly along the bottom or up off the bottom if you find the bass suspended can be the ticket. Something like a Fish Head Underspins or a Buckeye SuSpin with a small swimbait or shad tail like the Optimum Opti Shad or Basstrix can easily mimic a shad in cold water that might have a slight stain to it
Tip: Super glue is your friend. Super glue the swim tail to the head and you can fish all day with one tail and head, well at least for a lot more fish than you would otherwise. And a pumping and stop and go retrieve can also trigger bass who might slowly lumber behind but never strike.
A grub is such a simple and old faithful lure, that many anglers totally forget about them. Fact is, this bait really shines when the water is ultra cold. I’ve caught bass in water below 40 degrees on a grub and 1/4 ounce jighead. When bass suspend in vertical cover, a grub can be a dynamite lure to catch those otherwise stationary bass. Wind it slowly and methodically and most bites will just feel like a little pressure as you wind it.
Tip: Small diameter line helps keep the lure down and swimming steady through the water. The lure doesn’t weigh much so heavier line causes it to rise too much. I like some of the new grubs like the Strike King Rage Tail grub or Zoom Fat Albert that put out a lot of vibration.
One of my favorite ways to catch smallmouths this time of year, is casting to 45 degree banks and steep points and bluffs with a casting jig. Something like a Cumberland Pro Lures Pro Caster or a Stan Sloan’s Booza Bug are ideal for this technique. I will tip the jigs with a Zoom Chunk or Zoom Super Chunk Jr.–something with flat appendages that undulate more than twist and thump.
Tip: I’m normally fishing this on fairly open rocky banks with occasional stumps or laydowns. So I will opt for very light line like 10 to 12 pound fluorocarbon. The lighter line gives the bait better depth control and I think the fish look at a jig this time of year longer than other times of the year before biting. So I want to stack the deck in my favor with very natural presentations, trimmed skirts, natural chunk colors to give the bass a real meal looking profile.
I’ve definitely built up a lot of confidence with a drop shot over the last decade. And I just smile when I hear guys tell me bass won’t bite plastics in cold water. They will bite the right plastic. Especially if presented in a very realistic manner. The bass are often tight to the bottom so I will keep my leader lengths fairly short and I will let the drop shot sit for long periods. I still want to butt it up against a rock or a stump and work it painfully slow around an isolated object. But sometimes just barely flicking the tail is all the action it needs.
Tip: Choose a bait that gives you more of an undulating or vibrating tail action. I think a bait with a slightly thicker body and tapered tail gives you that tail vibration or whip you need for cold deep water bass. I really like the new Strike King KVD Dream Shot and the new Berkley Twitchtail Minnow for cold bass.
I wrote an article years ago about “The Best Cold Water Crankbait Ever” and most guys worth their salt in bass fishing know I was referring to the Shad Rap. The number of pros that have one tied on their deck in coldwater tournaments is staggering and a testament to how much confidence that one crankbait has brought guys fishing for bass in ultra cold clean water.
And don’t forget to read our article on Best Bass Fishing Lures.