January 03, 2018
The "stongholds" of largemouth bass are often thought of as being in the American South and Midwest. And in those places in February and March, fishing can be for pre-spawn bass, particularly lunker largemouth.
And it's not much different in the West. Two current pro anglers — one from a Rocky Mountain state and another from California, who both fish MLF tournaments — never park their bass boats in winter. Instead they change tactics to find bass and catch largemouths during cold months. Here are the tactics they use to do it.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH
Brandon Palaniuk, 29, lives in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
"I have nine lakes within 30 minutes of my house where I can find largemouth bass," said Idaho's first Bassmaster/Major League Fishing pro angler. "They also have smallmouth bass and trout."
"They don't all freeze in winter," said Palaniuk, one of the few pro anglers to qualify for the Bassmasters Classic each year (eight) he's fished competitively. "Mainly the lakes that are parts of river systems with moving water that doesn't freeze in winter."
He is typically fishing water that is clear and often very deep. Also, if the lake is not freezing in the winter, that's likely because a fishable river is pushing a significant amount of water through the system. A prime — but not unique — example is Lake Pend Oreille system.
"Pend Oreille is more than 1,000 feet deep," he said. "(The river) doesn't have a heavy flow, but (the water temperature) is a little warmer (than the lake).
"(Underwater) grasses stay really healthy all year (in the river) because of the current and largemouth bass use that grass. But 85 percent of the largemouths congregate in a 3-mile section of the river that's 80 or 90 feet (deep) in places."
Palaniuk said he typically fishes sections with 55-foot depths.
"Bass live in that shallower water because it has current and vegetation," he said. "I catch 'em in 8 to 15 feet of water. But the key (for rivers to hold bass) is those sections have to be near deep water."
The premier forage baitfish in the lake and river is Mysis shrimp, followed by stocked rainbow trout and kokanee salmon.
"In winter I'll throw a Rapala in or around 18 feet of water and fish it super slow, but jerkbaits, Shad Raps and Zoom Trick Worms fished with drop-shot rigs work well," Palaniuk said.
His equipment includes a custom-made, 6-foot, 10-inch Alpha Anglers DSR (drop-shot rod) in medium- to medium-light action mated to a Daiwa Exist 2500 Series bait-caster reel.
The former heavy-equipment operator for a timbering company spools his drop-shot reel with 15-pound-test Seguar Smackdown Braid main line and ties 10 feet of 8-pound-test Seguar fluorocarbon leader to the braid with a "Crazy Alberto" knot.
Palaniuk also uses a 7-6 Alpha Angler Hitter rod for pitching and flipping, and a 7-3 Zilla rod for retrieving frogs, swimming jigs, t-rigs and jig-and-pig lures.
"The main thing about bass fishing during February and March is to find a place where fish are still in a zone and somewhat active," he said. To find such spots, Palaniuk seeks habitat changes.
"I try to target places where there's some kind of difference in the water," he said. "It might be a grass line, a point, a little indentation (in the shoreline) or a channel where fish cut through a flat.
"I also look for differences where fish can duck out of the current but still be next to deep water. And if the water's really clear, sometimes it's even a sight-fishing deal."
His favorite tactic, given the normal lethargy of winter bass, is to retrieve lures as slowly as possible and use lures that don't need a lot of movement to attract bass. A drop-shot outfit works perfectly.
"I pretty much drag (drop-shot lures) really slow," Palaniuk said. "I don't want a lot of action in a bait that time of year because nothing's really moving that time of year."
He ties on a drop-shot hook and lure and hook about 12 inches above a tear-drop bottom-bouncer weight.
"I want the drop-shot to keep above the grass," he said.
Oddly enough, during cold weather smallmouth bass don't hang out in the same places as largemouth bass.
"We've got smallmouths, too, but they don't winter in the same place as largemouths, generally speaking," he said.
His favorite drop-shot lure is a Zoom Trick Worm, although some anglers use Senkos to good effect.
