By Bob Bledsoe
In Oklahoma, it’s the time of year for honing your deep-water fishing techniques.
Wintertime’s deep-water fishing may not be as exciting as watching a lunker largemouth leap from the water to grab a topwater plug on its way up, but it can be just as productive – sometimes more so.
I used to think of bass fishing as strictly a fair-weather proposition. I’d fish for crappie a little bit in the winter, but by and large I didn’t give bass fishing much thought after the deer and quail seasons started in November. I had pretty much assumed that bass fishing – well … sucked during the colder months and wouldn’t be worth pursuing again until at least March.
But then I started traveling to Mexico to fish each winter, sometimes catching hundreds of bass a day. After that, I started going to Texas to fish – at Toledo Bend, Monticello, and, later, Lake Fork. We didn’t usually catch huge numbers of bass on any given day, but we caught lots of big bass in those Texas lakes.
Why, I began to wonder, won’t those same techniques work in Oklahoma just as well? Then I found out: They did!
Our large Oklahoma lakes rarely have a lot of ice on them. The surface waters may be a few degrees colder than the Mexico or Texas lakes, but a few feet below the surface – where the bass seem to spend a lot of their time in the winter – the water temperatures are pretty much the same.
We do have the occasional warm, sunny spell during Oklahoma winters that allows bass to move to the surface, especially in the sun-warmed shallows of ponds as well as on most of our lakes. When we are in one of those weather patterns, it’s possible to catch fish on crankbaits and spinnerbaits around shallow cover, just as we do in the spring, summer and fall.
But most of the time the majority of the bass will be farther below the surface at this time of the year. You might catch bass anywhere from 10 or 12 feet deep to 40 or 50 feet deep, depending on the relative water temperatures and oxygen content of the water at those depths.
Just as they do in shallower water, active bass in deep water tend to orient around structure or objects. But that structure or those objects won’t always be apparent from the surface, so a good sonar unit comes in handy.
Sonar is so much easier to use these days. Back when I was cutting my teeth as a bass fisherman, the first-generation “flasher” units were the norm. Only a little blip of light from a crude, spinning display indicated the presence of fish, brush or other objects in the water.
Paper graph units – which showed excellent, detailed displays, but were expensive and troublesome to use – came along next. They were a godsend to deep-water fishermen, but they always needed adjusting, a new roll of thermal paper or some other kind of attention.
When sonar units with liquid crystal display screens came along in the early and mid-1980s, the first units were pretty crude, too, and serious fishermen stuck with paper graphs and flashers. But it wasn’t long before LCD technology improved, and today fishermen can see incredibly detailed displays of what’s beneath them. And some of the highly versatile, easy-to-use LCD units available today cost much less than did the paper graphs of 25 years ago.
My point is that it’s easier and cheaper to have a good sonar unit today than it was back then. And that makes it easier to find fish and to learn the location and shape of deep-water structure and objects.
It still takes a little hands-on experience to learn to read sonar correctly. You’re looking at a three-dimensional environment on a two-dimensional screen. And because the sonar signals are spreading out in a cone shape as they go deeper, you sometimes get a distorted picture of what the bottom actually looks like. If you’re like me, you tend to think the sonar is looking straight down beneath the boat. In actuality, a feature that it shows may be a few yards off to one side or the other, especially if it’s at a significant depth.
Between the sonar display and a wee bit of probing with lures, you can usually get a pretty good idea of what’s down there. As you gain experience with a particular sonar unit, you can soon predict with surprising accuracy what the signals mean – even to the point of identifying fish species by how they orient to the structure or cover.
When I first began fishing from boats with sonar, I was baffled as to how my more-experienced partners could distinguish a black bass from a striper or a catfish from a spoonbill. The truth is that you can’t always tell the difference. But when you’ve built your knowledge base on a given lake and learned fish movement patterns and how they relate to the structure, you can make accurate assessments a very high percentage of the time.
But enough about sonar. I went into all that merely to point out that sonar is a valuable tool for deep-water fishermen, and so can be important for midwinter bass fishing in Oklahoma.
