The vast majority of bass anglers have their best day of the year sometime between late January and early April. This is the period when bass begin to move shallower, responding to a complex set of environmental and biological changes: warming water that increases their metabolism and appetite, the movement of many forage fish to shallower water, the desire of bass to feed up in preparation for the spawn and, finally, the need the bass have to find shallow areas to build their spawning beds.
At some point during this period, the bass will probably be in the right place and the right mood to strike your “confidence” bait. The other side of the coin, however, is that because the bass are moving, they may not be where you assume they are.
So, while you can have great fishing when the bass are attacking your favorite bait fished the way you most like to fish, on most days you’ll catch more fish if you are flexible in your approach.
FINDING THE FISH
The first thing a bass angler should do is figure out where the bass are. Water temperature is a critical piece of information. A rough rule of thumb is that when water temperatures are 48 degrees or lower, most of the bass will be holding in winter patterns.
From 48 to 55 degrees, bass will be more active. They will move to structure breaks somewhere near the spawning areas they will use later. As the water warms, they will be going into late pre-spawn mode, feeding heavily in or near shallow water. Essentially 100 percent of largemouth bass spawn when the water is between 55 and 70 degrees — and generally the larger female bass will bed early compared to smaller bass.
The flexible angler finds and follows these fish.
As simple and critical as temperature is, it’s not the only environmental signal bass respond to. Bass in turbid water will tend to hold shallower than bass in very clear water. Bass at the end of winter are likely to be attracted to strongly vertical structure and cover, if the lake has any: steep dropoffs, standing timber in deep water, well-defined river channels, even bridge pilings.
If bass have a choice of structure, they will first move straight up and down on vertical structure. Winter bass are still in energy conservation mode; they won’t swim horizontally 200 yards to get 5 feet shallower if they can move vertically along standing timber to get shallower with much less effort.
Although winter bass are not feeding heavily, they do still eat and want to be in places where food comes by at least occasionally. In lakes with shad, bass may suspend in depths where cold-stunned bait balls up.
Thus, in addition to water temperature, winter anglers should focus on vertical structure and, if the sonar shows any bait, the presence of that bait. Vertical structure in depth is helpful in narrowing down the pattern bass are on because anglers can present baits at varied depths along that structure without having to move much. The first bite provides a good deal of information about the depth at which at least some hungry bass are holding.
Also, bass, just like other game animals, are attracted to the edges of structure. If a vertical drop such as a retaining wall or cliff or underwater drop or line of submerged trees or pilings has a deep-water “end” or a corner to it, that spot has a good chance to hold some bass. If that vertical structure is close to a good spawning habitat, it can be a prime location well before the more active period of pre-spawn.
Suspending jerkbaits work well this time of year. They work because they look like a baitfish in trouble, they imitate a wide variety of baitfish species, and they can be fished quite slowly. They hang in the strike zone long enough to convince cold bass that the bait can be caught.
Crankbaits can also work well, again, as long as you choose one that fishes at the depth the bass are holding. Obviously, crankbaits are also one of the best baits to cover some water as you search. They also are particularly good if the structure you’re fishing has cover elements — chunk rock or stumps or even shell beds — that you can bang the crankbait into. Hitting cover and then letting the bait float up for a second or two before continuing the retrieve is a classic tactic, and it’s classic because it works.
Getting your bait down in the water column to the fish is important in fishing efficiently. But because you might not be sure where the fish are, baits that fish several depths can be handy. These baits include some old-school options: the Carolina rig and the spinnerbait.
So, for instance, the Carolina rig, fitted with either a worm or a creature bait, has its place in fisheries where the structure includes drops. Although it doesn’t cover the “ground” that a crankbait does, it gets down fast, and once it’s down, it fishes the entire time it’s on the structure. Especially on ledges or vertical structures, the C-rig can fish effectively and quickly at a number of depths. The bait is also flexible in that the worm or creature bait at the business end can be as big or small as you think best.
Spinnerbaits seem old-fashioned to some anglers, but they can be fished at any depth, and their flash and “thump” options make them a good choice in slightly stained water. They are also fairly snag resistant, so if you come across crappie brushpiles, the spinnerbait can get down to them fast and get through them without hanging up on anything — except a nice fish.
Drop-shot rigs are another favorite for suspended bass in deep water. It’s an almost entirely vertical bait, but once you have enough evidence to fish a spot, the drop-shot allows a good deal of vertical flexibility in presentation, and fish big and small will hit it. It is a very good bait to use when you locate suspended fish that are off the bottom, including situations where bass are holding below baitfish concentrations.
