December 17, 2020
Conventional wisdom has it that cold-weather angling is a game of patience and subtlety, with finesse jigs, live bait and dead-sticked plastics dominating the list of lazy lures for late-fall and winter bass.
But that isn't necessarily so.
Anticipating the onset of winter, bass tend to feed heavily, and often lures with action and vibration trigger some of the season’s best bites. Here are three ways to use these active presentations to boat more bass as the season winds down.
FLASH A BLADE
Wouldn't it be nice to have a lure that flashes like a spoon, hunts the lake bottom like a jig and provokes strikes like a crankbait? Well, you probably have one in a tackle tray right now.
Enter the blade bait, that improbable product of lure-making alchemy that transforms sheet metal, lead and a pair of treble hooks into an incredible fish-catching creation for the cold-weather angler.
Black bass of the largemouth or spotted persuasion bite eagerly on a well-presented blade, but, for reasons unknown, smallmouth get totally unglued at the sight of this fish-shaped mix of metals.
Bassmaster Classic winner Jay Yelas deems the blade bait a four-season tool, but he admits it has uncommon appeal to bass when water temperatures dip below 55 degrees.
"A bass's metabolism slows way down in fall," says Yelas, whose blade of choice is the SteelShad, a belly-weighted blade available in 1/4- (Mini), 3/8- (Original and lead-free SteelShad Elite) and 3/4-ounce (XL) sizes, as well as a 2-ounce (XXL) version for super-sized predators. "Generally, when it's cold, I prefer a nice slow lift of the rod to get the bait off the bottom. Then I let it fall back down, but it's always important to pay attention to what the fish want. More often [in fall], you'll want to gradually move the rod and the bait."
Yelas always uses a snap with the SteelShad, securing it to the front line hole when fishing the blade like a crankbait and using the rear position when fishing vertically. Other effective blades include the Johnson ThinFisher, Sebile Vibrato, Heddon Sonar and the Silver Buddy, among others.
Yelas's rod preference for blade-bait fishing varies with the depth and size of lure he is using. When fishing shallow with a standard-size bass blade such as the 3/8-ounce SteelShad, he opts for a 7-foot rod (Team Lew’s medium-heavy Custom Pro Magnum Bass). He jumps to a longer 7-foot, 3-inch rod when working deep (medium-heavy Custom Pro Magnum Hammer). For 3/4-ounce blades, he works a heavy-action 7-foot, 4-inch or 7-foot, 6-inch rod (Custom Pro TLCP1H). Meanwhile, a 6.8:1 reel enables him to pick up line quickly between pulls and pauses. His line of choice is 12- to 15-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon.
"Less is best [with blade bait fishing]," says Scott Dobson, an FLW angler from the Detroit region who's long been known as one of the best blade-bait anglers in the country.
I learned the nuances of blading from Dobson and Joe Balog a decade ago on Detroit's Lake St. Clair. The most critical lesson for fall fishing was to not overwork the blade. The tendency of most anglers is to rip the lure aggressively. That might work well in the heat of summer, but cool water temperatures of late fall call for a subtle presentation not unlike fishing a plastic worm. Let the blade reach bottom and pull it just enough to feel five to seven vibrations from your bait. Pause. Repeat. ... Set the hook!
RAP 'EM UP
California pro angler Kyle Grover first introduced me to vertical fishing with the original Rapala Jigging Rap. He had garnered numerous tournament wins on Diamond Valley Lake and Perris Reservoir by vertically jigging the bait for bass suspended in 25 to 60 feet of water. Grover demonstrated his mastery of this "video game" technique that day, catching bass after bass in a dizzying flurry of action.
Prior to that demonstration, I had, like most other Midwest anglers, regarded the Jigging Rap as an ice angler’s toy, used primarily for winter walleyes. What an eye opener. Today the original Rapala Jigging Rap is a treasured tool for open-water anglers in the upper Midwest.
"The No. 7 Jigging Rap has become a staple for smallmouths," says Dan Quinn, field promotions manager for Rapala. "It's amazing in deep water when smallies are grouped up in cold weather. But it catches largemouths, walleyes, crappies and northern pike, too. Every species eats it."
