When the snow starts to fly up North, outdoorsmen get excited. With big Ohio bucks fattening up, steelhead heading up the rivers, an unbelievable night bite, and giant Erie walleye within casting distance from shore, it is no wonder.
I, on the other hand, look forward to my second favorite time of year to largemouth fish. Anyone who knows me knows summer is my favorite season to fish, but I must say early winter to ice up is a close second. Some of my absolute best days of largemouth fishing have unfolded as I wondered if I should shovel the snow off of my boat deck. I will get into location, techniques and lures before we need an ice auger.
Sit back and daydream with me: It’s one particular day in December. I was set to do a winter bass fishing piece with Darl, a writer friend of mine. The place I originally wanted to go was already iced in at the ramp. I could have easily cracked through the ice with my trailer and smashed the ice with my boat to get to the open water; however, broken trailer lights are a very familiar experience with me and winter so I opted to save a little money and chose another location.
I called Darl and gave him the details of our upcoming adventure, and he was in. On the morning of our photo shoot, the snow was flying – those giant flakes that make driving exciting and 1 mile feel like 5. Before I left, I loaded bags of salt, a couple of bags of gravel and a shovel into the bed of my truck, not for better traction on the road but to get up the ramp after the fishing was done. You see, I have been through this a time or two.
I was almost to the ramp when my cell-phone rang; it was Darl explaining that he was forced to cancel because the snow was so bad that he could not get out of Pennsylvania. I tried not to let my disappointment show; I fully understood the circumstances. My decision was to fish anyway. Fishing alone on a boat in the winter is a major safety rule violation, and I knew it … but the bass were calling.
I phoned Rachel to tell her where I was and that I was alone; I told her when I would be home so if anything went wrong she could call for help. Now, mind you, this still is not a smart move. Donning my survival float suit, I launched the boat. And with all the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning, I eased into my first spot.
The area I was fishing was a set of three vertical steps: The first break was 2 feet to 4, then a small ledge; the second break went 4 to 8 feet and a small ledge; and the third break went from 8 to 12 feet on the bottom. I was fishing a river system and the place I chose was out of the current, which is a very important factor while winter fishing in a river.
Lure selection was easy. First I rigged two crankbaits, a Fat Free Shad in Tennessee shad and one in Citrus shad, a jig and a Vi-B (a metal vibrating bait). These are great lure choices for the depth I was fishing and offered me the ability to fish horizontally as well as vertically.
Sliding my boat into position for a cast to keep my crankbait in the strike zone as long as possible, I let it fly, s-l-o-w-l-y cranking the Fat Free parallel to the second ledge. I instantly hooked up with a nice 3-pound largemouth. I was pumped because when you find where they winter, you are usually on tons of fish. In winter, most bass occupy 7 to 10% of the water column which means they are stacked in big numbers and in tight small areas.
After reeling in a dozen or so on as many casts, I couldn’t help but notice how quiet it was, an erie quiet. Then I suddenly found myself in a new, 3-D winter world, where the grey sky disappeared into the grey landscape and the bright white snow falling out of a windless sky settling onto the jet black water. It felt surreal.
I was brough back to reality with another nice bass, the colors of which seem to be even more pronounced by the backdrop Mother Nature was providing. God, I love fishing in the winter! This entire day was awesome. I wound up landing 35 to 40 bass in two and a half hours; I moved my boat a total of 20 feet. I think I found where they were wintering.
I have experienced similar bass fishing days every winter up north on our lakes and rivers. But here is what you need to remember: Safety first! Never go out alone. Always bring a towel and extra cloths. Dress appropriately and in layers; you can always peel but you cannot add layers if you don’t have them. A cell phone is a must.
Now let’s talk about finding those winter bass and what lures to use. For the sake of this article, I am sticking to Northern lakes and rivers in the snow belts. The time to get on the water is pretty much any time you can. I have had awesome fishing from early morning to just before dark; however, I find the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. range to be most productive.
Depth is all relative to the system you are fishing; for example, if you are fishing a river, you seldom have to look deeper than 15 feet. The key is little to no current and vertical structure. The break could be a bank bluff or an offshore ledge; same applies to tidal waters.
Man-made lakes are a little tougher, only because you have more choices in vertical structure and you have to use a process of elimination to locate the bass. Depth in a reservoir is all relative to that particular lake. For example, if it is a deep, clear lake, 20 feet deep is where you might start and then go deeper. If the lake is typically flat and shallow, you may never fish deeper than 10 feet. Grass lakes are the easiest yet! Find the deepest grass and fish the inside and outside swings. Bingo!
Here is a list of basic winter lures I recommend; now, keep in mind there are exceptions to every rule of fishing. Bass are funny that way. These are my first choices: Vi-Bs, spoons, crankbaits (both wood and plastic) and jigs. I seldom have to deviate from them. However, I have also had good success with drop shots, jerkbaits and Carolina rigs.
Everyone says the bass slow way down in the winter. This may be true but the amount they slow down can only be detected in their reluctance to jump so experiment with lure speed. Slow is generally better but I also have experienced just the opposite. When the radio stations start playing Christmas music and the snow begins to fly, I say blow off shopping for Christmas gifts and go fishing, there is plenty of time to shop after the ramps freeze over.