"Most of the largemouths weigh from 3 to 5 pounds," he said, "and we get some good size smallmouths, too. People do catch 8-pound largemouths."
During 2017 Idaho tournaments, Palaniuk said "you couldn't win unless you weighed in at least 20 pounds of fish (a 4-pound average). And sometimes it took 25 pounds to win."
Palaniuk, who was raised by an outdoors-loving single mother, competed in fishing tournaments starting when he was 8 years old.
"Mom took me and my sister camping and hiking and to mountain lakes," he said. "She knew I loved to fish. Her best friend was married to a guy who set me up to fish tournaments."
Palaniuk, who has won three Elite titles and earned $800,000, was BASS's only Idaho pro since the organization was founded in 1968, until last February, when Darrell Ocamica of New Plymouth, Idaho, began competitive fishing.
COLD AND CLEAR LAKES
For many bass anglers, water that is cold and clear in the middle of winter is second in difficulty only to cold and muddy water in the early spring.
Another pro, Brent Ehrler, 40, says many of the lakes he fishes are cold-water impoundments that are man-made. Very often these sorts of lakes have no "natural" forage base of bait fish; often, the forage base is either stocked or naturally reproducing populations of rainbow trout.
"In winter, bass concentrate on baitfish in open water, not in coves," Ehrler said. "However, you sometimes find them at the end of a long point, in a ditch or on a ledge.
"There's some very deep water at lakes where I fish, from 60 feet to along the banks," he said.
Those kinds of depths naturally restrict fishing techniques.
"I jig fish or vertical fish a drop-shot (rig) almost exclusively," he said, "and I fish very slowly in winter."
Ehrler prefers a 7-foot, 1-inch Tatula Elite Series medium-action signature drop-shot rod with a Daiwa Tatula Type-R bait-caster reel spooled with Sunline (Japanese-made) 12-pound-test braid backing tied to Sunline FC Sniper 8-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
"For me braid is a must when I'm fishing deep water," he said. "Anytime I'm casting, when the line is sinking or I'm reeling, a drop shot has a tendency to twist — but braid doesn't twist."
His favorite drop-shot lures (on 3/8- or 1/4-ounce drop-shot weights) are 4 1/2- to 6-inch Gary Yamamoto Thin Senko soft-plastic lures in green-pumpkin color.
"I think bass bite better on cloudy days if they're close to the surface, but when they're deep, I don't think they feel as much pressure," he said.
In very clear water, Ehrler, like Palaniuk, can sometimes see individual fish — and try to target them — in deep water. But in any water he fishes, he also assesses submerged cover, whether that cover is flooded timber or man-made structure. If the fish are not suspended in mid-depths, they will make use of that cover, especially if it is associated with hard structure such as drop-offs or points. Once he locates a spot, he goes to work with plastic baits.
"Besides a Senko, I'll use an Aaron's Magic (salt-encrusted) plastic worm," he said.
When bass head for the shoreline in March and April, he also might throw an 8- to 10-inch swim bait in rainbow trout colors. The Castaic Catch-22, Suspending Glidebait and Huddleston 68 rainbow trout are favorites of anglers trying for giant largemouths.
"I'll usually throw the big swimbait in adverse conditions, when it's rainy or windy," he said. "I run the banks and cast the lure parallel to the shoreline. I also fish it at deep rocks and dam faces."
Depending on the lake, virtually any cover can look good to bass in clear water. Bass are ambush predators, so they like shadowed places to lie in wait, and they like abrupt structure changes because they can use them to trap baitfish that are trying to flee.
"Boat ramps also are really good places to fish because largemouths corral rainbow trout there," he pointed out.
This winter, don't put your boat away as long as there's open bass water near you. Find cover, structure, weedlines and, in rivers, current breaks. Put on a soft plastic bait that you have confidence in and go low and slow. A big bass might be waiting to say hello and warm up your winter.