If you’re faced with frigid temperatures and tough bass fishing conditions this winter, fishing jigs around boat docks is an excellent alternative. While the majority of anglers target deep, offshore structure with dainty finesse presentations, you can keep a big flipping stick in your hands and enjoy some close combat with giant coldwater bass.
Alabama fishing guide and five-time Elite Series qualifier Jimmy Mason catches some of his biggest bass of the entire year right now. Whenever the water temperature is in the 40 to 55-degree range, you can bet he’ll have a few jigs nearby.
Know what to look for
As with any bass fishing technique, it’s essential to narrow down your search in order to enjoy consistent success. Although the shallow springtime docks may look intriguing this winter, try not to get carried away with them. In order for a dock to warrant his attention, Mason looks for a specific characteristic above all else.
“In colder water temperatures, a large majority of the bass are going to relate to deeper structure such as river ledges and creek ledges,” Mason said. “But that doesn’t mean they always stay there. They still have to eat, so throughout the day they’ll move up from deeper water and feed around nearby boat docks. For this reason I primarily target main lake docks and docks surrounding the mouths of larger pockets.”
- Increase your efficiency: To cover water more efficiently and avoid spooking wary bass with multiple casts, Mason suggests making casts that allow you to cover as many dock poles as possible. Take the extra time to line up correctly– it can make a huge difference!
Once he locates a stretch of strategically placed docks with suitable water depth—20 to 25 feet on the ends—he further analyzes the docks and surrounding area. There are five additional characteristics he looks for before making his first cast.
- Steep bank—“Ideally, I want to find docks that are built on a fairly steep bank,” Mason said. “If you can find a steep drop-off about halfway down the dock, you’re in business. A sharp drop-off is ideal for bass this time of year—it gives bass easy access to shallow water feeding opportunities and also allows them to slide back into deeper water when they’re inactive. It’s the best of both worlds.”
- Metal—“Wooden boat docks can certainly produce big winter bass, but the presence of metal will drastically increase your chances of catching a giant,” Mason said. “Metal holds heat much better than wood, which attracts both bass and forage. Look for metal jet ski lifts, ladders or poles because that’s where the big ones are most likely to be.”
- Hard bottom composition—“A hard bottom is advantageous for several reasons in the winter,” Mason said. “Of course these areas hold more heat, but more importantly they promote clearer water and better water quality due to the lack of sediment. With so many of our winter fisheries muddied from excess precipitation, better water visibility can mean a lot right now.”
- Darker rocks—“In all honesty, all rock is good rock in the winter,” Mason said. “But if you really want to drill down into the specifics, darker rock is ideal. It holds head much better than light-colored gravel, which of course attracts fish. I like to focus on areas with basketball or softball-sized rocks because they have more surface area and warmth to provide a bass while also giving crawfish endless opportunities to hide.”
- Bait—“You definitely want to see bait whenever you’re searching for wintertime docks,” Mason said. “I watch my Humminbird religiously and pay close attention to any bait balls in front of the docks. Although a jig often imitates a crawfish, you know there are bass around when you find a large quantity of bait.”
Adapt to weather fronts
Many anglers employ the same tactics on every dock, regardless of the time of year—pitch, hop, reel and repeat. You’ll probably be able to catch a few bass using this technique, but your chances will dramatically increase if you cater your approach to the weather.
Tackle tip: Mason suggests using a jig with a quality hook and light weedguard for this technique. He uses a 5/16-ounce Booyah Pro Boo Bug when the fish are very lethargic and upgrades to the 7/16-ounce Boo Bug during warming trends.
“Winter bass can get very specific to certain weather conditions,” Mason said. “For example, a warming trend is huge this time of year. Shallow water warms much faster than deep water and the bass are well-aware of it. If you’ve noticed a steady increase in air temperature over the past few days, don’t be surprised to find the bass positioning fairly shallow. They’ll slide up from the deeper water and hang out on the shallow side of the drop-offs.”
If the temperatures are steadily declining, don’t think your chances of dock fishing are over. Most anglers avoid wintertime cold fronts like the plague, but the bass are still likely to relate to the docks. You will, however, have to alter your approach to make the most of it.
“For whatever reason, I notice a lot of bass suspending in front of deeper docks during cold fronts,” Mason said. “It’s tempting to pitch around the docks and totally rule-out a dock fishing pattern, but never rule out the front. It may seem a little strange targeting these areas, but you’ll gain confidence quickly with a few bites.”
Mason has developed a two-pronged approach for tricking bass into eating his jig. Depending upon the weather front, he alters his retrieve.
- Warm front—“I don’t get too crazy with my jig retrieve in cold water,” Mason said. “Remember, the bass are still going to be a bit lethargic, even during a warm front, so you don’t need to put a ton of action into it. When a warming trend hits, my jig retrieve is almost identical to a stereotypical Texas rig retrieve—just lift and reel. This allows me to put a little more life into it without coming across as too unnatural.”
