Finding Winter Bites
By Tony Franceschi
As you make that first cast of the morning, your face still stings from what felt like Arctic temperatures during the run to your fishing spot. Your fingers are still numb even though you were wearing gloves while driving the boat, and, due to your numb fingers, the reel over-runs as your cast settles on the water. Your mind starts to wander and you find yourself thinking about home, a warm bed and catching a couple more hours of sleep. Then maybe sitting on your couch watching “the NFL game of the week” while feasting on some of your favorite comfort food while enjoying your favorite beverage.
You are suddenly reminded of the task at hand by a subtle but definite “tap” on your line and as you try to regain focus again, you begin to wonder whether or not you really felt it. You whip the rod back and feel the pressure of a fish surging and suddenly, the weather isn’t so bad, your fingers have feeling and your face feels warm from the sun that is shining down on it. Even the water feels good as you lip the bass that had inhaled your jig. Winter isn’t so bad after all!
Winter is often considered one of the toughest times of the year to find and catch bass, and for good reason, the bass’ metabolism has slowed way down so they do not feed as often. They typically bunch-up this time of year so locating them is a little tougher, and the cold weather is more uncomfortable for us, making it harder to focus on the details that can bring success. Yeah, it would seem that the odds have been stacked against us, but for those that give it the effort, wintertime fishing can be some of the most rewarding of the year. Not only can you catch fish but you will likely have the lake to yourself, a rarity these days!
The key to catching bass in the winter is finding their food source. During the colder months baitfish tend to group up, that is why the first thing do when I hit the water its turn on my Humminbird 997c and begin graphing structure that should hold bait. I like to target rock piles, humps and main lake points, I want to find areas with significant amounts of bait as these are the areas most likely to hold concentrations of bass. (see Humminbird 997 details in the last issue) I especially like these types of structure if they are close to a creek channel or any steep drop. On an impoundment with long creek arms, outside channel bends are also good areas to focus on. These bends usually have deep or bluff-type walls that hold bass during the colder months, as the walls allow bass to change depth easily without having to travel far.
Once I locate one of these areas I will begin fishing it thoroughly and slowly. If I know or feel that there are bass on this area but I am not getting bit after a considerable amount of time, I will leave and do more searching but will come back to that area at a different time of day to see if I can establish a time that the fish become more active or feed. If you can establish what time of day that is, you can use your time efficiently and put multiple fish in the boat in short order.
During a winter trip to Lake Don Pedro, a friend and I fished the outside bend of a creek channel that I had graphed bait on. We were fishing tubes along its bluff-like drop. We fished for an hour and a half without a bite and finally left to graph some other areas. An hour later, after failing to graph anymore bait, we returned to that original bend and for the next 5 hours, never left that 100 yard stretch. During that time we managed to catch 23 fish ranging from 1 1/2 to 7 pounds! We could have easily gone home defeated had we not been persistent and believed in our electronics.
Anglers shouldn’t be afraid to ply the shallows during wintertime to experience some quality fishing. There are two conditions that I have found to be ideal for shallow bass in the winter, the first being exceptionally warm days, and the second, quickly rising water. Keep in mind that during a warm day, the fish may move up for a short period of time, typically in the afternoon, when the sun has warmed the water for the better part of the day. This shallow bite could last from 1-4 hours rarely longer. In this situation, the best areas to target are those that have good deep water access. Bluffs, outside creek channel bends and points with steep drops on one sides are all good starting points, especially if they have direct sunlight for most of the day.
Rising water, on the other hand, may cause bass to stay shallow for days, if the conditions are right. If the water rises and stabilizes or continues rising, then fish will head for the bank to take advantage feeding opportunities. The flooding will bring new nutrients and food into the water which make baitfish more active and triggers the bass to come looking for a meal. Keep in mind that rising water can trigger bass to move shallow regardless of the temperatures, an example of this was a tournament that I fished on Clear Lake in January of 1998. The air temperatures were in the mid to high 20’s and the lake level had been rising for a week. There was a snow storm the day before the tournament, and water temperatures were in the high 30’s. I flipped a jig in flooded bushes in 1 to 3 feet of water to take 3rd place in that tournament. Second place was won exactly the same way.
Techniques and Tackle
There are two styles of fishing that I use this time of year, reaction baits and bottom hugging baits, the one thing common between them is the speed of retrieve. Often in winter, slower is better, there are exceptions to this rule but I think you will find them to be few. Even when fish are active this time of year, they do not want to chase down their prey as they might in spring or summer. This makes the accuracy of your casts and the speed of your presentations even more critical.
