Land of Giants: Early season slaunches

When ever breath is foggy and clothing layers like holiday bills, a jumbo bass may be only a cast away. Of course, that has to be the right cast to the right place with the right bait. Five Bassmaster Elite Series anglers shared their insights into how they locate giants during the year’s first two months.

Scott Canterbury — Coosa River

Explaining that the year’s early goings — particularly February — offer tremendous opportunities to bag a super-sized spotted bass, Canterbury said he’ll look for a nice, flat point with proximity to a channel swing. Here, the fish find the feeding stations they like, while suspending over deep water requires only a few tail kicks.

“In January and February, they’re all wanting to concentrate around rock on those points,” Canterbury said. “That time of year a big swimbait or a jerkbait is how you get a big bite up there.”

Spots are voracious feeders, so Canterbury’s not messing around with modest sizes. He won’t hesitate to sling a 5- to 7-inch internally weighted soft-body swimbait over those shallow rocks.

Canterbury’s swimbait strategy: If he sees his bait coming up to a brushpile, he’ll bring it up and over the cover and then pause it for a quick fall. Spots will often trail a swimbait and pounce when the bait appears to be dying.

As for the jerkbait, Canterbury likes a Megabass Vision 110. Running the bait as-is works for him, as he believes any hook changes mar the bait’s enticing action.

“Every day is different, so you need to figure out the cadence,” Canterbury said. “It’s usually a jerk-jerk-pause, jerk-pause cadence, but if that water gets below 50 degrees, you really have to slow it down.”

For either presentation, Canterbury wants a windward point, as this keeps the bait loaded and tends to stimulate those reaction bites. Positioning also is key.

“It seems like you need to have the boat in 10 to 15 feet of water and throw into 4 to 6 feet of water,” he said. 

BAIT: Jerkbait
WHY: Vary cadence
WHERE: Windward point

Drew Benton — Southern Grass Lake

If you got it, use it, right? Well, Benton’s not one to waste opportunities, so he’s directing the majority of his attention to dense, matted vegetation. Hyacinth or hydrilla works, but he’s mindful of strategic location.

“I’m looking for mats in the mouths of spawning bays, maybe mats blown up into reed heads,” Benton said. “You’re basically one cast from where they’re going to spawn. This time of year, everything is prespawn or spawning and, if you have a really cold, high-pressure day, it makes this bite even better.”

Realizing that the big, ripe prespawners are staging in such spots to ready themselves for the shoreward movement, Benton wants to send the fish an image that mimics the easy meals that fit the seasonal mood. Punching is the only way to get through the heavy cover, but he does his best to balance efficient delivery with mood-appropriate tone.

“I want to use the smallest weight I can get away with,” Benton said. “I start with a 1-ounce and I’ll only go up in size if I’m having trouble getting through.

“You don’t want to have to throw the bait up in the air and crash it through, but you don’t want to punch a 2-ounce weight and have it blast through there. A lot of times, those fish are right near the surface.”

In most cases, Benton expects a pretty quick response, but if not, he’ll give the fish a longer presentation. If seasonal cold has them lethargic, a slow yo-yoing action gets it done.

Given the high likelihood of hooking an absolute tank in the heavy cover, Benton fishes this cover with a 7-6 or 7-11 Phenix Rods Super Flipper and 65-pound Seaguar Smackdown braid. He’ll peg his sinker over a snelled 3/0 to 5/0 Owner Jungle Hook. Snelling gives him a direct pull for maximum hook-setting force, but it can also cause the hook to kick out at a 90-degree angle. Adding a bead between the weight and hook keeps the rig in line.

“As far as baits, typically the warmer the water is, and the more active I feel the fish are, the bigger the bait I want,” Benton said. “I like a Big Bite Baits Swimming Mama when it’s warmer, and if it’s a little bit colder, maybe postfrontal, the Big Bite Baits College Craw is a good choice because it’s a little, smaller-profile bait that still kicks when it falls.”

In extreme cold, when the fish have pulled back the throttle, Benton drops down to the modest form of a Big Bite Baits BFE or a Big Bite Baits Quarantine Craw. These smaller profiles with their minimal motion offer easy morsels for fish that are likely to shy away from the larger looks. He typically sticks with natural colors.

“I usually start with the big stuff, and if the fish aren’t biting that, I’ll downsize and go to something more subtle,” Benton said. “I let the fish dictate what [works] for that day.”

Regardless of which bait the bass prefer, Benton relishes this time of year. There are typically fewer anglers on the water, and the bass are the heaviest they will be all year.

BAIT: Creature bait
WHY: Big meal
WHERE: Grass near spawning bays

Jacob Foutz — Highland Reservoir

In his east Tennessee home waters, Foutz finds a high degree of clarity begging for a big glidebait. It’s not a numbers game, but when it works, it works big.

“It’s hard not to throw a glidebait just because of the drawing power in clear water,” Foutz said. “In clear water, it’s a magnet.”

Favoring the Storm Arashi Glide in rainbow trout or shad colors, Foutz targets what he calls “the obvious pieces of structure” where winter fish are likely to position. Bluff walls, channel swings, big laydowns, points and ditches fit the bill here.

For optimal performance, Foutz retrofits his glidebait with 2/0 Owner Stinger treble hooks — wide gap, round bend hooks that are designed to sit flush against a bait’s belly. The advantages, Foutz said, are twofold.

“Those hooks make the bait safe to throw around cover,” Foutz said. “Also, because that front hook sits flush against the bait, that keeps line from getting hung on the hook.”