Let’s look at a few of the tried-and-true patterns for wintertime’s deep-water bassin’, and at some of the Oklahoma lakes at which they can best be applied.
I like light-tackle fishing, so one of my favorite wintertime bass techniques is fishing with finesse baits: small jigs and grubs and the like on 6-pound-test line, or at times even on 4-pound-test. I fish them around flooded treetops 30 to 50 feet deep. I’ve used this technique often at Tenkiller and Broken Bow – both of which are comparatively clear lakes.
At Tenkiller in recent years, oxygen levels haven’t always been what they’ve needed to be to support fish life more than a few yards below the surface, so sometimes there don’t appear to be fish holding at the depths where there are some standing trees in extremely deep water. But there are still times when the fish are there.
At both Tenkiller and Broken Bow, which were built in the era when virtually all of the trees were bulldozed and burned before a lake was filled, there aren’t a lot of trees in the water. But at both lakes, in the big basins near the dam where the water is very deep (Tenkiller is more than 150 feet deep near the dam and Broken Bow is about 180 feet.), some mature trees were left standing. Even the tops of those trees are 40 or 50 feet below the surface at normal levels, so lake builders knew they would pose no hazard to navigation.
In midwinter, and sometimes in midsummer too, bass and crappie suspend around those treetops. In fact, I first caught bass in these areas on both lakes while fishing for crappie. In both lakes, two highly successful Oklahoma professional bass fishermen pointed these areas out to me.
Former BASS Masters Classic winner Charlie Reed of Broken Bow told me about the trees at that lake when I asked him about crappie fishing there years ago. And Tommy Biffle of Wagoner showed me the trees at Tenkiller during a crappie-fishing trip there back in the mid-1980s.
I’ve used big tube jigs (Gitzits and similar lures), and small grubs and 4-inch worms to catch bass on both lakes. But I’ve had probably better success using crappie-sized tube lures on 1/8-ounce jigheads. I pretty much stick with darker colors – purples, blacks and browns – because at those depths, bright colors are lost anyway.
This is mostly vertical fishing. You can make long casts if you like, and try to drag your lure back through the productive zone, but I usually flip my lure out a short distance, let it sink, and then move the boat around with the trolling motor while slowly jigging and swimming the lure.
It can help to mark your line with a magic marker so that you know when your lure is at the depth where the fish are holding. Or you can use one of those spincast reels such as crappie fishermen use that flips a lever across the line so you can keep dropping your lure back to the same depth again and again without measuring.
I’ll tell you that, most of the time, you’ll probably catch more Kentucky spotted bass than largemouths using these techniques. Kentuckies seem to school at those depths more often than do largemouths. I don’t believe I’ve ever caught really big bass – over 5 pounds – doing this, but I have caught lots of small bass and numerous “keepers.”
If you want to catch bigger bass in the winter in Oklahoma, one bait, I think, outshines all others: the traditional bass jig, tipped with either plastic or pork.
Bass jigs come in all sizes, but most range from 1/4 ounce up to 3/4 ounce. They can be dressed with hair, feathers, silicone rubber or other materials.
When I was an enthusiastic young bass fisherman, there was only one thing to put on the end of your jig, and that was the Uncle Josh pork rind. The pork rind – cut into frogs, eels, twin-tails, lizards or other such shapes – gave the jig a flowing, life-like look and feel as it moved through the water. The pork, stored in little jars of brine, tended to make big messes in a tackle box, but no serious bass fisherman would go out without his favorite varieties of pork bait, especially in the winter.
When soft plastics came along, many anglers switched to putting plastic frogs or crawfish or twin-tails on their jigs. The debate raged for several years as to which was better, pork or plastic. I’ve caught a lot of bass on both, so I won’t take sides. But I would recommend keeping both on hand, because there are times when switching from plastic to pork, or vice versa, has seemed to make all the difference in fishing success.
