January 11, 2018
Open-water angling is not that far in our future. These expert tips should help you make the most of that early bass action.
A stiff breeze across still-chilly water makes the air feel anything but spring-like. Gloves break the chill of icy fingers, though, and you're thankful to be bass fishing again.
Plus, you know that once you get to set the hook into a hefty largemouth, you won't think about the cold anymore.
Your local favorite waterways might still be iced over, and/or bass fishing might remain closed.
Bass fishing opportunities will be here soon enough, though, and when that happens you want to be ready because early action can be excellent, with conditions that dictate a lot about the best approaches and about predictable bass behavior.
Water temperature naturally has a major impact on bass behavior early in the year. No magic number dictates when everything gets going. Instead, temperature considerations are relative.
Fish generally get more active with rising temperatures, and the bite often is best in an area where the water is even just a couple of degrees warmer than the rest of the lake.
A dropping temperature doesn't mean you can't catch fish. It simply suggests that slower, deeper strategies and something like a winter approach are more apt to produce than the usual spring strategies.
Consider factors such as sun exposure, depth, water color, sun-soaking riprap, and warming or cooling influences of inflows.
And keep a sharp eye on your temperature gauge as you move to different areas throughout the day.
If two areas otherwise look similar but temps vary a bit, prioritize the warmer water.
Conversely, if you move into an area that you expect to produce, but note that the water is a bit cooler than where you were just fishing, know that you might need to fish a bit slower or move down the breaks to get fish to respond.
Water color is another important indicator and is essential to monitor as you select strategies.
Clear water causes fish to use more open and sometimes deeper water, to feed by sight and at times to turn fussier. Dirtier water, as a rule, pushes fish shallower and closer to cover and makes them more reactionary.
The fact that bass aren't crazily active and don't have gazillions of forage options this time of year is actually helpful because it "shortens the playing field" both in terms of locations and the kinds of strategies that warrant trying.
In fact, the four strategies detailed here will cover most situation you are apt to encounter for first-season largemouths.
CREEP A JIG
Bass eat a lot of crawfish and large aquatic insect nymphs early in the year, and even the fish they feed on move slowly and spend significant time low in the water column.
Jigs and trailers are ideal for dragging along the bottom in deeper holes, at the deep ends of points and at the bottoms of channel breaks. They also work great for pitching to shallow cover when wet-weather systems add color to the water and cause the fish to move shallow and tight to cover.
For deep-water jig fishing, long casts work best, and an individual presentation might take several minutes, with very gradual pulling of the lure along the bottom.
Most days, you don't want to hop it. Just drag it, sometimes only a few inches at a time. Bites might just feel spongy, almost like the lure hitting grass, as bass will just pick it up and not go anywhere.
If anything feels even a little different, set the hook.
Long casts and super-slow retrieves border on painful, but the reward can easily erase the pain.
Football-head jigs in the 1/2- to 1-ounce range and craw trailers shine with this approach because the football shape keeps a craw oriented correctly and the jig will rock forward, lifting the craw's tail to imitate a rooting crawfish, when you pull it slightly.Natural colors that include green, brown and dull oranges tend to work best.
The shallow jig approach is quite different, except that it too calls for slow motion. Instead of making long casts and covering water, you'll mostly make short pitches into bushes, beside dock supports, under trees or tight to deadfalls, with the boat positioned close to the cover.
Accuracy is critical, and short pitches allow you to spend more time with the lure in the strike zone.
Watch your line carefully from the time the lure hits the water because some fish will hit the jig on the drop, especially if you hit the key spot in the cover.
Assuming no immediate strike, let the lure rest for just a moment and then hop it ever so slightly and pause again.
Do that until the lure is out of the cover, whether that means two hops or several and then reel back and make another flip.
For pitching, you want a heavy but compact jig that you can punch through the cover and that will drop straight down to the fish.
Use a flipping jig, with a weed guard and a head shape that's designed to deflect branches and a chunk type trailer or a small craw imitation.
Because this strategy works best in dirtier water at that time of year, bolder oranges and dark colors like blue and black tend to out-produce the subtler and more natural color patterns.
JERK & PAUSE
Many bass could be in a pre-spawn mode, holding just outside of spawning flats over points and other structure that link deep areas with spawning areas.
These fish commonly suspend, making them difficult to target with bottom-bumping lures. However, they aren't active enough for a topwater lure or a faster, steadily moving lure like a crankbait or spinnerbait.