As for his tackle, Foutz throws his glidebait on a 7-11 heavy action rod (basically a flipping stick) with a 7.1:1 reel. Spooling with 25-pound fluorocarbon gives him the outfit he needs for efficient glidebait work.

“With a big bait, you need heavy line, but I also like to be able to move the bait,” Foutz said. “If one gets behind it, I want to be able to move it erratically.”

Noting that a sunny day always benefits the winter bite, Foutz said he finds a bright day with just a light breeze ideal for the glidebait. This is a highly visual game, so he wants to be slinging that big-bite maker when fish have the best opportunity to track it.

“When I’m retrieving that bait, there’s not much steady reeling,” Foutz said of his diverse cadence. “I like to add hard twitches and hard reeling.

“I like to ride my bait high in the water so I can see them if they get behind it. At the end of a long cast, you can’t see them, so that’s why I like to use a lot of erratic moves. That seems to trigger them.”

BAIT: Glidebait 
WHY: Drawing power
WHERE: Clear water, obvious structure

Gary Clouse — TVA Lake

Using Chickamauga Lake as an example, Clouse said he’ll be focusing on the lower end’s clear water, where he’ll target staging areas on the main river or large creeks. He prefers remnants of the previous year’s grass grow-out scattered over flat points, but lacking this cover, he’ll look to brushpiles planted around deeper docks.

“I like the grass close to deep water, but it depends on the year — whether there’s lots of rain and muddy water that would kill the grass,” Clouse said. “Even fragments of leftover grass can hold big ones because it gives them cover in a spot that’s close to the safety of deeper water.”

Clouse’s choice here is a 3 1/2- to 5-inch Scottsboro Tackle swimbait on a swimbait jighead appropriate to the depth. For each presentation, he’s watching his Garmin Livescope and casting to specific targets, watching his bait and adjusting as needed to trigger any window-shoppers.

“For the most part, it’s a slow, steady retrieve because the water temperature is going to be in the upper 40s to mid-50s,” Clouse said. “You’ll probably see the fish you’re going to catch, and if I see a follower, I’ll [turn the reel handle] fast two times and stop it.

“Sometimes, you’re reeling your bait in and you’re almost done with the cast and you make several faster reel turns and that’ll trigger a bite. So, fish the bait all the way back to the boat.”

BAIT: Swimbait
WHY: Covers water
WHERE: Grass near deep water

Brock Mosley — Tailrace

When milder winters keep water temperatures at a moderate level, Mosley knows that one of his best bets for a whopper smallmouth awaits on the downstream side of a hydroelectric dam. Favoring the Wilson Dam tailrace at the top of Pickwick Lake, the Mississippi pro keeps tabs on seasonal conditions and knows that, when it’s right, weeding through several small fish could deliver a straight-up bragging-rights bronzeback. 

“As long as it’s not too cold, they’ll be in that tailrace,” Mosley said. “The rule of thumb that I go by is when the water gets [to] 48 degrees or lower, they don’t want to be around the current because they don’t want to expend the energy to fight it.

“The interesting thing about current fishing [is that on] any cast, you might catch a 10-inch fish or a giant. It’s not like you can really predict what will bite. One side of a boulder in ‘The Horseshoe’ [a large, rocky area below the Wilson tailrace], could be holding nothing but drum and the other side has a bunch of big smallmouth.”

To boost his chances of meeting a big smallmouth, Mosley throws the hefty baits that tend to discourage, if not intimidate, the lesser fish. His one-two punch for big tailrace smallies comprises a 5- to 8-inch hollow-belly swimbait with a lead head sized to the depth and current strength and a 3/4-ounce spinnerbait.

“If there’s a lot of current and I need to slow the bait down, I’ll use a pair of large Colorado blades [size 5 and 7],” Mosley said. “But if there’s not as much current, I’ll use double willowleaf blades.”

Fishing his baits on a 7-6 heavy fast action rod and 20-pound fluorocarbon, Mosley wants a high-speed reel — at least a 7.3:1, but often an 8:1. While the fish selection may be random, he’s adamant about controlling the elements within his reach.

“Current fishing is all about the cast; it’s about lining up right and making the perfect cast,” Mosley said. “Every situation is different and you’ll have to figure out the right cast, and every time you catch one, you have to make a mental note of that exact lineup. 

“If there’s a group of fish there, they’re going to set up a specific way; whether you’re fishing on rock or wood, they’re going to want that bait coming at a specific angle. Your retrieve speed depends on your depth — I’ve caught fish out of 2-foot current breaks, and I’ve caught them as deep as you can fish them.”

While a moderate retrieve speed keeps his spinnerbait up in the water column, Mosley’s ever mindful of the upward rod posture and tactile awareness that allows him to keep his swimbait near the bottom and bump it over rocks without snagging. Reel speed plays a big role in proper presentations.

“That faster-speed reel allows me to keep up with the bait as it’s coming through current,” Mosley said. “You’re not always going to reach the right eddy; sometimes you have to throw and reel it into an eddy.”

Mosley finds the first couple of hours of the day are generally productive, but the colder it gets, the more the afternoon tailrace bite increases. If the water ever dips below that 48-degree mark, he’ll shift gears and look for the fish that likely have relocated from the current-exposed areas. 

“That’s when I look for stretches of the bank where it’s slack water so they don’t have to fight the current,” Mosley said. “That’s when having sunlight can really help that bite.”

BAIT: Swimbait
WHY: Discourages small bites
WHERE: Tailrace

Originally appeared in Bassmaster Magazine 2023.