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Explore the Mid-Depths for Hungry Bass

Many fish deep or shallow for late-winter bass. Successful anglers target in between.

Explore the Mid-Depths for Hungry Bass

Water color is a key aspect of mid-depth fishing. A bit of color helps warm the water, but too much can cause bass to shut down. (Photo by Jeff Gustafson)

Talk to any bass angler and you'll hear about catching fish shallow or catching fish deep, but what about all that water in between? Doesn't it hold bass?

Of course it does, and in the late winter throughout the South, those mid-depths—6 to 12 feet—are exactly what you should be targeting. Why the mid-depths? Well, they're a gathering area for big, pre-spawn bass, and they're often underfished.

The shallows are easy, and skilled shallow-water anglers aren't hard to find. They're accurate casters ready to throw spinnerbaits and square bills into every nook and cranny along the bank. Or they're capable with a flipping stick and big jig. Anybody can throw at bushes, laydowns, stumps and grass. However, that means you have a lot of competition in skinny water.

Deep-water experts are conspicuous. The consoles and bows of their boats look as if they're about to launch a manned space mission. They couldn't tell you if it's sunny or raining because they rarely look up from their sonar units, but if there's a fish directly beneath them, they know about it. There's not as much competition for deep-water bass, but those who target them tend to be highly skilled and very well equipped.

The mid-depths are where the bass go when the annual spawning urge tells them it's no longer winter but not quite time to build a nest. And on waters with heavy fishing pressure, wary bass may never move into the shallows at all. The mid-depths are increasingly where you'll find big fish right through the mating process.

EXPERT BONA FIDES

Alabama's Randy Howell is skilled at both shallow- and deep-water bass fishing, but it's in the mid-depths where he really shines. In fact, fishing the mid-depths helped him score his biggest tournament victory—the 2014 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Guntersville in February.

Pro angler Randy Howell
Among Randy Howell's favorite spots to target late-winter bass are bluffs and riprap, where the water tends to be warmer than elsewhere in a lake. (Photo courtesy of the Randy Howell)

Howell calls the third and final round of that event his "Miracle Day,” not because he used his favorite pattern to carry him to the win, but because he trailed the leader by nine pounds going into the day. And, interestingly, he did not originally plan to stop at the riprap bank where he made his historic comeback. His spur-of-the-moment decision resulted in a five-bass limit weighing 29 pounds 2 ounces—the heaviest final-round catch in Classic history at that time.

Howell's pattern will pay big dividends for you, too, but first we should define the conditions under which it works best.

”[Late winter] in the South can be a transition time," Howell says. "The fish are feeding more now than a month ago as they prepare for the spawn. The weather changes a lot at this time of year, too. If it's warming, there will be a bunch of fish moving up from deep water. After a cold front, they'll drop back from the shallows. Either situation puts bass in those mid-depths."

BEST MID-DEPTH STRUCTURE

In late winter, when conditions are prime for focusing on the mid-depths, Howell looks to three structure types to best concentrate quality fish: riprap, bluffs and secondary creek channels. All offer easy access from the shallows to the depths, which can be critical in the pre-spawn.

A riprap bank paid off to the tune of $300,000 and a Classic title for Howell. He maintains that the rocks retain some heat from the sun, keeping the bass in that area just a bit more active than those holding on other structure and cover.

Riprap is also home to crawfish and shad at this time of year. Bluffs and secondary creeks away from the main lake are better than their adjacent flats because of their proximity to deep water and theur invulnerability to water level changes.

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"None of these are ‘secret spots'," Howell says. "Riprap is easy to see and find. You can even find some channels and bluffs without electronics. It's just that they get overlooked in [late winter]. It's surprising how often anglers will fish too shallow or too deep."

Apart from deep-water access, Howell has one other requirement for his mid-depth pattern: proper water color.

"This pattern works best with 2 to 4 feet of water visibility," he says. "I like a little bit of water color because it helps the water to warm up faster, but if visibility is less than a foot it will likely shut the fish down completely or send them to the extreme shallows, where light penetration is better."

GET CRANKIN’

When these conditions are met, Howell relies on three baits to catch more and bigger bass than other anglers, and they're all crankbaits.