Jig-and-pork or jig-and-plastic baits are good at any time of the year, but they really shine in midwinter, when lots of other techniques aren’t working. If you can find bass on deep-water points or humps, around submerged creek channel edges, or around brushpiles anchored in deep water, then a bass jig is usually the best tool for catching them.
The basic jig-fishing technique is pretty much like fishing a Texas-rigged plastic worm. It’s a slow raise and drop of the rod tip, done while maintaining just enough line tension to feel what the bait is doing, but trying to avoid interfering with the bait’s natural falling action.
But there are variations. I once had a highly successful bass guide tell me the secret to his wintertime jigging success. According to him. The idea was to try to move his jigs as many times as he could without actually moving them more than a foot in distance. He wanted the jig to quiver, shake and jump – making it appear alive – while letting it stay in the same place as long as possible.
I tried to emulate his technique, and I’ll vouch for it: It works. I especially like it when fishing around deep-water brushpiles, or along the tops of submerged points or ridges.
Most fishermen tend to use heavier line and stiffer rods for jig-fishing. My advice is still to use as light a line as you can, but use a rod with a stiff spine that gives you some hook-setting power. Your line, of course, will need to be strong enough to withstand a good hookset, so you can’t use the same kind of line that you’d pick for fishing finesse baits on spinning tackle.
Grand Lake, with its hundreds of artificial brushpiles, plus lots of meandering, submerged creek channels and submerged, rocky humps, is perhaps my favorite wintertime jig-fishing lake. At Grand I tend to use 1/2-ounce jigs with two rubber skirts and tipped with plastic crawfish.
I also like to jig for smallmouth and largemouth bass at Lake Murray and at Lake Tenkiller. At both of those lakes I like to use 1/4-ounce jigs with brown-and-orange bucktail dressings and small pork frogs or small pork eels as a trailer. Those same jigs are also good in warmer months for catching smallmouths on the sloping rocky shorelines at those lakes.
I would be negligent if I didn’t mention jigging spoons for wintertime bass fishing in Oklahoma. Most Sooner State fishermen think of jigging spoons as striped bass or white bass baits, but in midwinter they’ll catch black bass too. I’ve used them at Eufaula, Keystone, Sardis, Webbers Falls and Grand to catch cold-water bass in January and February.
I think jigging spoons are good for fishing deep structure where there isn’t a lot of brush. Because they come with treble hooks, they tend to grab any wood or other object they get near. I’ve switched a treble out for a good, sharp single hook at times. That generally helps the hangup situation. You can cast and retrieve jigging spoons, but they’re really most effective when jigged vertically, straight beneath the rod tip.
Locate some structure that’s holding bass; then, lower your spoons to the bottom and start jigging as you slowly reel the line up. Sometimes the strikes come close to the bottom; sometimes they tend to come several feet off of the bottom. But usually, at a given place and time you can establish a pattern and find the most productive zone. Once you’ve determined that, try to keep your lure working in that zone as much of the time as possible.
I’d say about 90 percent of the strikes you’ll get on a jigging spoon come when the spoon is falling. For that reason, it’s important to watch your line and to follow the lure back down with the rod tip each time you jig it up and let it fall.
You’d think that when fishing one of these heavy, flashy lures, the strikes would be jolting. But sometimes they are every bit as subtle as a crappie gently nipping at a tiny jig. Sometimes there’s no
“strike” at all: You just notice some slack in your line as your spoon falls.
I’ve definitely had my best luck with the long Hopkins-style spoons, silver in color with hammered finishes. The generic versions available at lots of bait shops can work well, but make sure they’ve got a split ring on which to tie your line. Don’t snug a knot down on the spoon itself. That can impair the action. I’ve also had pretty good luck at Lake Eufaula using the same painted, oval-shaped spoons we use there in the summer for catching schooling sand bass.
Even though it’s wintertime, and there may be frost on the windowpane or snow on the lawn, the chill in the air and the sharp angle of the sun at early dark doesn’t mean that you can’t catch bass in Oklahoma at this time of year. Using the techniques described here, you can probe many of Oklahoma’s lakes successfully. And you won’t have to wait in line to fish your favorite spots, either.
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