- Cold front—“Because bass will suspend in front of docks during a cold front, a lot of folks think they’re uncatchable with a jig,” Mason said. “But if you swim your jig in these areas, you’re going to catch fish. Again, I don’t do anything remarkable—I use a slow, steady wind, working the jig almost like a grub. I’m not popping my rod tip a bunch, either. A steady, deliberate approach is all it takes to fool these suspended bass.”
Put together a strong pattern
You’re not always going to get dozens of bites when bass fishing in the winter, so it may take you a few hours to develop a solid dock fishing pattern with a jig. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it, however. It only takes a few bites to get honed-in on the specific locations of the bass.
“When I first put my boat in the water, I’m going to start out fishing main lake docks close to deep water,” Mason said. “For the first few hours, I’ll bounce around and even incorporate some docks at the mouths of pockets and creeks. Until I get my first few bites, it’s all fair game.”
To increase his chances of getting the first few key bites, he pays very close attention to two major details—the direction of the sun and water depth.
- Sun direction—“Just a degree or two of water temperature difference is enough to make or break a day of fishing this time of year,” Mason said. “It’s all about finding the warmest water, so I’m going to focus on the northwest side of the lake—it gets the most sun and is generally most protected from cold, winter winds. While fishing the northwest side, I’m also going to focus on the sunny side of the docks. The bass will position right on the edge of the shade line to soak up the ambient heat and ambush unsuspecting prey.”
- Water depth—“It’s amazing how specific winter bass will get in regards to water depth,” Mason said. “Like we talked about earlier, I like for my boat to be in 20 to 25 feet of water because that’s where I get the most consistent action. But pay close attention to your depth finder because a few feet make a huge difference. If you notice your bites coming in, let’s say 18 feet of water, you’ve found the ‘magic’ water depth. When you find the sweet spot, you’ll be able to focus on that depth throughout the lake and keep catching fish.”
Slack line is indispensable
Although a lot of anglers are familiar with the “pendulum effect”, its true meaning and level of importance remains underestimated. Whenever you’re fishing with any type of bottom-dwelling bait—such as a jig—around steep drop-offs or vertical structure, understanding the pendulum effect is of the utmost importance.
“Anytime your jig is falling vertically, it’s extremely important to give it slack line,” Mason said. “The pendulum effect happens when your bait falls on a tight line and swings toward you and out of the strike zone. You can pitch to a dock post in 15 feet of water and with tight line the jig could hit the bottom 10 feet in front of your target. It can cause you to entirely miss the most productive strike zones.”
To avoid this, Mason stresses the importance of slack line. If you lose contact with the bottom, point your rod tip toward the jig to allow it to fall vertically and remain in the strike zone.
“Because vertical structure and cover is such a vital part of this technique, you need to let your jig fall vertically along any type of shelves or posts. More times than not, the bass will hug the transitions and if your jig is falling on a tight line, you’ll drag the jig right over them.”
Sufficient saturation and “trash” fish
When it comes to pitching and flipping docks with jigs, “thorough” is a relative term for bass anglers. Some folks can flip to the dock 30 times before moving on, while fast-moving anglers will hit a few corners and speed to the next dock. Mason is very deliberate in his dissection in the beginning of the day, but significantly increases his efficiency as time passes.
Mason’s close-combat weapons:
- Rod: Dobyns 704 SF Champion Spinning Rod
- Reel: Lew’s Team Gold Carbon Spinning Reel
- Line: 8-pound Vicious Pro Elite Fluorocarbon
- Rod: Dobyns 705 Champion Casting Rod
- Reel: 6.4:1 Lew’s Tournament Pro Speed Spool Casting Reel
- Line: 14-pound Vicious Pro Elite Fluorocarbon
“In the beginning of the day, I’m going to give each dock about 15 casts to produce a fish,” Mason said. “Coldwater bass aren’t usually aggressive—sometimes you have to make that one cast that hits ‘em in the head, so the more casts you make, the better probability of catching one. As the day goes on and you get keyed-in on what they’re doing, you can speed things up and make about five or six casts on each dock, focusing on the most productive features.”
If you’ve flipped and pitched docks long enough, there’s a good chance you’ve had your fair share of heartbreaks. I’m not talking about lost fish—I’m talking about that huge “thump” on the end of your line followed by a stinky drum or catfish slithering around at the side of your boat. Instead of getting irritated, Mason suggests taking it as a sign.
“If you catch an occasional drum or catfish pitching jigs to boat docks in the winter, it’s actually not a bad thing,” Mason said. “This time of year, they have very similar diets to that of a bass and will locate in very similar areas. Just because you catch a few trash fish, don’t think they’ve pushed the bass away. Keep doing what you’re doing and you should find some bass in the same areas.”
Winter—hopefully—won’t be hanging around too much longer. But with massive cold fronts forecasted for much of the country in the coming weeks, the fishing may be a little tough. Fishing jigs around boat docks is a great remedy for tough wintertime fishing, however, and if you know what to look for, how to adapt and the key presentations, you’ll have a great shot at catching some great bass before spring comes.