Special Tactics For Arkansas' Finicky Bass

Ever tried walleye methods to catch bass? Well, maybe you should! Sometimes these unusual methods will load the boat with lethargic bass.

By Steve Taylor

For fair-weather bass anglers, February is the time to reorganize tackle boxes, grease reels and wind on fresh fishing line while dreaming of hot springtime fishing. On cold, gloomy days, they linger by a crackling fire with a good book - or better yet, their Valentine - instead of risking hypothermia by falling out of a fishing boat. But they may be missing out on some of the year's best fishing.

"A bad, old, ugly day is when you can really catch some bass in the winter," according to fishing guide Chris Elder of Mt. Ida. February, the "month of love" thanks to Valentine's Day, has earned Elder's affection over the years with some largemouths that made his heart pound. "On February 21, 2002, I was fishing on Lake Ouachita and caught an 11-pound largemouth on a clown-colored jerkbait," he recalled in a recent interview, taking a break from fishing one of his favorite spots on the west-central Arkansas lake. "In other years, I've caught an 8-pounder and a 9-pounder on Ouachita in February, and it seems like you always hear about other people catching big bass then. I guarantee you that the whole month of February is good."

Spending the majority of his days each year on the water either guiding or fishing competitively, Elder has become a careful observer. He notes how bass respond to weather and water temperatures and the structure that attracts them in the winter. Loyal to traditional winter fishing techniques, Elder swoons them with spoons and crankbaits, but he's even flirted successfully with tactics more suited to walleyes than largemouths. Most importantly, he's willing to share his enthusiasm and expertise to help you fall in love with winter bass fishing, too.

Scientists use a couple of fancy terms - "ectothermic" and "poikilothermous" - to describe the manner in which bass and other fish regulate body temperature; most folks simply say "cold-blooded." That means winter water temperatures kick a bass's metabolism into low gear, reducing how often it needs to feed. But even the cold can't overcome the greedy nature of largemouths, according to biologist Chris Horton, coordinator of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's statewide bass program. "His body temperature is at the mercy of the cold water, but a bass is still a pretty aggressive predator. When he sees wounded prey - and remember, we don't even know for sure that he's hungry - he'll still strike at it. He may not chase it very far in the winter, but he still has to eat."

According to the National Weather Service, average air temperatures in February range from 50 degrees in the Ozarks to 59 degrees in the southwest corner of the state. However, water temperatures in large lakes often remain in the low 40s at this time of year. The chilly air and water don't deter Elder: "I'm one of those people who believe you can catch bigger bass in the winter. They may be moving kind of slow, but you can still get reaction strikes out of them in the right situation." As you plan winter outings, remember that lakes in the southern half of the state get more sun and warm up faster than reservoirs to the north. In Elder's experience, bass fishing improves dramatically when the water reaches 53 degrees.

As largemouths seek a comfort zone, they frequently form large schools. These concentrations of fish seem to confirm the old saying about 90 percent of the fish occupying 10 percent of the water. Elder said that, contrary to what many anglers believe, groups of bass suspend vertically in cold water, "stacked up, like limbs going up a tree instead of spreading out flat along the bottom." After you catch your first one of the day, fish the area thoroughly. Note the water temperature, depth and structure and look for the same combination of features elsewhere on the lake to connect with even more bass.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"Temperature is the final trigger, but another big influence on fish this time of year is the photoperiod - the amount of light during the daytime," Horton said. "Bass have an internal calendar, and they know when spring is approaching. Typically in February, they're starting to think about making the transition to spawning areas. They'll move to deep water along points - next to shallow flats - maybe 20 to 30 feet deep." On breezy, sunny days, largemouths may also bask for a few hours near rocky points that radiate the sun's warmth into shallow water.

A day or two after a severe cold front can be the best time to cruise your favorite lake, scanning the surface for dead shad. "When the water temperatures are in the lower 40s, a shad die-off occurs in many lakes," Elder said. These natural events are well-publicized when they occur on lakes Greers Ferry, Norfork, Beaver and Bull Shoals because dead or dying shad drawn through dams send trout in the tailwaters below those lakes into a feeding spree. Bass anglers can take advantage of the same phenomenon because bass relish the easy pickings on their side of the dam.

