Winter Tactics For Trophy Bass

Can you catch the bass of a lifetime in the dead of winter? You bet! And here's how the experts do it.

Odds are you and your friends, hunkered down in beach chairs, rods rigged for trout and sitting in holders driven into the ground, you and your friends, odds are, have noticed more than one strange character just offshore of your position in a fancy bass boat this winter. He's bundled up like a sled-dog racer, appearing to be a rather curious sort, with first one posterior cheek then the other taking turns propped up against a too-small seat. Why would a man punish himself so?

You laugh at his madness, huckstering away the hours until the angler in the boat snaps his rod up sharply and you realize he just caught a fish. You watch the struggle for a couple of minutes, and then stare open-jawed at the huge green fish he nets. What on earth is going on here?

You've just been formally introduced to trophy bass fishing in the 21st century. It's an interesting science.

Ever since Florida-strain bass were introduced to the West Coast a bit more than four decades ago, a special breed of Western bass angler has been bent on catching a bass that will beat the longtime world record of 22 pounds, 4 ounces. The large-framed Florida-strain fish hybridized with northern-strain bass soon after their introduction into several Western lakes, and the resulting genetic cross took on the effects of a phenomenon called "hybrid vigor," allowing the progeny to grow into giant, potbellied fish.

In his book The Quest for the World Record Bass, author Bart Crabb lists the 25 largest bass ever caught by rod and reel through 1997. Four of the biggest bass of all time were caught elsewhere, but the other 21 were caught in West Coast waters. Further reading shows that while George Perry caught the world record in June 1932, 20 of the behemoths on Crabb's list were caught in between January and April.

Dig deeper and you discover that most of the trophy bass waters are in locations that don't get severe winter weather, and it's obvious the pre-spawn is an important part of the trophy bass picture. As huge female bass get ready to spawn, they need vast amounts of food for egg production. They subsist mostly on rich forage bases of baitfish and crayfish to put on weight and help them maintain it. Conversely, the majority of the record-breaking bass have been caught on bait; live crayfish lead the list, with waterdogs, mudsuckers and shiners next in line.

Big-bass fanatic Mike Gash caught this pair of bass - 13 pounds, 6 ounces and 12 pounds, 5 ounces. Photo courtesy of Mike Gash.

Crayfish make premium winter bait. Big bass love the crustaceans, probably because they contain calcium as well as protein, and most big-bass lakes have high populations of them. Waterdogs, the larval form of the tiger salamander, most likely rank second. A big waterdog slow-trolled in deep water seems to draw smashing strikes, particularly in lakes where trout are stocked.

Hatchery trout are also vital. Most of the Western lakes that regularly produce giant bass in the winter are cold enough to support a put-and-take trout fishery from late fall through early spring. People and bass alike take advantage of the smorgasbord. Hatchery trout provide that extra source of rich protein that barrel-bellied largemouths need to reach awesome proportions.

And the trout have fueled an entire new industry of large wooden plugs and big soft-plastic swimbaits with impressive results. Alan Cole reports that his A.C. Plug has recorded more than 300 bass over 10 pounds, including 53 over 12 pounds and 10 weighing more than 15 pounds.

A couple of years after Cole introduced his A.C. Plug, trout-mimicking soft-plastic baits became all the rage on many trout-supported trophy bass waters. Today's versions of trout imitations are as much as a foot long with several ounces of lead jighead buried inside a trout-shaped body.

"Big bass don't hold in any one area for very long," said Mike Gash, a veteran trophy bass angler, who has caught several bass over 10 pounds. One day in the spring of 1998, Gash caught a 13-pound, 6-ounce hawg, and another that weighed 12 pounds, 5 ounces, with the Basstrix Swim Bait. "They work the points and the beaches hunting for schools of trout or anything else they can eat. If you hang out in a particular area that you know will have big bass at some time during the day, you'll see something happen. Sometimes as you come by an area, you'll see a concentration of big blips on the (fishfinder) screen, but they aren't active -- they're just hanging there."

Gash says finding a good spot and sticking to it is more important than whether you see big fish on a known spot. It's much the same theory as used by trophy anglers fishing live bait on structure. They may spend the entire day without a bite, but they know from experience that sooner or later, the larger bass will move in to feed.

The primary technique used by most trophy bass specialists fishing live bait is not prowling under power of a trolling motor but anchoring solidly so the boat and angler become just another solid object that doesn't spook wary largemouths. By anchoring tight against the bank with anchors at bow and stern, they can position themselves to cast toward deep water and pull their baits uphill.

Crayfish and other live baits are usually fished with little or no weight on lines lighter than most anglers seeking huge largemouths would dare to use. It's a presentation that requires very subtle positioning of bait and boat.

"If you aren't catching fish on a good spot, maybe it's your setup instead of the spot," cautioned Dan Kadota, who has two of the fish on Crabb's Top 25 list. One weighed 19 pounds, 4 ounces; the little one was a mere 18 pounds, 12 ounces. "Change the way you work the spot, anchor outside instead of inside, sit at a different angle. Maybe you have your anchor lines across the best access route from deep water to shallow. All these things are important."

Bill Murphy, a seasoned big-bass specialist and author of In Pursuit of Giant Bass, devotes a whole chapter of his book to double-anchor setups, pointing out that a boat that doesn't swing in the current become part of the background scenery, and bass ignore it. This also keeps the boat from dragging bait in an unnatural manner.

"Once you have the boat double-anchored, you can do a lot to change the presentation and the approach just by repositioning the boat on the anchor ropes," said Kadota. "I can use two anchors on each rope so I don't get pulled around in bad weather -- something you always have to be ready for in winter."

Kadota uses a 15-pound Danforth anchor at the end of the line, and has a stainless steel

clip a few feet up the line so he can add a short dropper line and an additional 10-pound anchor if conditions require it. He has 450 feet of rope for each end of the boat, allowing for wide adjustments in boat position without moving the anchors.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these experts' success is what they do with these fish after catching them: They take photos, weigh and measure the fish, then release them. Fiberglass replicas hang on their den walls.

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