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Winter tactics for small lakes

Charlie Ingram and Joey Monteleone are both partial to fishing for lunker bass in a small lake during in the winter months.

Thousands of anglers nationwide fish small bodies of water: reclaimed mining pits, county and state park lakes, stock ponds, pothole lakes, pay lakes, even golf course water hazards.

Many are a mere acre or two in size; a big small lake, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron, is only a few hundred acres. Yet in spite of their size, small lakes exhibit all the diversity of larger bodies of water.

Some are weedy and shallow, others deep and rocky, and still others are murky and full of snaggy wood cover. Some are loaded with small fish, making them perfect for introducing kids to the fun of bass fishing. Others harbor monster bass — in fact, some of the biggest largemouth ever reported were caught from what fishing magazines rather disdainfully refer to as “secondary” bodies of water.

Many anglers consider a small lake to be the ideal venue for an idyllic spring, summer or fall bass fishing outing. But relatively few fish them in winter. B.A.S.S. interviewed two experts who consider the winter months to be prime time for catching lunker bass from these diminutive waters. Following their approaches is guaranteed to heat up the most frigid days of the winter season.

Lunker havens

“I’ve caught some of my biggest bass from small lakes in winter,” Charlie Ingram reveals. In his spare time, the veteran Santa Fe, Tenn., B.A.S.S. pro and host of TV’s Fishing University loves fishing the many reclaimed phosphate pits and state park lakes in the Middle Tennessee area.

“Their small size makes them prone to rapid heating and cooling,” he explains. “In midwinter, it usually takes two weeks of air temperatures above 40 degrees to stimulate a bass bite in a big lake, but a small lake can turn on overnight. Conversely, I don’t think they can get too cold for bass.

Northern anglers routinely catch largemouth through the ice; in fact, the Massachusetts state record, a 15-8 and perhaps the biggest pure Northern-strain largemouth reported, was caught by an ice fisherman. I’ve caught bass in the 10-pound range from 38 degree water in small Tennessee lakes.”

But minilakes can bring either feast or famine, Ingram cautions.

“In winter, you need to fish the right kind of lake for the conditions at hand,” he adds. “When the air temperature has remained cold for a week or so, you’ll have the best bite on a clear, spring-fed lake. Underground springs run from 50 to 55 degrees; the spot where the spring emerges into the lake can easily be 10 degrees warmer than elsewhere. I’ve fished small lakes that were only 40 degrees in the main body, 54 degrees where a spring ran in.”

However, spring water is low in dissolved oxygen, Ingram points out. “You seldom find big concentrations of baitfish and bass right where the spring bubbles in. Instead, they’ll back off from the source a bit and gather where the spring water has mixed with the more oxygen-rich lake water.”

A surface temperature meter is your best friend when fishing a small lake in winter, Ingram says. “Always fish the warmest water you can find. You can often predict a major bass bite on a minilake by monitoring the water temperature. Two degrees is the magic number — it doesn’t matter how cold the lake gets, an increase of 2 degrees in stable weather is all it takes to get baitfish and bluegill moving. When there’s a marked forage movement, bass will feed. Besides spring-fed areas, the north shore can be considerably warmer than the rest of the lake, because cold north winds blow over this area.”

The sun’s influence must be taken into account in winter.

“My best winter fishing always comes on bright, sunny days, and often in midday, when the sun is directly overhead,” he says. “This is true on big bodies of water, even more so on a small lake. On the 12-acre lake on my property, I’ve seen the winter bass bite go from zilch to fantastic within minutes of the sun coming out.”

Cold, muddy water is never conducive to good bass fishing. But during a period of mild winter weather, a small, murky lake can produce awesome action.

“A couple days of sunshine and air temps in the upper 40s will warm a small volume of murky water very quickly,” according to Ingram. “Fish the clear lakes when it’s frigid, then switch to the murky ones as the weather warms.”

Winter weather in Ingram’s region can go from mild to wild in a heartbeat. Tennessee anglers might have a couple of 55 degree days, followed by one on which the thermometer reaches 62 degrees — then a monster front blows down from Canada and drops the air temp to 20 degrees overnight.

“This would trash the fishing in a big lake, but I believe small lake bass become accustomed to dealing with frequent winter frontal passages, and they often continue to bite,” he says. “After all, they only have a limited number of places to go. Bass may move 60 feet deep in a highland reservoir during a frontal passage, but most small lakes are only a fraction of that depth.”

A winter approach

“Even on a small, confined lake, bass aren’t everywhere in winter,” Ingram stresses. “Bass in small lakes frequent the same kinds of places they do in big lakes.

“In winter, I target rocky areas first. Shallow rocks heat up quickly on sunny days, warming the water around them. Deeper rocks attract minnows and crawfish.”

A levee or earthen dam is a good place to start your search for bass in these small waters. Bass cruise riprap along the dam in search of a meal. A light jig with a fat pork trailer is a good choice here — hop or swim it slowly around the rocks. A heavy jig tends to fall between the cracks, keeping you constantly hung up. Living weeds, if available, will attract bass as well, but Ingram doesn’t catch as many big fish around them in winter as he does around rocks. Wood cover is your best bet in cold, murky lakes; bass hang tight to stumps and logs, where visibility is low. Pitching a jig so it bumps wood cover is a deadly tactic in water from 45 to 55 degrees.

In clear lakes, bass often suspend off sloping banks in winter.