The first is the lure he used to win the Classic—a Livingston Lures Howeller Dream Master Classic. The others are Livingston's Shredder 53 and Vapor 50. He insists that any of them will get the job done, but it's likely that one will be just a little better than the other two on any given day depending on the depth of the fish, the action of the lure or some other reason that only bass understand.

"The Howeller DMC is my go-to," Howell says, quite understandably. "It covers the 8- to 10-foot range. The DMC Plus has a wider body, a wider wobble and will run 9 to 12 feet deep.

"If the bass are a little shallower, I like the Shredder 53. It dives to about 6 feet and has a subtle vibration that sometimes works better in cold water. The Vapor 50 runs 8 to 10 feet with a really tight wobble."

His favorite colors in dingy water are bright hues with plenty of red and orange, like Guntersville Craw and Spring Craw. If the water's clear, he opts for a subdued color like Okie Craw. All three crankbaits feature Livingston's EBS (Electronic Baitfish Sounds) technology, which the company maintains adds baitfish sounds to the lures. Howell is a believer.

JOB BOX

Serious bass anglers—and especially top pros who earn a living with rod and reel in hand—can get persnickety about their gear, refining their approach to a degree that would make a fly-fishing trout purist blush. Howell is no different. He's shined this pattern to a mirror finish, and it only starts with the lures. He says the rod, reel and line are equally critical.

His rod of choice is the Daiwa Tatula Elite Randy Howell Signature Series Shallow Crankbait/Jerkbait casting rod (TAEL701MLRB). It's a 7-foot, medium-light-action rod that's great for making long casts and keeping fish locked up on light treble hooks. He pairs it with a Daiwa Tatula Elite casting reel (7.1:1) spooled with 14-pound-test Daiwa J-Fluoro Samurai line, a thin-diameter fluorocarbon that allows for long casts but is strong enough for the cover he encounters with this pattern.

"I like to make a long cast," Howell says, taking us through a standard presentation. "My first few cranks are pretty fast—to get the bait down—but then I slow down and retrieve just fast enough to get the lure bumping into rocks and cover.

"I pause the bait a lot. The water can be cold at this time of year—usually from the upper 40s to the upper 50s—and a pause gives lethargic bass an opportunity to catch up to the lure and eat it. Also, whenever I feel my bait bump cover, I slow down just a little and crawl the bait over or through it."

PATTERN MASTER

"When you're working this pattern," Howell says, "boat positioning can be the difference between catching a few fish and really doing well. I pay close attention to the depth where I'm getting bites."

Howell leans on his Lowrance ActiveTarget sonar to help with that. "When I've had a few hits and determined where they're coming from, I work hard to keep my crankbait in that zone. I call it ‘staying true to the pattern,'" Howell says. "Once you figure out the right depth, you need to keep your bait in it to be efficient."

HERKY JERKY

If your crankbait lets you down, turn to a jerkbait instead.

three jerk baits for pre-spawn bass
From top to bottom: Megabass Ito Vision 110+2, Berkley Stunna 112+1 and Daiwa Double Clutch 95SP

If the crankbait is too active for cold-slowed bass, a jerkbait is often the answer. Suspending jerkbaits have an advantage over crankbaits after a cold front or whenever the fishing gets tough. They can hover near-motionless in the water, giving lethargic bass 10, 20, 30 seconds or more to react and … wait for it … bite.

Deep-diving jerkbaits, like the Berkley Stunna 112+1 ($12.98; berkley-fishing.com), Daiwa Double Clutch 95SP ($14.95; daiwafishing.com) and Megabass Ito Vision 110+2 ($24.99; megabassusa.com) run deeper than traditional floating models and can get down to 10 or even 12 feet on a long cast with fluorocarbon line.

The key can be summed up in just one word: patience. When the bass are active, a rapid jerk-jerk-pause can keep you busy with action all day long, but when things get slow, the pause can mean everything. Waiting long seconds is the difference between catches and casting practice.

Try a shad-mimicking pattern rather than a craw, and fish the jerkbait on 10- or 12-pound fluorocarbon line. It allows for long casts and deep dives. Ultimately, deep jerkbaits and long pauses may not be ideal for covering water, but they'll let you know if bass are there, and they can save a tough day.




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