No Rush for Winter Bass

It's the dead of winter and you don't have to feel guilty about sleeping late. The bass are doing the same thing. In fact, the best fishing is likely to take place in midafternoon.

It's often been said that the "early bird gets the worm." But when it comes to catching bass in January, the reverse is frequently true. In fact, some anglers find their success is best if they adopt hours that would make a banker envious!

"I'm never in a hurry to get out on the water in January," says veteran tournament angler and TV fishing show host Shaw Grigsby. "There is really no need for it. In fact, if I'm fishing a tournament in January, I'll even let my partner take - or try to talk him into taking - his half of the day in the front of the boat in the morning. I want to be on my fish in the afternoon, because it's going to be a lot easier to get them to hit then."

For those who can't wait to make that first cast in the morning, Grigsby's approach may sound like heresy. But there is sound science behind it.

"It's been my experience," he notes, "that as far north as you have ice-free water, January bass are going to be very inactive until the sun has pounded on the water for a while and raised the surface temperature. When that sun first comes up in the morning, the water temperature is at its coldest point of the day and during one of the coldest months of the year. That is really going to slow the bass down, and more importantly, it slows their forage down. Bass aren't going to do a lot of moving if there isn't any forage for them to move after, and that's pretty much the situation you have early on a winter morning. If you want the best fishing that day has to offer, there's no point in getting on the water before 10 a.m., and it's wise to stay until the late afternoon."

Tossing lures at bass that have no intention of doing anything with them is not the most effective angling technique, yet that is what often happens during the early morning hours. Let the sun shine in, however, and the situation can change. Nor does it take a lot of sun before things can start to happen.

"Those coldwater bass are just waiting for the temperature to warm," says Grigsby. "They are geared for it. They're ready for it. And it doesn't take much of a warm-up for them to respond to it. Just one afternoon of bright sun can raise the surface temperature a couple of degrees for that day and bring bass up from their deep-water holding spots. They actually come right up to the surface to sun themselves over a dark bottom, a big tree limb or rocks, because they tend to hold heat and the water around them may be a degree or two warmer. The bass may not be active enough to go on a big feeding spree, but they will hit lures then that they would most likely have ignored during the colder morning hours."

Although a bright afternoon on a cold day can pry some bass loose from their winter doldrums, there is another weather factor that savvy winter anglers relish.

Veteran bass angler Shaw Grigsby targets warmer afternoons to catch winter bass. Photo by Bud Reiter

"The very best condition you can have to get January bass moving," explains Grigsby, "is an approaching warm front. A warm front will spark some serious activity, especially in the afternoon. It's best if the front will linger for two or three days and get the general air temperature moving up. Almost any steady climb in air temperature, even if it is not a large one, will translate into an increasing water temperature that will really get bass and forage fish excited. They're ready for spring to happen, and if the water temperature climbs a little bit each day, they're happy. They don't know that the weather is going to crash and get cold again after the front passes. As far as they're concerned, spring is here and they are going to take advantage of it."

While even a minute increase is temperature can be a key factor in encouraging January bass activity, the moon phase plays a surprisingly small role in most cases.

"I haven't found that moon phases make any real difference until the bass move into the pre-spawn mode," Grigsby states. "That doesn't happen until the water temperature reaches the mid-50s and holds there for at least a few days."

Grigsby went on to point out that you don't get mid-50 water temperatures lasting several days very often in most places in January. In that circumstance, the moon phase is far less important than a rise in water temperature when it comes to bass activity."

Peak bass activity most often comes at the highest temperature point of any given winter day. Unfortunately, that's not an extensive period of time, and anglers who intend to capitalize on that brief bit of activity won't have time to hunt for fish. You need to be on them when the bass begin to move, and just where that will be depends largely on the type of lake you are fishing.

"Winter bass have definite cover preferences," says Grigsby, "and the farther north you go, the more vertical that preference gets. On a deep highland reservoir they definitely get on sheer rock bluffs and sharp vertical channel dropoffs. If that isn't available, I'm still looking for a vertical aspect, and that could be standing timber in deep water. Those fish want to be on cover where they can change from deep to shallow water very quickly, and without moving a lot, because when the water warms a bit they move up shallow very quickly. A vertical drop lets them do that because they can drop down to the base when it's cold and just rise up to the surface when it warms."

While sharp drops hold winter bass on this type of lake, Grigsby seeks out those that have standing timber or chunk rock or boulder cover on them, because of their heat-holding capabilities.

"I have seen whole schools of bass suspended just under the surface by a standing tree, or a big limb, that was located on a very sharp drop to deeper water," he states. "Rock or wood draws winter bass, and if you have that cover on a sharp drop you are ahead of the game."

Lowland reservoirs present a slightly different cover situation. Standing timber in deep water may be present and can use used. But more often, bass relate to deeper channel edges. The key spots to check first are those that lie closest to a deeper channel bend, and preferably between the bend and a spawning area.

Another key spot is a channel swing.

"Anywhere a deep channel bend swings close to a shallow shoreline is a good spot to look at on a warming trend in January," Grigsby explains. "Every bass, everywhere, is thinking about spawning in January. Some, depending upon the latitude they are at, are thinking about it more seriously than others. But they all want to move shallow, and anywhere you ca

n find that abrupt break from deep to shallow is a prime spot to check during the warmest part of the day."

In fact, the relationship between deep water located close to a spawning area is so universal for bass this time of year that Grigsby often finds that he can locate bass by doing things in reverse!

"If I'm on a new lake at that time of year," he notes, "and don't know where the pre-spawn staging areas are, I often find the spawning sites first. From there, I gradually ease my way back toward deeper water, hitting any likely cover areas on the way until I locate those staging fish. They want to go to those spawning areas, but they don't want to get too far from their deepwater sanctuaries. If you start from where you know they want to be and work back to where you know they were, you can often find out where they are."

Regardless of how one pursues winter bass, there is no doubt that you need not be in a real hurry to begin the effort. In that respect, one of winter's best bassin' tools might be an alarm clock with a long snooze button! January is one month in which being "firstest" doesn't guarantee the "mostest."

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