A suspending jerkbait is ideal for working that part of the water column, and it does a great job of imitating a baitfish that is moving slowly in the still-chilly water.
An important key to successful jerkbait fishing early in the year is to implement pauses — sometimes long pauses — between jerks in presentations.
Old-timers say to jerk a couple of times, pour a cup of coffee, jerk another time or two, make a sandwich, jerk again.
Sometimes that isn't far from true.
Experiment with pause lengths. Sometimes you can't fish the lure slowly enough. Other times shorter pauses work better.
Also, experiment with the sharpness of jerks and the cadence of jerks and pauses. It's easy to fall into a rhythm rut, and at times changing the cadence can make all the difference between just casting and catching.
Suspending jerkbaits generally work best in water that is at least somewhat clear, so start with translucent color patterns and colors that match prevalent forage in the waters you are fishing.
Also, use jerkbaits that roll or wiggle and dart a bit when you jerk them but that aren't super erratic.
JIG A SPOON
Because bass that remain somewhat chilled don't like to expend energy chasing would-be meals, it's tough to top the efficiency of putting a lure in the face of fish and continuing to dance it in front of them.
As long as fish are in defined locations and deep enough to set up overhead without spooking them — both of which often are the case early in the season — vertical jigging is the easiest way to keep a lure in front of the fish.
Spooning success begins with finding specific groups of fish to set up over.
Catchable fish are normally relating to baitfish, which you can also see on your graph, and close to the bottom but not clinging to it.
When you find that scenario, drop a marker buoy to provide a visual reference on the surface and use the trolling motor to stay directly over the fish.
Drop your spoon all the way to the bottom and work it with upward snaps of the rod tip and drops.
Experiment with cadence and the sharpness of snaps and with letting the spoon flutter freely and following it down with a semi-tight line.
Lead spoons that are made to drop quickly but flutter on the fall in 1/2- to 1-ounce sizes work best for jigging. Both water depth and forage size should factor into any decisions about spoon size.
CRANK HOT ROCKS
If you get a string of two or three sunny days early in the fishing season, look for extended rocky banks.
Whether it is a naturally rocky shore or a riprap bank near a bridge or in a developed cove, such an area will soak up sun, adding just a hint of warmth, and the crawfish will get more active around the rocks. Both factors draw bass to the rocks and put them in a feeding mood.
Work such an area with a wide-kicking crankbait that will root in the rocks and make commotion even with a slow presentation and that dives steeply enough to stay down around the bases of the rocks.
Plump, buoyant lures tend to work best because they will pop up more readily to keep you from getting hung.
Use a slow, steady retrieve with the rod held low, or try repeated slow sweeps of the rod. The idea is to keep the lure rooting like a foraging craw and deflecting a lot without moving it too quickly.
Bass will react when the lure kicks its way past but are unlikely to chase it any distance.
Position your boat close to the rocks and cast nearly parallel so your lure stays in the strike zone throughout each cast.
If the rocks extend several feet out, vary casting angles to hit a variety of depths and pay careful attention to patterns regarding where the fish bite.
It's fairly common for all the fish to be in, say, 5 feet of water with rocks that stretch from the edge to 7 or 8 feet deep.
As you work a rock bank, remain on the lookout for anything that makes a spot a little different — a little point or indention, a change in the size or type of rock, a laydown — any slight difference can be important, especially along a bank of similar rocks.
Don't get in a hurry when you are working this kind of bank. Sometimes it takes a few passes through an area to trigger a strike.
Keep moving, but do so gradually, and when you do get bit, stop and repeat the exact cast you made. Once you've worked an entire rock bank, turn around and work in the opposite direction.
The approach direction of the lure can be important on some days, making a return pass well worth trying.
MORE TIPS, MORE BASS
In addition to what we've already covered here, consider these two "bonus" tips next time you hit the water for some bass action.
Not Quite Ice
Don't overlook your ice-fishing jigs and spoons for vertical fishing early in the season. If fish are positioned so you can set up directly overhead and fish vertically, these offerings have much the same appeal as they did when fished through a hole during midwinter. In fact, while such an approach is less often associated with bass than other species, tipping an ice lure with a minnow or minnow head works very well for bass in the open water.
All Or Nothing
A common mentality when extra-cold days make the bite tough is to "finesse" the fish with smaller lures. The fact is, though, that larger bass especially want their money's worth when they expend the energy to eat on a cold day. Instead of downsizing, upsize. You might not catch as many fish, but the bass that bite are apt to be the ones you really want.