OK, here goes: One of the greatest winter fallacies among bass anglers is that bass don't bite very well in cold water and that the only way to catch them is with drop shot rigs, hair jigs and Flea Flickers worked painfully slow along the bottom.
In my neighborhood (New Jersey) it's cold, really cold, right now. Yet, when I can find open water — it's usually no better that 38 or 39 degrees — I can catch bass on reaction baits all day long. And I can do the same thing all across the country.
To do this you have to start at the beginning. Cold water kills baitfish. Shad, alewives and similar species are often seen struggling to swim, or just to survive, when the water temperature drops below 50 degrees.
Predators have an instinct for this. They know it's natural for something to be moving slowly, struggling to stay alive. This triggers a predatory response regardless of the water temperature. They're fish. It's what they do.
Another issue that works in your favor during the winter is fish concentration. We all know that fish are not distributed evenly throughout a lake or stream. It's often said that 80 percent of the fish live in 20 percent of the water.
In the winter I think they're even more concentrated than that. I'd estimate that at least 90 percent of the bass are in no more than 10 percent of the water. That means when you find a concentration of bass you've found a ton of them. If there's one, there's likely a hundred.
I take advantage of these factors with a two-pronged strategy. First, I try to catch them with reaction baits. If I'm not getting bites after 45 minutes or an hour in a spot I feel should produce, I switch to traditional techniques. I only switch after I'm sure I'm not going to elicit a reaction bite. However, this happens less than half the time.
My two best reaction lures are suspending jerkbaits and vibration baits, sometimes referred to as lipless crankbaits. Either lure can be made to mimic a dying shad or alewife if it's worked properly.
I select my baits with the local forage in mind. I want my lures to look like the real thing. An unnatural profile — length, width or depth — will make wintertime bass wary. So will a weird color. (Don't forget — most lakes and rivers are clear in the winter. Bass can see and make quick decisions in water like that.)
That's enough for now. Next Friday we'll discuss how to present reaction baits and how not to present them. After that, it'll be time for you to do some open water fishing before spring.