Get The Drop On Winter Bass
September 24, 2010
Vertical presentation of lures, from big jigs to finesse baits, will give you the edge against tough-to-catch largemouths.
There's an old joke among outdoor writers that there are only two stories you can write about when it comes to wintertime bass fishing. The first is about fishing deep and slow. The second is about fishing slow and deep.
After a tough day on the water during cold weather, most anglers will tell you that they weren't fishing deep enough or weren't working their baits slowly enough for the conditions. But if there were only two angling variables in wintertime fishing, more bass would be caught. Unfortunately, things aren't that simple. There are plenty of ways to go wrong in winter.
"An important key to catching bass in cold water is what I like to call 'the drop effect'," says pro angler Jeff Pugh. "More than just fishing deep water slowly, you should concentrate on using baits that can be worked vertically."
When Pugh talks about fishing vertically, he's not just talking about dropping a bait over the side of the boat and jigging it up and down. He's talking about a way of working certain baits that keeps them in the bass' strike zone for a long while, giving the lethargic fish every chance to inhale the bait.
"Thinking vertical will help to put a lot of fish in the boat for you during January and February," says Pugh. "We all know that during the winter, water temperatures are at their lowest and fish, being cold-blooded, are moving and feeding and digesting meals very slowly. Instead of feeding several time a day, a bass -- even a good-sized fish -- might only feed once every few days. Their metabolisms don't require any more than that during the winter."
According to Pugh, you can start thinking vertical even before you hitch up your boat and drive to the water. A good topographic map of your lake will get you started. "Obviously, you can learn a lot about a body of water without even seeing it in person if you have a good topo map. A map will tell you where the deepest water is, how deep it is, and what sort of underwater structure is available to the fish," he said.
What constitutes deep water depends to a great extent on the body of water you'll be fishing. On some weedy natural lakes, deep water is 8 feet. In a highland impoundment, deep water may be 60 feet. In either case, deep water, however it is defined, is an important element for locating winter bass.
Since the deepest water in any lake is typically near the dam or the lower end of the reservoir, that's where Pugh will often start his search. There may be some bass in other parts of the lake, but the fish on the lower end tend to be a more stable population at this time of year and less subject to the whims of winter weather.
Says Pugh: "Deep-water fish are generally more reliable than shallow-water fish. This is especially true in winter when temperatures reach their annual lows and shallow-water fish turn off like a light switch with each passing front."
Of course, not all deep water is created equal. Pugh is looking for some fairly specific features during the map study stage of the fishing trip. He's thinking vertical -- vertical structure, that is.
"The best wintertime structures all seem to have a vertical element to them. This might be a sheer rock wall on a mountain reservoir, the bluff bank of a deep creek channel on a midland reservoir or the edge of a weedline in a shallow, natural lake."
The point is that these structures all offer bass a place to move up and down to adjust to the weather and water conditions without ever losing contact with the structure -- the rock wall, the creek channel or the weedline.
Because these vertical structures afford bass the opportunity to change their environment without having to swim great distances, they are bass magnets in winter. After extended periods of extremely cold weather, most of the bass may be on or near the bottom of the vertical structure. On milder days or after two or three days of bright sunshine and warming water, some bass will likely move up in the water column to take advantage of improved feeding conditions. It's the angler's job to determine the productive depth and find the best way to present a bait to the fish.
Pugh tries to zero-in on the most productive depth right after he gets his boat off the trailer. "The very first thing I do after launching my boat is turn on the depthfinder. You might be able to catch fish during other seasons without knowing what's underneath the boat, but in the winter that information is critical. As I leave the ramp area, I keep my eyes on the depthfinder screen. I'm not just looking for underwater structure now; I'm also looking for fish.
"Generally, there will be one depth range that seems to be holding the most fish on any given day. Today it might be 12 feet and next week it could be 60 feet, but whatever the depth, I'll use that as my starting point when looking for vertical structure," he said.
If, for example, Pugh sees most of the fish activity at 25 feet, he targets vertical structure that not only has fish-holding potential at that depth but also has potential above and below it. "You don't want to target fish that are suspended far above the available structure. Those fish are generally inactive and extremely tough to catch. But once you've located a starting point where there's some fish activity and the fish are holding near the vertical structure, you can generally get a fish to bite."
As for bait selection, Pugh lets the conditions dictate what he will tie to the end of his line. "I'm sure my selections won't surprise anyone. I use jigs, spoons and plastic worms, just like everyone else. I'm looking for baits that work when they're falling in the water and baits that I can work deep and slow. Mostly, I try to keep the lures in productive water."
At no time is keeping your bait in the strike zone so very important as it is in the winter. When temperatures are low and feeding bass are at a premium, the successful angler is the one who can keep his lure in front of the fish long enough and often enough to draw a bite.
A big part of keeping a wintertime bass bait in the strike zone is working it vertically. Horizontal lures like spinnerbaits and crankbaits have their place, but they often move away from the lethargic fish too fast to tempt a strike when water temperatures are low and metabolisms are at a crawl. You need a lure that has some staying power, a lure that can be worked in one small area for an extended period of time.
"Jigs, worms and spoons are all classic vertical baits, and I use them all in the winter. When fish are holding tight to cover, I'll usually start b
y casting a jig-and-pig to them and working it slowly across the bottom in short hops. The jig is a good crawdad imitation and I especially like to throw it around rocky structure.
"When I want to imitate a baitfish, I'll often use a light-colored plastic worm on a Texas or drop shot rig. The drop shot rig keeps the worm above the sinker and allows you to fish it suspended -- up off the bottom -- on a tight line. It's a great rig."
Whether fishing the jig or the worm, Pugh is not making the same long casts that anglers typically make in the spring and fall. Most of his presentations are almost directly below the boat -- vertical, of course. The vertical presentation accomplishes two important goals for the wintertime baser.
"First of all, a vertical presentation keeps your bait in the strike zone. When it's in the water and at the target depth, it's down where I think there are bass and not being pulled through long stretches of water where there are no fish. Second, it keeps me in better contact with the bait so I can easily tell when I'm getting a strike."
Pugh opts for the jigging spoon when fish are suspended off the bottom or when he's really pinpointed them in an area. Naturally, he fishes this bait vertically, lifting and dropping it with short hops of his rod tip. "Finding a good wintertime spoon bite may be the fastest way I know to load the boat with bass. It can be spectacular!" Pugh said.
So keep your baits in the strike zone and think vertical the next time you venture out on chilly largemouth waters. You just might catch so many bass that you find yourself hoping for cold weather.
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