The challenge for winter bass anglers is convincing a fish experiencing varying levels of lethargy to expend the effort to eat your offering. If finesse baits come to mind, you’re not wrong. The dainty stuff can definitely work. But there’s a lot of logic in moving to the other end of the spectrum and showing those shivering fish a jig’s prominent profile.
Consider the calculation: Every calorie spent moving toward a potential meal, is a calorie that could be used for winter sustenance. Therefore, larger payoffs often mean greater motivation. California’s Ken Mah, who fishes several bass circuits in the Western states, including the Costa FLW Series and Wild West Bass Trail, knows well this bait’s potential.
“Jigs are ranked very high in the West and in my personal arsenal,” Mah says. “Whether I’m fishing a deep, clear lake such as Shasta for spotted bass, or I’m flipping a jig on Clear Lake or the California Delta during the later winter/early spring, a jig is one of my top three baits/techniques.”
Roy Hawk, BASSMASTER Elite Series pro from Lake Havasu City, Arizona, adds this: “The jig is a mainstay in my winter arsenal because of its bulk, lifelike movements and the ability to be effectively fished at a slower pace.”
PAIRING THE PACKAGE
Traditional flipping jigs, football heads and even hybrid styles like Strike King’s Denny Brauer Structure Jig get the job done, with sizing typically determined by water depth and conditions. With the latter, a heavier jig affords better targeting on windy/choppy days.
Jig skirts offer tremendous versatility, as trimming and/or thinning the strands affects the overall profile, as well as the amount of flare the bait displays. Complementing this adjustment, jig trailers also play a key role in this technique.
Simple rules of thumb: the slimmer the trailer, the faster the fall; the more detail in flappers and appendages, the more action. Often winter fish prefer the opposite: modest chunk style trailers that drag more water for a slow, subtle fall. Experiment with both variables and match the presentation to the day’s conditions (i.e., warming trends may see a preference for bolder, more active looks.)
“Jig trailers are huge,” Mah says. “Oftentimes, this is how I can add color to a jig, action and profile. I’ve seen times when the fish want something very subtle with little to no flapping movement at all. They almost want the jig to glide.
“If I want something with a controlled drop, I’ll typically use a trailer that paddles or swims. This causes the jig to fall with more consistency when I make that first presentation or each time I hop it. If I want it to be subtler, I’ll use flatter baits with fewer appendages. I won’t separate the appendages on baits, as this will cause the bait to catch more water on its descent and glide off side to side.”
Mah advises paying close attention to how the fish eat a bait — are they aggressively crushing it or do you feel more of a pressure bite? Do they want the jig hopping, dragging, dropping, swimming? Each day is different, Mah notes, and what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow.
“I like to study crawfish migrations, and on every body of water the crawfish go through many different color changes,” he says. “Match the hatch is a great term, but sometimes being different also gets noticed. A littler smaller or bigger profile, using the same jig colors as the crawfish with a contrasting or darker trailer, or vise versa, is something I employ. “Usually this time of year, it’s really hard for me to get away from the black and blue hues. But black/blue with some green pumpkin, dark brown and some purple is also a killer.”
We asked Mah and Hawk to describe their winter jig setups. Here’s what they offered.
1) His “workhorse” package is a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce black and blue flipping jig with a Big Bite Baits Chunk. If he wants more movement or if the water is above 56 degrees, he’ll switch to a Big Bite Baits Swimming Craw.
“I will throw this bait all over this time of year, especially if the body of water has largemouth bass living in it,” Mah says. “I am looking for large pieces of cover in 1 to 8 feet of water. The more isolated that piece of cover, the better.
“Also just throwing this along riprap banks searching for the early grass growth is deadly. This typically happens when the water temperatures are still cold, 48to 54 degrees, and the fish are not quite ready to chase moving baits.”
2) Next up is a 1- to 1 1/2-ounce double weed guard jig with a Big Bite Baits Chunk or Big Bite Baits Swimming craw. For a larger profile, Mah might go to the Big Bite Baits Yo Mama.
“I use this one anytime I encounter overhanging cover such as dead tules, mats, sawdust mats, driftwood, you name it,” Mah says. “I use this setup for anything that causes a canopy that my lighter jig cannot penetrate. There are always big fish that need to warm themselves, and this is one of the best scenarios to do this.”