Brandon Palaniuk: Trophy Bass in the Winter
A sustained warming period that pushes surface temperatures from 48 degrees to 50 degrees is apt to cause bass to begin moving shallow. But if a strong cold-front system or cold rain has dropped the temperature temporarily from 53 to 50 degrees, the bass will be oriented toward backing off into deeper water. The temperature — 50 degrees — is the same in both cases, but bass will be reacting to that temperature in different ways.
Furthermore, different parts of a lake will warm at different rates. The upper reaches of creeks and inlet areas will generally warm up earlier than the deep areas near a dam, especially if spring brings a series of rains that are warmer than the lake itself. Areas with lots of sunlight exposure and that have protection against north winds will warm up relatively quickly. Focus on these areas in order to find active bass.
Anglers who pay attention to trends in weather have an advantage over anglers who only check the weather on the day they are going fishing. Last spring, for example, was relatively cool in many places, and on some lakes where bass moved shallow to spawn, cold fronts with lots of rain pushed them back to deeper water more than once.
But for anglers who like to catch bass shallow (basically all anglers) this period can be a goldmine — if you are able to find the right pattern and the right presentation.
Some of the top baits now are shallower-running versions of late-winter baits. If you find good cover on the deep end of a likely spawning area, whether that cover is rock, shell, ditch, roadbed or wood, few search baits work better than a crankbait thrown shallow and bounced on the bottom toward and through the cover. You fish a lot of water, and bass will slam that presentation.
Alternatively, you can present creature baits fished the same way, but more slowly. That’s especially good in lakes with significant crayfish populations because these crustaceans are becoming active as the water warms, and bass love them.
If you can narrow down a pattern, then you’ll spend less time fishing unproductive water on each cast. For example, suppose you’re getting the most bites on visible woody cover. You can not only focus on that cover exclusively while the bite lasts, but also fish relatively slow baits that might not be your first choice in your initial search.
Flipping presentations where you really penetrate complex cover work especially well in stained water. A good clearwater choice is a weightless worm/Senko-style bait, which can load the boat as long as you’ve identified cover the fish are using. In many cases, a suspending jerkbait will work for the same reasons. At that point, a “slow” bait doesn’t hurt you, and very often helps you catch fish that are not susceptible to fast-moving baits.
But sometimes using a bait like a crankbait or slow-rolled spinnerbait between visible cover and then switching to a jig, twitchbait or weightless presentation when you come to cover is the best of both worlds for flexible fishermen.
One aspect of this fishing that can trip up even serious weekend anglers is that what works at the day’s start might not work as well after the sun’s up. If you catch fish shallow early, but gradually the bite slows, it’s tempting to tell yourself to keep going — you’re still catching fish, after all — but it’s quite likely the sun moved the best fish deeper to nearby cover. In other words, the fish you are looking for are right behind you and in heavier cover than you are fishing.
Sadly, bass don’t do the same thing all day this time of year, so figuring out a low-light pattern early doesn’t mean you are set for the day. Again, the flexible angler stays on fish by fishing in ways the fish like, not the way the angler wishes the fish would like.
From a water temperature of about 55 degrees and warmer, at least some of the bass in a lake will be spawning. Not all spawn at the same time, and not all parts of a lake will warm at the same rate.
That means that for anglers the spawn presents a choice: fish on the beds or find new areas that still have some pre-spawn fish. Many anglers stick with the pre-spawn as long as they can because pre-spawn fish are more active feeders.
Fishing for bedding fish has one critical advantage: In water clear enough to see into, an angler can move through spawning areas until he spots the fish he wants to fish for. This is the one time of year that the biggest bass on the lake are visible. If you find a big sow prepping a bed, you know you are fishing for a trophy. And even if you miss her the first time, you can come back a short time later and she’ll be right there. Hard to argue that isn’t a good deal.
Tube baits, floating worms and stickbaits, and Texas-rigged lizards and other creature baits — anything you can fish in one spot and that looks like it might steal bass eggs — can work on bedded fish. To some degree, other factors are as critical as the bait. The right sunglasses — ones allowing you to see bass from as far away as possible — can be as important as the bait you use.
Generally speaking, the farther you can hold off the nest, the better off you are. But spotting the fish and being able to see a bass softly pick up the bait are both critical. Sometimes the flair of a gill is the only indication this is happening, and the only indication you should set the hook right now and hard.
In any case, be flexible in your approach. If the pre-spawn bite is vanishing, head for the spawning areas. If working on a single bedding fish for half an hour starts looking more like work than fun, find some pre-spawn fish. Once again, the angler who is not afraid to switch things up can have more fun and catch more fish.