“Suspending fish are very lethargic, but they’ll nail a suspending jerkbait, even in water below 40 degrees,” Ingram says. “Bass in my lake will suspend off the earthen dam at the 7- to 8-foot level in 15 feet of water, and won’t hit a jerkbait that isn’t hanging dead-still in the water column. You can see ’em rise up and roll lazily on the lure.”

Any spot offering bass some shelter from frigid winds is a likely lunker hangout, he adds. Shallow pockets in tributaries can be awesome places on sunny days. Baitfish gravitate to these pockets, and bass will move up from deeper water to feed on them. A lipless rattling crankbait will catch a wall-hanger bass here, as long as you don’t retrieve it too fast. Or, slow roll a spinnerbait, targeting isolated rocks and stumps.

No pressure

“If you’re ever going to fish a small lake, winter is definitely the time to do it,” insists bass expert Joey Monteleone of Christiana, Tenn. “You may not catch a lot of fish, but you’ll have a great shot at catching your biggest bass of the year — possibly the lunker of a lifetime.” He knows — he’s caught hundreds of big bass, some in the 10-pound range, from mill dams, farm ponds and small municipal reservoirs during the winter months.

“Fishing pressure comes to a halt on most small waters after October; by late winter, many of them haven’t seen a lure in months. These waters’ compact size means you can work them thoroughly on a short winter day, often from the bank. I’ve had winter outings when I’ve caught a dozen big bass from a 20-acre lake in a single afternoon.”

Prime time for these minilakes is when water temperatures range from 48 to 55 degrees, Monteleone says. “During a mild winter, the water may stay in that temp range from late November to mid-February, triggering a truly unbelievable lunker bass bite,” he adds. “But never let frigid water deter you from fishing them. I’ve caught bass up to 9 pounds in water as cold as 41 degrees, and I’ve broken ice when launching my johnboat, and still caught quality fish.”

Bass are much easier to target from a small lake in midwinter than in warmer weather, Monteleone has found. If you’re after a big fish in water below 50 degrees, you can virtually eliminate all shallow water adjacent to the shoreline, as well as flats and points with a slow taper. In these temperature conditions, most of my bass over 7 pounds have come from 6 to 10 feet of water. Target places with a fast dropoff into deep water.

Sloping banks with stair-stepping ledges are especially good now.

Ditches and creek channels are important structures in winter, Monteleone states.

“Bass holding in deep water follow these into shallower areas when feeding, especially in the middle of the day, after the sun has heated things up a bit. If they’re lined with stumps, so much the better,” he explains.

You don’t need to tote along a big tacklebox for a winter outing on a minilake.

“Bass in small lakes normally eat a lot of insects and frogs, but in winter, these aren’t available, so their forage preference shifts to minnows — especially in water cold enough to send crawfish into hibernation,” Monteleone believes. “My favorite winter lure is an A.C. Shiner No. 350 minnow, silver with black back.” (Contact A.C. Shiner Lures, 513-738-1573; www.acshiners.com.)

“Big bass will eat this plug regardless of how cold the water is. I fish it on a 6-foot medium action spinning outfit with 8-pound mono. Cast, reel down, then twitch it all the way back to you so it never rises to the surface, pausing between twitches. If crawfish are still available — you can determine whether or not they are by turning over shallow rocks — I’ll use a 5/16-ounce jig with a No. 11 pork frog in black and blue or red and brown. Other good winter choices for small lakes include a spinnerbait, a leadhead grub, and any small, light-colored diving crankbait.”

High-opportunity times

In winter, Monteleone looks for certain conditions that trigger a major feed on small lakes. He mentioned the following: 

Warm rain — “This can raise the temperature of a small lake a few degrees overnight. If there are several small lakes in your area, target the clearest one first after an unseasonably warm rain. Bass that were suspending will move shallower, taking advantage of the concealment offered by murky runoff — a perfect scenario for a spinnerbait.”

Full moon — “In winter, my biggest small lake bass have been taken around the full moon. Consult a solunar calendar and make sure you’re fishing your best spots on the date and times indicated.”

Calm, sunny days — “These are probably the worst conditions you can have when bassin’ on a big lake, but ideal on a small lake in winter. Baitfish become energized by increased solar penetration, triggering bass to feed. Try a minnow lure around wood, rock or weed cover.”

Warm front — “Bass in small lakes respond very quickly to warming air temperatures. If unseasonably mild weather is forecast, make sure you’re on the water by the second or third day of the front.”

More winter tips for small lakes  

The colder the water, the less the bass will move to strike your lure. Target high-percentage areas such as sloping banks and dropoffs with slow moving lures. Suspending jerkbaits twitched with long pauses are especially deadly in clear water.

Contrary to what you’ve probably heard about using compact lures in cold water, our experts have found that bigger baits, such as spinnerbaits and bulky jigs with fat pork trailers, will catch more lunker bass in winter. Although big bass feed infrequently now, they often want a good-sized meal when they do feed.

Winter is the best time to fish a small lake from shore. Undergrowth is not as thick as in warm weather, facilitating easier access. Pests, including ticks, chiggers and snakes, are nonexistent. But remember that the shoreline won’t be nearly as productive now as in warmer weather; target casts to areas with a deep water access.

If you’re not catching quality bass at one small lake in your area, try a different one. In winter, subtle differences in water color or temperature often produce a better bass bite.

When targeting big bass from these small waters, always practice catch and release. The gene pool of a minilake can be quickly depleted by removing only a few lunker bass.

Originally published January 2008