3) Mah’s third choice is a 1/2- to 1-ounce football-type jig or swing-head jig fitted with a Trapper Tackle 30-degree jig hook and a Big Bite Baits Double Tail Skirt Grub.“This is a staple for Western waters on lakes that have rock structure, clay banks, humps and long tapering points,” Mah says. “I usually try to come uphill with this type of presentation whenever I can. Many anglers sit out deep and throw towards the bank, so giving fish on pressured waters a different angle can make the difference. This also gives me better bottom contact when using lighter jigs/swing heads.”
1) Pepper Custom Baits Finesse Casting Jig with a Yamamoto Twin Tail or a Flappin Hog trailer.
“The Twin Tail produces more overall movement, but the Flappin’ Hog can produce key bites when the fish want something more subtle,” Hawk explains. “A lot of the bass in the winter months have moved out to deeper water. This is where this football jig shines. Points, bluffs, steeper breaks and rock piles are all great options to target winter bass in generally cleaner, clearer water.”
2) Pepper Custom Baits Micro Jig with a 4-inch Yamamoto Twin Tail cut to about 3 inches or a Yamamoto Shrimp trailer.
“This jig is for when it’s brutal; when you can’t buy a bite on other baits, you just might do all right with this little gem,” Hawk says. “This is also a good bet for targeting smallmouth and spotted bass.”
3) Pepper Custom Baits Original Pepper Jig with either a Yamamoto Twin Tail, Flappin’ Hog or Cowboy (creature bait).
“This jig is made with a heavier hook and a head design that works great around brush piles, laydowns, reeds etc.,” Hawk says. “If the water is dirty or it’s a warmer day, bass will move up near cover. This is my go-to pitching jig that is designed perfectly for this application.
“As for trailers I will use the Twin Tail with its kicking legs to produce action and slow the fall, while the Flappin’ Hog has a little more overall bulk, but subtler action. The Cowboy, which is a big bulky trailer, tends to draw a big bite.”
PLAY FOR KEEPS
Hawk describes the overall presentation of winter jig fishing as “slow and low.” At times, dead sticking turns lookers into biters.
“One of the key deals to a jig with its flowing skirt is the movement it makes at slow speeds,” Hawk says. “Those legs on a skirt almost move on their own and create a lifelike presentation. Nothing is absolute, but more times than not, it’s that slow-and-low retrieve that gets the key bites in the winter.”
Tackle should be matched to the particular jig and technique. For example, Mah pitches his heavy, double weed guard jig on a 7-foot-11-inch GLoomis GLX 954 punching rod, high-speed Shimano Chronarch reel and 60- to 80-pound Sunline FX2 or Siglon braided line; while Hawk casts his micro jig on spinning tackle with 6- to 8-pound braid to a fluorocarbon leader, or straight Yamamoto Sugoi fluorocarbon.
Whatever you throw, Mah warns against complacency. Winter fishing often requires persistence through periods of inactivity. The key is remaining on high alert for opportunities..
“This time of year, there aren’t many days the fish are really active and an angler may be throwing this jig out there, and they don’t know what the jig is doing under the water,” Mah says. “People are often going through the motions, but you have to try to feel every rock, stick and piece of gravel.
“When flipping or making presentations to shallower water, I see a lot of people ‘check’ to see if a fish has their bait. I never check; hooksets are free, and I don’t want to play tug of war with a fish. I always say, ‘Fish don’t have hands, so when you see or feel anything different, they aren’t touching your bait.’ If you can feel a fish, I guarantee that fish can feel you. Swing often, swing first, swing hard.
GET THE HANG OF IT
While anglers typically thread craw- and creature-style trailers onto their jig’s hook, chunk trailers are made to hang in the hook bend. But what if you want the length of a chunk with the body details of a creature bait?
Here’s a nifty trick to modify those creatures for chunk-style application: Trim the creature bait’s body down to about an inch above the main flappers/claws, thread a round toothpick laterally through the trailer’s trimmed top edge and then impale the trailer with the jig’s hook. Clip off the toothpick’s ends so this catch bar remains hidden while lessening the likelihood of a lost trailer.