Some of Elder's favorite weather conditions would drive most folks indoors: "I really look forward to fishing in the winter, and I love a cold, cloudy day, even with a storm coming," he said. "You don't want to fish during a cold front, though - it'll also hurt the fishing the day before it hits. But on a cloudy day in February, you might even find bass breaking. Shad will come up to the top, and the fish follow them." Bright days can be tough because fish "can see the bait more instead of just reacting to the movement of it," Elder said. "You know that's happening when they come at the bait and then jump right over it at the last second." If the bass are eyeing your offerings that closely under the bright sun, switch to smaller lures and lighter line.

The best benefit of winter angling may be the chance to enjoy your favorite lake in peace and quiet. While you may see a few other anglers who are also willing to bundle up, there are no thrill-seekers roaring around on skis or personal watercraft to rock your boat and spook your fish. You can concentrate on detecting the subtle strikes of slow-moving bass. And if they're not cooperating, you can always take a ride along the shoreline on larger reservoirs in hopes of spotting a bald eagle or two.

Last February, Elder joined pro angler Gary Roach, known nationally as "Mr. Walleye," for a day on Lake Ouachita. Roach, who began his fishing career in Minnesota more than 50 years ago, was anxious to see how well the strategies he perfected in northern lakes translated to southern walleyes. Unfortunately, an old-fashioned Arkansas cold front locked their jaws so tightly that nothing could pry them open. But Elder, Roach and Chris Gulstad still salvaged a productive day. It turns out that Roach's walleye tricks tempted Arkansas bass

even better.

"We were fishing over humps in 25 to 30 feet of water with little chartreuse-and-white, white-and-green or all-chartreuse jig heads. Gary tipped them with straight-tailed worms in an earthworm color or little plastic grubs," Elder said. "He jigged them right on the bottom or even dragged them a little." The anglers started with a steady up-and-down retrieve that usually attracts walleyes, but when the bass began to bite instead, they switched to an erratic presentation that worked even better.

For your own experiments, try round (or ball-head) jigs from 1/16th ounce up to 1/2 ounce with a variety of curly-tailed grubs with or without glitter. Fluorescent colors that appeal to walleyes can turn bass on, too. Don't be bashful about trying outrageous color combinations that include passionate shades of pink, chartreuse, orange, purple and neon yellow if dark jigs fail. Many walleye anglers sweeten their jigs with minnows hooked lightly through the lip. It's a deadly duo because it combines the natural odor and appeal of live bait with the precise control and presentation you can achieve with an artificial lure. A trip to the bait shop for a bucket of minnows might just turn your jigs into the hottest winter lure on your favorite lake.

Elder also recommends 1/8th-ounce bucktail jigs: "Use them on steep banks - cast them toward shore and work them down the bank into the deeper water." His favorite color is gray, a very effective baitfish imitation. The soft, constantly-moving fibers of a white, olive or black marabou jig will also trigger strikes when you work them close to the structure that holds bass.

Elder's wintertime advice includes a stereotypical slow presentation that requires plenty of patience and a one that'll nearly wind your wrist off. His most effective February pattern involves a suspending jerkbait. "You want to work it slow," he said. "Let it sink to where the fish are, jerk it, pause, then watch your line. Let it kick back and forth and take your time. I prefer the clown color, and then my next choice would be a blue and white. A black back with an orange belly really works on a lot of lakes, too." On lakes Ouachita and DeGray, he works jerkbaits along creek channels, beside deep points or just above moss beds suspended over as much as 80 feet of open water - practically anywhere you can find a largemouth lurking. During a shad die-off, this is Elder's number one technique. Watch for slack in your line to indicate slow-moving strikes.

