The Book of Bass Behavior says in winter, bass relocate to deep main lake areas and feed infrequently in the now-frigid water. However, somebody forgot to tell the bass, because certainly not all adhere to this textbook pattern.
And this delights Tim Horton! He knows a secret: Sometimes in December and January, big numbers of big bass hang out and feed actively in the backs of major creeks. Conditions have to be just right, but when they are, Horton strikes gold by mining the shallows while most other anglers are out fishing deep.
"When everything comes together, this can be a fantastic pattern," says Horton, a BASS Elite Series pro angler from Muscle Shoals, Ala. "It's one not too many people know about, but it can be really strong — a tournament winner."
Here's the scoop. To repeat, not all bass head back to deep main lake areas after the red-hot fall bite. Instead, some shad linger in the tributaries through the winter, and a good number of bass hang around to prey on them. After a heavy rain, when the water takes on some stain, the latter move up onto shallow creek ledges to feed on the former. When they do, Horton exacts a toll on them by working these channel drops with diving crankbaits.
"There's nothing difficult about this pattern," he insists. "The main thing is just knowing these fish are back there and recognizing when conditions are right for catching them."
Having stain in the water is the key. "After a rain, muddy runoff in the backs of the creeks adds color to the water," Horton explains. "Stained or muddy water absorbs more sunlight than clear water, so it warms up faster. After three or four days, stained water up in the creeks can be several degrees warmer than clear water out in deeper areas. When such a warm-up occurs, the shad become more active, and the bass respond by moving up onto the shallow ledges and feeding actively."
(Horton adds that in winter, the water temperature in the backs of the creeks may actually drop a few degrees the first day or two after a heavy rain. Runoff may initially be colder than the lake's water temperature, and the active bite won't start until the warm-up comes.)
When he feels conditions are right, Horton begins prospecting in creeks by seeking out likely fish-holding ledges. "I'll idle up into a creek, following the channel with my electronics. I'll go until the channel disappears (completely silted in). Then I'll turn my boat around and move back down to where the channel reappears and there's maybe 3 to 4 feet of water on the high side of the channel and 6 to 10 feet in the bottom. A lot of times this will be where the channel makes a bend."
From this point Horton starts fishing his way back toward deeper water, casting a Bomber 4A or a Bomber Switchback Shad, depending on water depth. "Whichever bait I use, I want it digging along bottom and bouncing off cover objects along the ledge." Horton's favorite colors for stained/muddy water are chartreuse shad and firetiger.
"I'll use my depthfinder to keep my boat in the channel, and I'll make 30-degree angling casts up onto the ledges on both sides of the channel. As I ease along, I'll hunt for places where bass may be clustered. I'm always looking for any wood cover (stumps, logs, brush), gravel, chunk rocks, etc.
Another key spot is where there's a bottom transition from rock to sand or clay on top of the ledge."
Horton studies adjacent shorelines to gain clues about what the lake bottom is like. "In the winter, many lakes are drawn down several feet, and these transition areas are exposed. Sometimes what you see on the banks extends out under the water to the creek channel."
As Horton fishes along a channel, when he gets a bite, he marks the spot with his GPS. In the course of a day, he hopes to find three or four places where bass are clustered. Then he rotates back and forth among these spots to maximize his fishing efforts.
Time of day also factors into this pattern. Horton says in winter, midday offers the best fishing. "The period when the water is warmest is when the shad will be most active, and this is when the bass will be feeding," he notes.
What makes one creek better than another for running this pattern? "The creeks with the most inflow and well-defined channels are the best," Horton answers.
"This is primarily a largemouth pattern, and you can catch some big fish doing this. Really, this pattern will last right through winter. Most other anglers will be concentrating on deep bluffs and main lake spots, so you'll likely have these fish all to yourself.
"I tell you, this pattern can be really strong," he stresses. "When you get that combination of stained water and a few warm days in a row, I don't think there's anything that'll beat it this time of year."
While Tim Horton uses crankbaits to find December bass holding along creek channels, when the bites quit coming, he changes to a jig/trailer combo to "milk" a few more fish from productive stretches.
"When I find a cluster of bass, I'll cast the crankbait as long as they'll hit it, but when they quit, I'll switch to the jig," Horton explains. "I use a 1/2-ounce brown/green Booyah football jig and a 3 3/4-inch green pumpkin Yum Craw Papi trailer.
"I'll crawl this jig through the area where I was catching bass on the crankbait," Horton continues. "I'll fish it really slowly. When the bait hits a rock or little piece of cover, I'll give it a little pop with my rod tip. A lot of times this quick little jump will trigger an aggressive strike.
"This is a good way to pick off some less active fish after I've caught the active biters on the crankbait."
Try Jigging Spoons Around Baitfish Pods
If Tim Horton's back-of-creeks pattern fails to produce, this angler makes a dramatic change in tactics. "I'll move out to the main lake and clear water, and I'll use my electronics to look for pods of shad. They will usually be holding around 20 to 40 feet deep. I like to find these fish holding on or near bottom. If I see shad suspended, I'll note their depth, and then go looking for other pods of baitfish relating to structure in this same depth.
"When I find them, I'll vertical-jig a 3/4-ounce Cordell jigging spoon around these baitfish," Horton continues. "I'll lower the spoon straight down to the bottom, and then I'll pop my rod tip up 6 to 10 inches. Then I 'ride' the bait with a semitight line as it flutters back to the bottom. Most bites will come when the spoon is falling."