January 03, 2020
By Larry Larsen
Many Southern anglers have trouble getting coldwater bass to bite. But anglers using the right techniques can get some of these fish to hit a lure in the winter months. When weather and waters get frigid, many fishermen simply throw in the towel.
The chills of winter typically do minimize bass and forage activity, but largemouth still feed in the harshest environment. It is true that their metabolism has slowed significantly and they usually relocate to warmer, deeper waters, and forage only occasionally. That doesn’t mean they can’t be caught, however.
Bass become acclimated to their new haunts, but anglers will usually have to focus on deeper water and use electronics in their search to find them. Pinpointing prime places and identifying bass that hold tight to cover in cold waters requires a good sonar unit and the ability to read it. Winter largemouth may be just inches off the bottom and not show up on some of the older units. Electronics have advanced greatly in the past few years, and many manufacturers these days offer great equipment if you need to update what is on your boat.
When in cold water, largemouth in impoundments often position themselves on sharp dropoffs adjacent to even deeper water. They want to be able to access the depths quickly if extremely harsh weather should arrive. Reservoir bass can often be found along the channel bends of submerged river or creek beds, particularly those offering some them form of structure such as brush or rocks. They will take up residence along breaklines off bluffs, river banks, points as well as other steep topography.
Winter bass concentrations also hold tightly to deep-water humps or mounds in both natural and man-made lakes. Given substantial depth and irregular topography, lake bass may also suspend off points and out over deeper water in December. A good sonar unit with wide scanning coverage can often locate bass suspended off cover, but usually the most active and catchable bass in frigid waters are those on structure.
The best way to locate those bass prone to strike a lure is to first identify the depth at which suspended fish are positioned in open water and then move to the nearest structure lying at that very same depth. Both groups of bass are in a temperature comfort zone, but often the more aggressive bass will hold on some form of bottom cover. Anglers moving to them may find the bass willing to bite.
Deep-Water Crankbaits for Frigid Waters
Once you have located the most promising structure, you’ll have to select and fish the most productive deep-water bait among many options. In the coldwater depths, you’ll need to fish it extremely slowly with unexaggerated movement to attract frigid largemouth. One of the most popular and versatile lures in these conditions is the crankbait. Picking the right diving bait, though, will depend on buoyancy, lure speed, depth reach, tackle being used and other parameters.
Some of the most significant design factors are the body size, lip or bill shape and length, lure material and hardware dressing the plug. Large crankbaits are definitely productive big-bass baits, and most closely resemble the size of available forage during the winter, but smaller versions will normally increase the numbers caught and can be more effective during winter outings. A subtle, slow-moving bait in a color that resembles available forage fish or stands out (like a fire tiger pattern) is a good choice.
The diving lip plays an important role in the balance of the crankbait and achievement of depth. Some bills are metal or rubber, but most are plastic. Some have odd shapes and others even have weights built into them. A steeper dive will usually give the lure more time in the fish zone, and that’s important in cold waters. As a result, deep-running models, ones with long plastic bills, can be worked along the bottom in most bass waters.
Crankbaits may be built from plastic, foam, rubber and various woods. There are advantages to each. Plastic is tougher; wood and foam are usually more buoyant. Cranking in the deep doesn’t require the most buoyant bait, and minimizing the bait’s actions in cold water may be most productive.
Among important performance factors for selecting the right crankbait is the bait’s “wobble.” On lipped plugs, vibration occurs due to water pressure. The pressure loads up on the lip and body of the crankbait and then “offloads” to one side, causing it to wobble from one side to the other during the retrieve. The preferred action by many cold-water bass is the tight wiggle around the lure body axis. Many of the billed crankbaits have sound chambers with rattles designed to attract bass. In most waters of medium to low visibility, that’s important. In most cold, clear waters, a more subtle approach may be better.
Generally, the longer and wider the lip and body combination, the deeper the lure will go. Maximum-length casts and light line help. Long rods result in less fatigue when tossing large billed baits. A harder-pulling crankbait, though, is not necessarily a deeper-running one. Line resistance against the water will prevent many baits from achieving maximum depth. Generally, the thinner the line diameter, the greater depth a bait will achieve.
The fastest retrieval rate does not necessarily drive the lure deeper. In fact, some tests have shown that many crankbaits will run 10 to 20 percent shallower at their maximum speed of retrieve. The maximum depth of long-billed baits is generally more influenced by speed variations than the depth of shallow-runners.
Best Patterns And Retrieves For Cold ‘Bills’
While the crankbait will allow an angler to cover a large expanse of water, productive coldwater anglers usually need to slow the retrieve. One of the most effective coldwater retrieves is one that keeps the crankbait in regular contact with something. A crankbait that is intermittently bumped into stumps is one that bass perceive as vulnerable.
Another variation of the timber bump-pause-run method is to toss a long-billed crankbait into the middle of a brush top, reel in down deep into the heart of the wood, and then, by slowly raising the rod tip, pull the lure out through the limbs. Deep divers are preferred for this, due to their quick descent and almost snag-free bill protection. The bait will bounce around the obstructions, normally, and the buoyancy of the bait should float it off many hang-ups.
Another near-surface erratic retrieval method that has gained quite a cold-weather following is called “jerking.” Similar to a twitch, the primary difference is in the force exerted through the rod. The rod action could be likened to jigging a crankbait. Often, this tactic can be used to locate submerged stumps and brush. Certainly, the stop-and-go retrieve will produce bass when used around any structure.
The “kneel-and-reel” method is often a good means of keeping your bait in the “fish zone.” When that area lies deeper, the successful angler will reach out, or down in this case, to get to them. Long, 7-foot rods are thrust into the water to allow the lure greater descent. The kneeling angler will gain another 3 to 5 feet in depth and keep his bait in front of more deep-water bass.
Long two-handed rods are ideal for most crankbait fishing. For maximum depth, the bait should be “tuned” to run perfectly straight on the retrieve.
To battle a bass that may be lightly hooked on a crankbait, it is often wise to try and prevent the fish from jumping. The angler may have to “bury” his rod tip beneath the surface if he feels that the fish is coming up. The angler should then crank hard four or five times to make the fish roll before it jumps.
Crankbait Selection for the Depths
There areseveral existing crankbaits and some new ones being introduced by the tackle industry in 2020 that are effective on lock-jaw bass in cold waters. Here are a few.
Mann’s Bait Company has long been one of the leaders in developing deep-running crankbaits, and their Deep Ledge Series crankbaits are very productive. It quickly descends at a 75-degree angle to its true running depth, and stays in the strike zone much longer than other crankbaits. Their EZ lip design decreases resistance and allows a slower retrieve in the depths, according to their designers. Mann’s offers 15-, 20- and even 30-feet Deep Ledge models in 19 colors.
Rapala’s brand new No. 7 Shad Dancer crankbait dives 4 to 5 feet deeper than their (previous model) No. 5 and presents a bigger baitfish profile to match the larger forage most commonly found in the winter. It will dive to 14 feet and swims with a silent sweeping tail action. The Shad Dancers are a shad-profile bait that comes in 21 “forage-resembling” color patterns such as live bluegill, yellow perch, live pumpkinseed and live river shad.
Another great-looking crankbait that is just hitting the tackle store shelves now is the Berkley “Frittside.” Designed by professional angler and expert crankbait designer David Fritts, the flat-sided lure has a weighted bill that helps it dive quick. The baits swim more naturally in cold water, according to Fritts. It has a little dip up and down as it vibrates back and forth and will catch bass at all speeds, including super slow, which is most effective on inactive bass in the winter.