Visit spotted bass lakes during winter months and you'll probably see most anglers finessing dainty plastics over rocky points, along shorelines and down bluff banks.
However, Russ Lane won't be one of them.
"It makes sense to fish those areas because that's where the majority of the spots are this time of year, and that's the easiest way to catch them," Lane explains. "But if you want to catch BIG spots, you've got to change tactics."
Lane grew up on Alabama's Lake Jordan, one of the best spotted bass lakes on the famed Coosa River chain. He's won several late-season tournaments by targeting big spotted bass and has caught hundreds of 5-plus-pound trophies from Coosa River lakes during winter months.
The majority, he says, have come on big baits fished in nontraditional areas.
"Big spots are like big largemouth in that they are loners and territorial," he insists. "They group in small wolf packs of their own size."
Lane says he believes mature fish prefer offshore structure even though the majority of the spotted bass population clings to shoreline structure.
"It's almost like the older fish don't want to get around schools of smaller fish where they have to compete for food," he offers.
And while other anglers are tempting bank runners with shaky head worms, drop shots, small jerkbaits and crankbaits, Lane is hurling heavier hardware.
For example, when he's not fishing a Super Rattlin' Rogue, he's cranking a deep running Fat Free Shad, slow rolling a 1-ounce Moab Bait-ink spinnerbait or crawling a homemade 3/4-ounce ball jig.
"I may not get as many bites as the guy who is shaky head fishing, but I can assure you the quality of fish I'm catching is going to be better," Lane insists.
Lane's big fish pattern runs late November through early March and when water temperatures range from the mid-40s to 50 degrees.
"The thing to remember about spots is they love cold water," Lane explains. "They group up better in cold water, and if you catch one big one, there likely are others nearby."
The weather can be raw, yet some of the best days for big spots come on blustery, bluebird days when the wind is howling out of the north and fishing is uncomfortable, to say the least.
"If you can handle the cold and wind, those are the days to be looking for big fish," Lane says. "If you find them, you can usually get them to bite."
WHERE TO LOOK
Winter is a time when big spotted bass seek the offshore structure not far from their spawning flats. Lane keys on two areas of a lake: the upper third where current is prominent and the lower third where midlake structure is more prolific.
The fish hole up on deeper, defined structure relatively close to the places they spawn. Lane scans maps and his depthfinder for midlake humps, ledges and long points that have drops on one side. Depth on the sweet spots can range from 5 feet to 20 feet.
"Hard bottom is the key, and current moving over any structure makes it even better," he describes. "In cold weather, spots gather on corners or in eddies created by the offshore structure."
Depth and mood of the fish dictate lure selection. The shad colored Super Rogue is one of Lane's favorites for fishing in less than 15 feet, when bass are suspended or when the water temperature is below 50 degrees. He prefers larger jerkbaits for use on structure in the lower lake because they resemble dying shad.
"I've dropped an underwater camera down on the bottom when the water was in the 40s and was shocked by the number of dead shad on some of the places I fish," he describes. "That jerkbait looks like a struggling shad and the spots know that's an easy meal."
Lane weights his Rogues to make them suspend better in cold water. Water temperature affects how a bait suspends, so what worked one day may not work the next. He'll stick Storm SuspenStrips on the belly, putting them just in front of and behind the front hanger hook.
The reason, he adds, is to make the bait suspend and not rise toward the surface when he pauses it between jerks.
"You've got to balance the weight around the front hook to make sure the bait suspends properly," Lane offers. "Cold water is denser, so the colder the water, the more weight you need to add to get the bait down to the proper depth."
He uses a methodical jerk-jerk-jerk-pause retrieve, varying the length of his pause to determine how the fish want it. Some days it's a 10 count; other days he counts to five before jerking again.
If the water temperature is above 50 degrees, he'll opt for a 1-ounce (or heavier) chartreuse spinnerbait with large willowleaf blades and slow roll it on the bottom. And if he senses the fish are overly aggressive around the bottom, he'll burn the deep running crankbait through their lair.
Lane notes that strong current is a spotted bass magnet — even in muddy water. He says most anglers think fish go to the bank when the water muddies, but he believes big spots prefer the current.
"Muddy water means there's been rain and rain creates more current," he explains. "The spots will get on structure right out in the current or close to it."
That's where he loves to fish his jig, basing weight size on the amount of current and what he needs to keep the bait on bottom.
"Color is critical; I really like to put bright chartreuse skirts on my jigs, then tip the jig with a white chunk," he describes. "Spots are aggressive and bright colors really fire them up this time of year."
And while most anglers fish lures with the current, he prefers to cast against the current and present his baits to fish hiding in dead spots.
"They'll gang up in washouts under old banks or around rocks in cold water and look downstream," Lane explains. "This way you can drag the bait right in their faces."
PLAYING BIG SPOTS
The battle with a big spotted bass never ends until you put the fish in the boat. The last few seconds of a fight are critical when trying to land these hard-pulling fish.
"When you get a spot to the boat, the first thing he wants to do is dive beneath it, and that's where a lot of fish are lost," says Bassmaster Elite Series pro Russ Lane. "You have to let them run or you'll lose them."
You can adjust your reel drag accordingly or, as Lane does, release the button on your baitcast reel and control the run by applying pressure with your thumb on the spool. Be careful, though, because a mistake will cost you a fish and a major backlash.
Above all, keep your hooks sharp and use trailer hooks on spinnerbaits.
"You're usually fishing around rocks, and rocks will dull your hooks faster than anything," Lane explains. "Sharpen hooks when fishing for spots."
Check your line, too. Spotted bass have an abrasive patch of "teeth" that can fray line easily.
JIGS THAT JIVE
• Jewel Bait Company [Football Jig] www.jewelbait.com
• Strike King [Pro Model Jig] www.strikeking.com
• Berkley [Hank's Football Jig] www.berkley-fishing.com
• Booyah [Boo Jig] www.lurenet.com
• Damiki Bait [Mamba Jig] www.damiki.com
HARD BAIT OPTIONS
• Bomber [Fat Free Shad] www.lurenet.com
• Smithwick [Super Rattlin' Rogue] www.lurenet.com
• Lucky Craft [Pointer] www.luckycraft.com
• Bill Norman [DD22] www.normanlures.com
• Moab [Bait-ink Spinnerbait] www.moabcustombaits.com
• Strike King [Bottom Dweller] www.strikeking.com
• Booyah [Red Hook Series] www.lurenet.com
• Hildebrandt [Drop Dead Fred] www.yakimabait.com
• Terminator [Custom Tungsten Series] www.terminatorlures.com
• War Eagle [Ultimate Twin Spin] www.wareaglelures.com