North Country experts from the Lindner's Angling Edge team, including Al and Jim Lindner and Jeremy Smith, laud the versatility of the deadly jigging bait, which derives its triggering talents more from a gliding descent than a conventional shimmy.
Midwest "rappers" might jig the bait vertically on deep, clear waters, but they more commonly use the Jigging Rap in a cast-and-snap manner, covering much broader expanses of water.
"Typically, it's cast out and allowed to hit bottom," says Quinn. "The retrieve is short pops. A standard 'pop' is generally a foot or so. Get into a rhythm. Think of it as just walking the dog down there."
However you fish it, select tackle components that absorb the sudden lunges of big, strong fish and set a fairly loose drag. The weighty bodies and tiny treble hooks of this style of lure tear easily with "horse 'em in" tackle. Without a forgiving rod/reel/line combination, you will lose fish…and plenty of them.
Quinn opts for a medium-power rod and spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Sufix 832 braid as a main line and a 14- to 17-pound fluorocarbon leader, but he notes that Smith and Lindner, longtime Rapala pros, advocate monofilament line for the added forgiveness, favoring 6-pound Sufix Advance Monofilament with a two-foot leader of the same line. All three anglers separate the main line from the leader with a swivel to prevent line twist. One potential setup might be a St. Croix Legend Tournament Walleye Spinning LWS70MHM rod mated with a spinning reel with a reliable drag system and one of the line-and-leader combos mentioned above.
Whether you call them rattlebaits, 'Traps (per the Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap) or simply by the name you find on the package, lipless crankbaits are autumn staples. Their tight action is well-suited to the season's cooling water temperatures. They cast far, too, a virtue that plays out handsomely when bass are on the autumn prowl.
Their lipless design seems tailored to a horizontal presentation, which is why they are so effective when bass are situated on flats or gently sloping structure. Yet to restrict their application to a linear "cast and crank" style of fishing is to miss out on much of the power of these surprisingly versatile lures.
Dial in on the fish's preferred speed of retrieve and add directional change to your presentation. Experiment with speed and give your bait a different look with a stop-and-go or yo-yo (lift and drop) retrieve. Pro tournament history is full of big catches on lipless crankbaits worked over the tops of submerged vegetation and periodically ripped free from a grass stem.
Don't limit these baits to the upper stratum of the water column, though. One of my most memorable winter bites came from imparting little more than a wiggle to shad-colored lipless lures over the bottom of an 8- to 10-foot ditch on a small Alabama reservoir. I've used that same approach on sloping flats and depressions in Midwest lakes as well.
Gear up with a variety of no-lips to match the local forage. I try to carry a mix of sunfish and perch patterns, crawfish varieties (including red and orange) and shad patterns, including those bread-and-butter gray/silver patterns universally representative of baitfish. Most of the time I match the hatch, riding a color or pattern that reflects the likely forage preference. But sometimes a bright pattern reminiscent of nothing the fish have ever seen is all it takes to save the day—particularly in dingy water conditions.
Mix up your lure sizes, too. Conventional mid-sized lipless baits are always a good starting point. But, with baitfish growth pretty much maxed out in the late season, those big 3-inch—or larger—lipless baits come into their own. Whatever the reason, oversized perch-pattern no-lips have taken an above-average share of big bass for me in late fall.
When gearing up to fish lipless crankbaits, size matters. St. Croix’s Dan Johnston opts for heavy-power, moderate-action glass rods for lipless baits of a 1/2 ounce and up, and medium-power, moderate-action glass for lighter lures. He recommends options from the company’s Legend Glass Casting and Mojo Bass Glass Casting series, though rods from other manufacturers will also work.
He prefers a baitcasting reel of 6.3:1 or faster.
"When you rip a lipless crankbait and let it fall, you have to pick up line in a hurry when a fish hits," says Johnston. "If the reel is too slow, you can’t catch up."
In terms of line, Sunline Crank FC and Sufix Castable Invisiline 100 percent Fluorocarbon are suitable choices.