At the other end of the spectrum, Elder snaps suspended bass out of their winter stupor with reaction strikes to crankbaits. "Believe it or not, you can work a lipless crankbait really fast in the winter. Just burn it, and you'll know when they hit it - there's nothing subtle about a reaction strike." This is an excellent searching technique because you can make long casts with heavy lures and cover plenty of water. He'll use the same fast retrieve with standard crankbaits, tickling the tops of suspended trees or grassbeds, and Elder's winter artificials always include at least a touch of red.

In vegetation-filled lakes such as Ouachita, Hamilton and DeGray, working your crankbaits in and around the greenery actually works year-round. "Fishing the moss isn't just a warm-weather pattern," Elder confided. "Fish can live in the moss all year. They can spawn there, they feed there, and there's deep water nearby. That's everything they need."

The lure that will catch bass and just about any other fish in the lake is also one of the most simple and old-fashioned: a silver spoon. "You can't beat a spoon in cold weather," Elder advises. If he had only one rod, reel and lure combination for a winter outing, he'd choose a 3/4-ounce chrome jigging spoon teamed with a 6 and 1/2- to 7-foot medium-action rod with 20-pound line on a sturdy baitcasting reel. He recommends stout line, even on clear impoundments, because "you're going to be pulling fish out of the timber and rocks, and you need to put some pressure on them immediately when they strike."

Elder scouts lakes in the late summer and fall during drawdowns or seasonal low water levels, noting rocky points, humps, creek channels and brush piles that hold bass in cold weather. If your home lake has large feeder creeks, work your way up the channel from the lake and cover the largest points and deepest water in them, where your spoon will mimic schools of shad. Of course, spoons are perfect for working brushpiles, which are often the well-kept secrets of crappie anglers. Signs point out huge manmade piles on many Corps of Engineers and Game and Fish Commission lakes, including Norfork Lake in north Arkansas, Harris Brake near the middle of the state and Lake Greeson in the southwestern region.

Once you've settled on a spot to fish, the technique is as easy as falling overboard. Simply drop the spoon over the side and jig it vertically. Try modest twitches of your rod tip at various depths, dramatic upward sweeps and everything in between until the bass tell you the presentation they like best by striking your lure. Dangle silver or gold spoons among standing treetops, flutter them tantalizingly over moss beds and dance them along the contours of grass beds, ledges and dropoffs.

"In an ideal situation, you'll find an active school of fish, and they'll thump a spoon real hard, even in the winter," Elder confirmed. "You may get two or three strikes as it falls down through the school before you hook one. If you're just picking up a fish or two at a time along a point or creek channel, the strike's going to be more subtle. Just watch for slack in your line where it enters the water, and hit them hard when you see your line go slack for a second."

Because spoons so effectively mimic baitfish, they'll keep you busy with other species if the appetites of largemouths succumb to the cold. Striped bass up to 50 pounds, white bass in the 1- to 3-pound range or the mid-sized hybrids bred from those two species gobble spoons anywhere they're stocked. In the northern reaches of the state, enjoy this bonus fishing on reservoirs such as Beaver, Bull Shoals, Norfork and Greers Ferry. In central Arkansas, Lake Maumelle's open waters make for easy spoon-fishing; more-southerly hotspots include lakes Millwood, Greeson, Dierks, Gillham, Ouachita, Catherine and Hamilton. "Stripers school on the surface in the winter, so if you see them breaking, you want to rip the spoon. And I've had days when I've caught 50 or 100 white bass in the winter." The only drawback to probing structure this way is that - if you're doing it right - you're going to lose some lures. "Buy a bunch," Elder advises. They may be a February fisherman's best investment.

To learn more of Elder's fishing techniques in person, you can book his services as a guide on lakes Ouachita or DeGray any time of year. Call Hugh Albright Fishing Guide Service at (501) 767-2171. To request a free guide for planning a vacation in the Hot Springs area - including fishing trips on lakes Ouachita, Hamilton and Catherine - call the Hot Springs Convention and Visitor Bureau at 1-800-SPA-CITY.

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