Arguably, there are few reaction baits as effective as the ripbait. With the “Rippin’” technique, you work the bait with the rod tip, not the reel, by pointing your rod tip towards the bait and twitching or jerking your rod in a downward motion to make the bait jump forward a few inches at a time. I have several favorite baits depending on the depth that I am targeting. If I am fishing down to 5’ I like Lucky Craft-Pointers. If I am fishing down to 10’I like the River 2 Sea-Trophy Minnow Series, and if I’m going down to 12’, I like the River 2 Sea-Jerk Shad or the Lucky Craft-Staycee 90. All of these baits are suspending baits that will stay right where you pause them (without floating up). The most critical part of your ripbait representation is the length of the pause. I like a longer pause this time of year as the bass’ metabolism is slow and I want to give them enough time to approach the bait and look at it before it takes off again. The sudden forward lunging of the bait is what gets the bass to react and strike, but if the pause is too short and the bass is not close enough when you jerk the rod tip again, it will not chase it down. The best analogy I can use is, if a fly is three feet in front of your face you are less likely to swat at it as if it was 6 inches in front of your face. Keep this in mind and vary the length of your pauses until the bass tell you what they want, but lean towards the longer pauses to increase your success.
The tackle I to use for this technique consists of a 7’ graphite rod, specifically, a Dobyns-Champion Series 704 or 705 CB. Theserods have a parabolic action to assist in fighting fish that are hooked on treble hooks, but more importantly, the graphite material is very sensitive. Sensitivity is important because in cold water, most of the strikes will be subtle and come while the bait is sitting still, on the pause. A fiberglass rod does not have the sensitivity to feel such subtle bites. I mount a Pflueger Supreme Baitcasting reel on the crankbait rod and fill it with 10-12# P-Line-CX Premium line. P-Line-CX Premium is a co-polymer line that has a very thin diameter which allows baits to reach their maximum depths quickly. This helps by keeping the bait in the strike zone longer.
Bottom-hugging baits like jigs, plastic worms and heavy swimbaits, are my “go to” baits this time of year because you can let them sit in one place for long periods of time and they can be worked very slowly, which appeals to the sluggish winter fish. Additionally, if the fish are in cover, bottom-huggers can be rigged weedless, which allows you to “go in after them”. My favorite bottom hugging bait, by far, is either the Junk Grenade flippin’ jig or the Touchdown football jig, both made by River 2 Sea. Both jigs have flat rubber skirts, which give them a living appearance in the water, and sharp hooks for good penetration. The Junk Grenade is great for fishing in and around heavy cover while the Touchdown jig is perfect for fishing deep ledges, rock piles and structure. The weight of the jig will depend on the conditions at hand. The deeper you fish and the windier the conditions, the heavier the jig. The rule of thumb is to use the lightest weight you can get away with but still maintain “feel”. I personally like using 3/8-1 oz. jigs depending on the conditions.
I recommend throwing these jigs on a 7’ fast action rod like the Dobyns-Champion Series 705C, which has the sensitivity you need to feel subtle bites with the power you need to get good penetration on the hookset. If I am fishing deeper water such as ledges and rock piles, I will tie the jig to 12-15# P-Line fluorocarbon which has very low stretch. The fluorocarbon line allows for enhanced sensitivity and helps to generate a good hookset. If I am fishing in cover or flippin’ shallow flooded bushes, then I will tie my jig to 20-25# P-Line CXX to reduce the risk of breaking fish off in the heavy cover. My retrieve will vary until I find out what the fish want but I will always begin with a very slow cadence. I will alternate between dragging the jig and hopping it, but once again, the pause is the most critical part. Vary the amount of time you let the bait sit motionless until you are able to determine what the fish want.
When I’m fishing a plastic worm, there are two rigs that I have found to be the most productive. One is the dropshot, the other is the splitshot. The split shot rig is made by tying a hook to the end of the line and then attaching a splitshot weight anywhere from 1 to 3 feet up the line. This allows the worm to naturally flutter along just off the bottom as you move it. This technique is best utilized with a 4-6” straight-tail worm like a Roboworm, though there are times when a baby Brush Hog works wonders.
The other rig is a dropshot which is accomplished by tying a hook to your line and leaving a long tag end, sometimes as long as 3 feet, but usually around 18”. On the tag end of the line you attach a drop shot weight, which is a weight with a wire line tie coming out of it that pinches and holds the weight to the line. This allows the weight to sit on the bottom with the hook suspended above it. When left motionless, the worm sits off the bottom as if it was a small baitfish just resting.
These are both finesse techniques that require slightly lighter equipment in order to use them efficiently. I use a Dobyns-Champion Series 702SXF spinning rod paired with a Pflueger-Supreme spinning reel spooled with 6-8# P-Line fluorocarbon line, this allows me to use lighter weights and still be able to fish these baits effectively. These techniques are well suited for clear water situations where the fish might be a little picky as well.
The bottom line is that anglers should not expect fishless days during the winter months. By following the simple steps outlined here, some of the most productive days of the year could be had this winter. Finding bait, slowing down and using techniques that allow you to fish effectively are the important keys to successful days on the water during the coldest months of the year. If you take these suggestions to heart, your winter might not be as cold as the thermometer says it is.
Tony is an excellent well rounded professional angler that you will see at the paycheck line of most every event he fishes. Tony is sponsored by: Ranger Boats, Evinrude, Minn Kota, Humminbird, Dobyns Rods, Pfluger Reels, P-Line and Costa Del Mar.