Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Officially, winter doesn’t come to an end until March 21. But for bass fishermen, the first stirrings of spring probably show up when the water temperature starts to creep upward after bottoming out in the dead of winter.
It’s the time when bass pro Marty Stone said you’ll catch your “prettiest” fish of the year, those chunky specimens with dark backs, well-marked lateral lines and distended white bellies.
“You think those fish got fat just by feeding up in the fall?” Stone asked rhetorically. “No way. The biggest misconception about bass is that they don’t feed in the winter when the water is cold.
“But if you think when it is you catch the prettiest fish you catch all year — it’s around the first of March. And those fish didn’t all of the sudden get fat. They didn’t get that way just by feeding up in the fall. They feed all the time, and in the winter, they just feed more efficiently.”
So to catch late-winter bass as the spring approaches, Stone believes that fishermen need a more efficient approach that not only factors in the mood of the bass and the places they’ll be living, but baits and techniques that will match them.
“Everybody would like to catch ‘em burning a spinnerbait next to a laydown in the back of a cove, but that isn’t gonna happen,” said Stone, who was runner-up in the BASS Angler of the Year standings in 2005. “Sure, they’re slow, but they’re able to feed the whole winter because the bait is slow, too.”
Stone fishes across the entire Southeast in his comings and goings on the tournament trail, and he’s come to believe that there are certain places where you’ll more readily find bass that are just starting to stir after a winter spent in the deeper recesses of reservoirs and rivers. And he believes that one technique is the best.
“The only thing that a bass is concerned with is being comfortable and feeding,” Stone said. “The water quality this time of the year is usually good, because we haven’t gotten our spring rains and had all that runoff, so the water is usually nice and clear, and what do you think that bass is going to relate to? He’s going to relate to food.”
Like bass, Stone said that baitfish make a late-winter move out of deep water as the temperature first starts to moderate. That move will be to places where deep water and shallow water are in close proximity — places with big, well-defined dropoffs that allow a fisherman to position his boat in deeper water and cast into quite shallow water. Bass might not be relating to one kind of structure or cover, but they’ll be around that bait.
“They set up where they can feed all the time,” he said, “and the baitfish will normally relate to nice neat corners or points or saddles” — places where they can migrate shallow or deep and find a comfortable depth of water as late-winter cold fronts and warm fronts pass through.
Stone said that it’s quite common to find late-winter bass suspended over deep water, but relating to baitfish that have made a move toward the shallows. He targets depths between 5 and 15 feet as a rule, and he believes that just as important as figuring out the kinds of places where baitfish and bass will live is picking the best bait for the job at hand and presenting it in a way that will cater to the slower metabolism of a late-winter largemouth.
“To me, the late winter and early spring is the time to fish a jerkbait,” Stone said, referring to the long, slender, minnow-shaped lures with multiple sets of treble hooks that have become a staple in the tackle boxes of bass fishermen over the past 10 years. “You need at least a foot-and-a-half of visibility to have a great jerkbait bite, and since the water is still clear, you’ve got it in most places. And you can fish a jerkbait slowly, and that’s the most natural way that a bass is going to feed. Plus, it’s a big bait, and it’s easier for a bass to gain weight when he thinks he’s eating a big bait rather than a small one — like me eating a quarter-pounder instead of a single French fry.
“You’re catching fish that are suspended; on warm, sunny days, they’ll move up toward the surface as the water warms up, and on cloudy days, they may move a little deeper in the water column. And at this time of year, it’s rare for fish to move down to feed; they’re looking up. If you’ve got something to draw them up with, you can bring a fish a long, long way to bite.
“The boys from the Ozarks, from Table Rock and Bull Shoals, they’re the ones who really perfected the technique of slow-jerking a jerkbait, and to me, that’s one of the best ways to catch a big stringer of fish at this time of the year.”
Stone looks for corners, secondary points that are just off major creek channels, or saddles — high spots on underwater structure — marking his map to give him a lot of different options.
“You might have a northeast wind one day and catch ‘em on one side of the lake, then the next day the wind might move south, and the places you caught ‘em before won’t be as good,” he said. “But what you do is fish a lot of points and corners and saddles — you just hop from point to point to point, and when you finally catch ‘em, then you can start to figure out exactly what kinds of places they’re on, as far as structure and cover and depth.”
Stone favors a 7-foot medium-action American Rodsmiths bait-casting rod, fitted with a Browning Midas reel with a 5-to-1 gear ratio that almost forces him to fish slowly. He spools on 10-pound XPS fluorocarbon line and makes extremely long casts with a Lucky Craft Slender Pointer 97 or 112 jerkbait.
“The real key is jerking that bait down to where you can attract the fish,” Stone said. “I’ll turn the reel between two and four times, and I’ll jerk it down two more times, and on a long cast, I can usually get a bait down 6 to 8 feet. After I get it there, I’ll leave it for a minimum of a four-count, and it won’t be a real fast ‘one-two-three-four’ but a real slow ‘one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two’ kind of count. I’ll keep it down there a long time — but when I get to 15, even I can’t stand to wait anymore.”
He’ll jerk the bait down two more times and wait, then two more times, then usually retrieve and make his next cast. It may not sound like he’s covering much water, but in actuality, he is.
“When you pull up on a point fishing like this, you’re not making a cast every 5 feet like you would with a spinnerbait, you’re making a cast for about ev
ery 40 feet of bank because if there’s one on a point, and you get it within 15 or 20 feet of him, he’ll get on it. I know I’ve called fish up from 15 feet deep over 30 feet of water. I saw ‘em on the depthfinder and knew they were there and caught ‘em — but you have to jerk it down and let it sit there for a while.
“You’re looking to make long, long casts so you can reach 5 feet of water, because starting it out shallow, that puts it where the baitfish are and it makes it much more natural.
“The way you’re fishing, it won’t take more than three or four casts before you’ll know if he’s on the place you’re fishing. But if you catch one, chances are that there will be more of them around. They’ll gang up at this time of the year. You can go most of the day without a bite, then catch 10 on one spot. That’s why you see such big weights caught in February and early March.”
The one big difference between fishing a jerkbait slowly in February and working it much faster during the post-spawn is in how the fish react.
“The beauty of catching bass when it’s cold is this: When you catch one on a jerkbait in the winter, he’ll make one good run of about 10 feet, then he’ll come right to the boat,” Stone said. “It’s not like late in the spring where they’ll drag you all around the boat. About all the energy he’s got is for that first little run, then he’s done.”
Lure colors are secondary to the spots you fish and getting the technique down pat. “It’s pretty basic,” Stone said. “On bright days, I like to fish something clear, translucent. On cloudy days, I like to fish baits with some kind of green hue. The real key is finding ‘em and getting it down to ‘em.”