Winter patterns: A master's class

Two decades ago, many anglers shared a common belief that bass shut down during winter months. Some even thought the fish go into hibernation, therefore getting them to bite lures was nearly impossible.

That theory has since been put to rest by late season Bassmaster events on Southern impoundments and by Northern anglers who have discovered that winter can be a great time to catch fish.

However, it's not always easy. Winter bass can be a little more fickle: The feeding periods may not be as prolonged, and most of the places and methods that produce during fair weather seasons aren't as reliable. On the upside, the areas where you find wintering bass tend to be a gathering place for lots of them.

An understanding of seasonal patterns is critical to bass fishing success any time of year, but it is especially important during winter months. And while bass tend to act similarly regardless of the water you fish, those seasonal patterns may vary in different bodies of water.

It's important to note that winter cannot be easily defined by time of year or water temperature. While Northern anglers are fishing winter patterns in October, Southern bass are just beginning to move toward fall haunts. Conversely, a 48-degree surface temperature may appear in the peak of a Northern fall pattern, yet it indicates winter on many Southern waters.

Here's a look at winter movements on different types of waters, where to find the fish and methods that will increase your chances of catching them.

Reading Reservoirs

When fall wanes toward winter, bass in man-made impoundments pull away from the shallow areas in the backs of creeks and bays and follow the baitfish to main lake structure. If the creek arm is large and deep, they may remain there but use deeper structure, such as deep river ledges, bluff banks or ditches that snake along the lake bottom.

"As a general rule, they'll stay shallow until the water gets down around 50 degrees," offers Oklahoma pro Kenyon Hill. "But when it gets lower than that, they start to gang up on points and dropoffs."

Hill says the fish relate to steeper drops during the winter. For example, if you've caught them on the gentle sloping side of a point during the summer, move to the steeper edge in winter.

Depth is relative, of course. On the shallower, upper end of the lake, a key dropoff may be only 8 feet deep, whereas 18 to 30 feet of water on the lower end may offer the best fishing.

"The key to this time of year is to spend as much time watching your electronics as you do fishing," he describes. "It can be boring, but you're wasting your time unless you're seeing sharp contours, baitfish and bass in the same area."

Hill, who uses a Lowrance HD111, says today's mapping/GPS features are valuable tools in winter fishing.

"Both features put you right on top of key structure, and the sonar will tell you if the fish are there," he explains.

Hill recommends anglers keep their lure presentations simple. He relies on three presentations — a swimming (Zoom Fat Albert) grub, a Team Supreme Rascal Jig or a drop shot rig with a Zoom Finesse Worm. Both the drop shot and the grub are fished on 6-pound fluorocarbon line.

"The fish aren't always on the bottom this time of year, and you'll be able to detect that by watching your electronics," he notes. "I choose my presentations on the basis of where the fish are positioned on or over the structure."

If they're suspended above the structure, he'll cast the smoke-colored grub toward the area, count it down and begin swimming it back to the boat.

If they're suspended just off the bottom over rocks, he'll tantalize them with a green pumpkin finesse worm on the drop shot rig.

"If the weather becomes unseasonably warm for a few days, the fish will move shallow on the structure and stay on the bottom," he describes. "That's when I throw the (black/blue or brown/green) Rascal tipped with a Zoom Junior Chunk and drag it over the bottom."

On deep reservoirs that still have standing timber, bass and baitfish will be found suspended in the branches. That's where vertical presentations with jigging spoons and small leadhead jigs tipped with finesse worms can tempt fish into striking.

"The thing to remember is that coldwater bass aren't feeding as often, and you have to finesse them into striking," Hill explains. "They may get more aggressive during warming periods but they're still not in the mood to chase baits."

The Northern Lake Niche

Some of the season's best, yet overlooked, fishing occurs on Northern waters before they ice up. And while water temperatures in the upper 30s and lower 40s shut down Southern bass, Northern fish will still hit lures used in their winter haunts.

The key, says Hoosier angler Greg Mangus, is to find the healthiest weeds that a lake has to offer.

"Shallow vegetation dies off and is less attractive to the baitfish and bass," he explains. "But you can usually find healthy weeds in the deeper sections of the lake, and that attracts the forage. Where there is forage, bass are usually nearby."

 Those areas include the inside turns of sharp dropoffs, which can be found between large, shallow flats and the deepest water in the lake. Depths can range from 15 to 40 feet, and water clarity often dictates how deep the weeds will grow.

 And, like Hill, Mangus says sonar is an angler's best friend.

 "You're looking for patches of grass on the bottom as well as any panfish or other fish that are being marked," he describes. "Put your graph in the zoom feature and monitor it closely."

 Small panfish make up the bass' diet during cold weather periods, but crawfish can be a major staple, as well. Choose lures that simulate those critters and the bass will take them.

 Those lures include tube jigs, small crawfish imitators and blade baits, such as the Silver Buddy. Blade baits can be fished vertically by allowing the lure to hit bottom, ripping it up, then allowing it to fall back. Most strikes occur on the fall.

 However, if the vegetation is thick, rig tubes and small craws on jigheads and scoot them in erratic hops with the rod tip, emulating the way a crawfish skitters along the bottom.

 Jigs tipped with pork frog trailers work, too, especially along those sharp-breaking inside turns adjacent to points or flats. Bass will gather in those turns and can be tempted by a slow falling jig.

 And don't overlook man-made channels that cut off the main lake providing access for residential areas. If those channels are 10 to 20 feet deep, bass will winter there and can be caught on the aforementioned lures and tactics.

