No one likes to admit it, but there are days on Lake Fork, particularly between December and February, when it's tough to get a bite from any size bass, not just one of the reservoir's famous double-digit monsters.
Everyone reads about the 13-plus-pounders that are landed during the winter months, but no one reads about the days when nothing gets caught, which are much more common.
"Even though Lake Fork has a huge bass population and near-perfect cover and structure habitat, there still are days everyone struggles," notes Elite Series competitor and Lake Fork guide James Niggemeyer. "This is true on lakes everywhere during the winter months, mainly because of how cold water affects bass metabolism.
Anglers have to make some major adjustments to how and where they fish, even on lakes they may know well."
The good thing about Lake Fork is that the very conditions that make the Texas impoundment such a good fishery during warm weather have allowed Niggemeyer to fine-tune those adjustments to the point he can and does use them in his tournaments throughout the United States. He uses the same lures he uses throughout the year; his major differences are simply how and where he fishes them.
Here are five of his pattern and lure choices, at least one of which will nearly always put fish in the boat.
Chances are, they'll work for you, as well.
In late winter Niggemeyer often targets slightly deeper docks, either those on the main lake or near the mouths of major tributaries where water is at least 5 feet deep. As water temperature slowly begins to rise, bass often move to boat docks, although they still relate to the vertical pilings.
I'll use a smaller 3/8- to 1/2-ounce jig with a trailer and either pitch or make short casts around the entire dock," he says. "I let the jig sink to the bottom, then slowly crawl and hop it back, working as close to the pilings as I can. At this time of year, bass might be anywhere on the structure, so fish everything from the shore out to the end.
"Dragging the jig also may help you locate brush or rocks the owners have put in place as fish attractors, and if you do find something like this, make certain you work it slowly and carefully, too. Don't use a lot of action, but don't leave until you cover it."
Drop Shotting Points
"Typically, bass fishermen think of drop shotting as a main lake structure technique, but in winter you don't necessarily have to fish offshore if you have good vertical structure like points," Niggemeyer emphasizes. "Bass may be on the edge of structure or they might be on top in shallower water, but the key to remember is they're relating to the depth change."
As an example, Niggemeyer describes the mouth of Little Caney Creek on Lake Fork, where on even the coldest winter days the best fishing still takes place between the mouth of the creek and the first half-mile inside the creek. It's an area that has saved many winter days on Lake Fork for Niggemeyer and other guides.
Depths range from 8 to maybe 25 feet off the different points, allowing bass to move up and down in the water column without making long lateral movements.
"Drop shots, using 8-pound fluorocarbon line and a 4-inch finesse worm, produce well because you can fish them slow and near— but not on — the bottom. Bass are feeding up in winter, so you want to keep the lure above the bottom and just barely work it. Often, normal boat movement in a light breeze is all the action you need. I fish different depths but always close to the breakline."
Bluffs, Riprap, Stumpy Banks
Lipless crankbaits are well-known lures to fish over submerged vegetation, but they also can be used along fast-falling shorelines with stumpy cover, over clay and rock points and even along riprap walls and bluffs.
"When you fish lipless crankbaits around points, you're actually looking for a fairly shallow concentration of bass," Niggemeyer explains, "so I drag the lure very slowly along the bottom, both across as well as along the sides of a point.
To me, points that slope down at about 45 degrees seem to be among the best."
For bluffs and riprap, Niggemeyer makes parallel casts and uses a slow- to medium-speed retrieve, hitting any stumps, rocks and cover along the way. Normally, he angles his casts shallow and works the bait out so each retrieve covers different depths. On bluffs, he's usually targeting suspended bass so he frequently counts the lure down to different depths before starting his retrieve.
Again using Lake Fork as an example, Niggemeyer describes the mouth of Birch Creek, one of his favorite places to throw lipless crankbaits. The shoreline drops quickly but the slightly deeper water is filled with stumps and broken timber, as well as some boathouses.
"All I do is ease down that shoreline, casting toward the bank and retrieving over the break with a slow but steady retrieve," he says. "I'm sure you could use other lures, but I've always caught fish with a lipless crankbait there. That shoreline is always better when there is a breeze blowing in on it, too," he adds.
Clear Water Transition Areas
Niggemeyer fishes flat-sided crankbaits in water as cold as 42 degrees, using 8-pound fluorocarbon and a spinning rod around places known as transition areas where the bank changes. This can be a change from rock to dirt, gravel to boulders, or even rock corners such as where a riprap wall makes a bend. He'll fish these lures along the outside edges of vegetation and around docks, too.
"To me, flat crankbaits may be one of the most overlooked and underutilized lures of winter," says the Lake Fork guide. "They have a very tight wobble, so I think they may resemble baitfish better than most lures. I use a slow, steady retrieve with long casts and cover different depths.
"Transition areas are worth a few casts any time of year," he continues, "but in winter you have a better chance of finding bass schooled around them. They may be schooled in a pretty small area, too, although why they act like this is hard to say. Baitfish are attracted to the same types of transition areas, and if you see them, you'll probably have bass, too."
In addition to a slow, steady retrieve, Niggemeyer also emphasizes casting from different angles and visiting such places several times during a day.
Of course, if he's on a lake with hydrilla or milfoil, Niggemeyer doesn't hesitate to work it with a lipless crankbait, either. Again, he recommends a slow retrieve right over the top of the vegetation or along its deeper edge, and when the lure gets snagged, he pulls it free rather than jerk it out erratically as he would later in spring.
In cold water on lakes with abundant standing timber, Niggemeyer uses a jerkbait that dives 6 to 8 feet. The key to using this lure, he emphasizes, is long pauses.
"I'll make a cast, jerk the lure to get it down, then pause five seconds or more before I move it again," he says, "and after I do jerk it, I'll pause that long again. In this type of cover, I'm fishing for suspended bass that are basically inactive, so it takes a slower than usual retrieve to really tempt them to strike.
"Most of the time, you're actually bringing them up from even deeper water."
Although standing timber might be considered cover, Niggemeyer considers it vertical structure, but he doesn't stop there. Often, the best places to fish are the edges of the timber where a depth change also may be present.
At the same time, he looks for high spots within the timber that may indicate a depth change.
"Still another consideration here is baitfish," he adds. "You can spend a lot of time working flooded timber, but if you see baitfish on the depthfinder, you can usually believe bass aren't far away."
Niggemeyer also fishes jerkbaits off the ends of points, like those in Lake Fork's Little Caney Creek — but again, the retrieve is extremely slow. What surprises many who use this lure and technique is how shallow they may get strikes.
"Winter fishing is not always about fishing deep," he emphasizes. "Always look for vertical structure first, where bass can come up shallow to feed or enjoy some warming sunshine, or go back down as their needs dictate. Cover — like bushes, rocks and stumps — simply makes the structure better."
DOWNSIZING TACKLE FOR WINTER
Even though he regularly fishes lakes like Fork with known populations of trophy-class bass, James Niggemeyer fishes lighter tackle during the winter months. The primary reason is because lighter line allows better lure action at slower retrieve speeds.
He fishes fluorocarbon lines ranging from 8- to about 15-pound test, matching them with medium action spinning and baitcasting rods and reels.
In lures, he prefers a 4-inch finesse worm with his drop shot and jigs no heavier than 1/2 ounce when he's working docks. His crankbaits and jerkbaits are normal sizes.