 River Rules

 Stephen Browning says the beauty of river fishing during cold weather months is that you don't have to fish deep.

 "River fish are shallow-oriented fish year-round and, to be honest, the water temperature in 2 feet is about the same as it is in 10 feet that time of year," he explains. "Therefore, if you get a couple of warm days, you can expect good shallow action on a river system."

 The key, he adds, is to avoid current. While bass may be positioned close to current during summer months, they avoid it in the winter.

 "The fish don't want to burn up energy fighting the current, so they're going to stay away from areas that produce moving water," he offers.

 Browning says one of the best times to fish rivers during winter is after a heavy rain pushes new water through the system. The bass will gang up in dead water areas like canals off the regular flow, backwater lakes, and marina areas protected from current.

 "On the Arkansas River we have a lot of rock jetties and 'L' shaped dikes that break the current, and the fish will stack up on the backside," he describes.

 Best lures? Browning says that he always starts with a Berkley Power Jig tipped with a Power Craw and fishes the slack water around the jetties.

 "If you get a couple of warm days and the fish get active, a spinnerbait or a Shad Rap works really well that time of year," he adds.

 Tidal Water Bass

 Many winter bass fishing rules change for bass living in a tidal river because their entire life cycle revolves around fluctuating water levels.

 "Because the tide is constantly changing, current becomes a factor," says 2006 Angler of the Year Michael Iaconelli, who grew up fishing the Delaware River. "During the winter, the fish are more lethargic and avoid the moving water as best they can."

 For that reason, Ike looks for areas away from the main current, such as protected coves and harbors.

 "It could be barge coves, industrial areas — any place that breaks the current," he describes. "And in the dead of winter, it has to have some depth so that, at low tide, those fish still have at least 3 feet over their heads."

 The New Jersey pro adds that the best wintering areas also offer deep, vertical breaks that give the bass flexibility in moving deeper or shallower as needed.

 They head to those slackwater areas when creek water temperatures plummet during late fall. They'll follow creek channels and points to winter areas just as they do on other bodies of water, he adds, but in tidal rivers, the structure isn't as traditional as you find in lakes.

 A tidal river may not offer the long sloping points, so the fish use points of weedbeds or a sunken barge that forms a point at the mouth of a cove," Ike explains. "It may be a lone boat dock, fallen tree — some distinct feature that provides them with a place to stop during the migration to winter areas. The change in depth is their highway, and the isolated cover becomes their stopping place along the way."

 Iaconelli notes that a tracking study of Delaware River bass proved that the tidal water fish are nomads, traveling as much as 30 miles during the course of a year. He believes they'll move upstream to winter spots on an incoming tide to preserve energy in cold water, but finding the areas they use between fall and winter gets tricky.

 "On lakes bass may move only 100 yards to winter, but on a tidal river they may travel several miles," he explains.

 Ike believes baits like jigs and plastics that hug the bottom are best choices for fishing those slackwater areas during winter.

 "Ninety percent of the bass I catch in tidal water during the winter have mud on their bellies, so that tells me it's low and moving slow," he describes. "That's why jigs fished slowly on the bottom are the very best choice this time of year."

 Winter fishing tips

 Target clear water during winter months. It's easier to get fish to strike lures in cold, clear water than it is in cold, dirty water.

 Jigs, soft plastics and spoons are top choices for winter anglers. However, don't overlook a slow rolled spinnerbait or an erratic jerkbait for tempting suspended fish, especially if baitfish are nearby.

 Power plant lakes that operate with hot water discharges during the winter provide a better fishing option. The fish are more aggressive, react better to summertime lure presentations and can be caught shallow.

 Fish slow and be thorough. Winter bass have a small strike zone so baits must be presented in their face. And when working an area, cover every inch. If you get in a hurry, you could skip over a big school without knowing it.

 Cold fronts have less effect on winter bass living in deep water than they do other times of the year. If an abrupt weather change occurs, focus on those deep spots that have been the most productive during late season months.

 Opt for light line and smaller baits when winter fishing, especially in deep water away from heavy cover. Coldwater bass eat infrequently and are less aggressive. The smaller line presents less line drag and makes smaller baits appear more natural.

Coldwater aggressors

If a lake has sizeable spotted or smallmouth bass populations, direct your attention to them during winter months. Both species tend to be more aggressive in cold water than their largemouth cousins.

Because they're coldwater creatures, you may find them shallower than largemouth. Spots will school in the backs of sloughs and creeks whenever baitfish are present. That's when crankbaits and spinnerbaits fished along shoreline ledges can catch them.

 Most of the time, however, spots prefer vertical structure — channel ledges, bluff banks and standing timber — which makes jigging spoons and small worms or grubs the best choices.

 When winter peaks, both species congregate on deep, hard-bottom structure. Therefore, large boulders or submerged offshore humps are good places to look.

 Smallmouth tend to prefer flatter structure, but they will school along ledges and deep flats that offer rock or gravel habitat, although you can find smallies around deep weed patches on Northern lakes. Jigs, lead-bellied blade baits, grubs and other small plastic lures fished on jigheads are good choices.

 On Western foothill lakes, excellent spotted bass fishing can be found on rocky bottoms in water as deep as 90 feet. Western anglers utilize their sonars to locate the fish hovering on the bottom and drop baits in front of their faces.

 That's where drop shotting developed in the U.S., and why the technique has become so popular with spotted bass anglers nationwide. Small lures can be presented directly in the face of spots and smallmouth that hold on deep structure

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