Metal Baits for Winter Bass

Heavy metal isn't just loud music. It's also your best bet for cold-water bass action. Take the advice of these experts, and you'll be catching more winter bass.

Ask any purple-haired teen to define heavy metal, and he (or she) will probably reply, "It's like, you know, music that makes you, you know, like dive into a mosh pit!"

Ask a knowledgeable fisherman the same question, and the reply will probably be, "It's the kind of lure that makes you launch a boat in the dead of winter."

These heavy metal baits - tailspinners, blade baits and jigging spoons - will consistently take bass when some traditional coldwater baits, like jigs, fail. One reason metal baits work so well is that they are perfectly suited to targeting bass that are holding in deep water. Wintertime bass found in deep water may be more likely to take a bait because they're not as adversely affected by cold fronts and other harsh conditions that are the bane of the cold-weather basser. Water conditions in the depths remain fairly constant, while conditions in the shallows can change rapidly.

Stable deep waters give bass an area of refuge or a comfort zone. Bass in huge numbers will often congregate in these areas.

Metal baits also offer maximum flash and vibration, even when worked at a snail's pace. A slow presentation is essential when you're trying to catch sluggish bass.

"Back in 1960, I was looking for a bait that mimics the action of a dying or injured baitfish," recalls lure manufacturer Tom Mann. "I needed a versatile lure that could be burned across the surface or crawled along the bottom." After countless hours of observing baitfish, Mann took a pocketknife and a hunk of lead and created the tailspinner. He called it the Little George.

The traditional tailspinner is a lead-bodied lure, generally teardrop shaped, with one or two spinner blades attached to a wire tail. The line tie is located on the top or back of the lure for proper balance. "The location of the line tie is critical," says Mann. "It keeps the lure balanced, allowing the blades to spin or parachute as the lure falls. This parachute action is what triggers strikes, and when the water is cold, bass seem to prefer a falling bait."

The jigging spoon is a staple of serious wintertime bass anglers. Guide Randy Edwards shows what they can do. Photo by Mark Lozynsky

Along with the ability to make the bait parachute, the tailspinner blade offers maximum flash with the hammered finish. "With the blade attached directly to the lure body, it causes the body to vibrate," Mann explains. "Despite its compact size, it gives off a tremendous amount of vibration, making it effective in any water-color situation."

Tailspinner sizes range from 1/4- to a full ounce. Some may say these lures are too heavy, but this extra weight can work to an angler's advantage. They fall quickly, which gets them down in the strike zone sooner, and the compact lead bodies will cut through strong January winds. Tailspinners are great choices for covering lots of wintertime water.

Tailspinners come in a wide range of colors, but most are designed to emulate a baitfish. "Color is not important," says Mann. "Paint is used to catch the fishermen, not the fish. The prototypes weren't even painted. All I did was scratch the lead body so it would shine, and they would catch fish just as well as the painted models. The eye is more important than the color. A predator will focus on the prey's eye before striking."

This versatile bait can be fished several different ways. Whichever tactic is used, it is vital to keep a tight line during the retrieve. The strike will be subtle. Often, the bait is inhaled as it parachutes down. Using a sensitive rod and keeping your line tight will help you detect these soft strikes. "Often the strike will be detected by a slight tick in the line," says Mann. "You'll catch more fish if you watch your line. The weight of the tailspinner will keep tension on the line and will create a slight bend in your rod. You'll be able to feel the blade spin. In time, you'll develop a feel for this resistance and vibration, and the strike will interrupt this cadence."

Some of Mann's coldwater tailspinner tactics are as simple as casting the bait and allowing it to settle on the bottom. Then, with your rod tip high, retrieve the bait just fast enough to keep it off the bottom.

Ripping is also another great coldwater tactic. It's a retrieve in which the bait is raised off the bottom and allowed to flutter back down. This is done by jerking your rod tip upwards and reeling in the slack line all in the same motion. A high-speed reel will help take the labor out of this technique.

A vertical presentation is often called for when sluggish wintertime bass are holding tight to the bottom or suspended in submerged standing timber. "I believe a tailspinner will outperform a jigging spoon during these situations," says Mann. "When bass refuse to hit a lure moving past them, jigging up and down in their faces drives them crazy. Despite a tailspinner's small size, I've caught bass up to 11 pounds using this technique."

When fishing submerged timber, Mann recommends positioning the boat directly over the fish and lowering a tailspinner to the level where fish are marked on your electronics. Slowly lift your rod a foot or two, then drop the rod on a tight line, controlling the rate at which it falls or just fast enough to make the blade spin. When the fish are found holding tight to the bottom, employ the same up-and-down tactic, working the bait a foot or two off the bottom.

When Mann was quizzed about where to use tailspinners, he was quick to reply, "dropoffs, submerged islands and riverbeds. I can even fish submerged brushpiles with a tailspinner. Once you develop that sense of feel, you'll be able to distinguish between a strike or a piece of brush."

Mann recommends spinning tackle and a 7-foot rod for casting a tailspinner. When he's jigging the bait vertically, he prefers a 6-foot rod. Both rods should have a medium/heavy action. Reels should be spooled with 10- to 12-pound line.

The fact that Mann has sold 30 million Little Georges says a lot about this lure's credibility. A tailspinner's performance in cold water is legendary, just like the Mann who created it.

Though he owes much of his outstanding reputation to his ability to catch giant smallmouths, Billy Westmorland was quick to admit that blade baits work extremely well for all species of bass.

Looking like little more than a

stamped piece of metal with a couple of treble hooks and a line tie, blade baits are deceptively simple looking and terrifically productive.

"Blade baits came out about 50 years ago," says Westmorland. "The early manufacturers never were sure about where to put the line tie hole to get the maximum effect. We came out with a blade bait (the Silver Buddy) about 20 years ago. I tried several holes all up and down the lure. Some holes produced a wobble that was too wide. Finally, we found the right hole. It had the right balance, the right wobble and the right type of sound. It caught fish."

Some blade baits come with multiple line tie holes. Each hole creates a different wobble and sound. Whether a single-hole version or one with several holes is used, a wire snap is always recommended.

Blade baits come in sizes ranging from 1/4 to 3/4 ounce. Westmorland prefers the 1/2-ounce version, stating, "The 1/2-ounce size balanced out better than the others. All sizes will catch fish, but the 1/2-ounce size seems to catch the big fish."

Like Mann, Westmorland prefers the fish dropoffs, underwater hills, points and brush for his wintertime bass. "Brush is easy to find," says the former tournament standout. "If it's a lake that has brush, it can usually be found by watching your depthfinder. I may find four or five places before I ever start fishing. Then I go back to the first area where brush was found, and I start fishing. If no fish are caught from these four or five areas, then I eliminate fishing brush, and I target other areas."

If the lake is void of structure and cover, Westmorland opts to contour fish. This is when the bait is fished parallel to the bank at different depths or contours. It's a great way to eliminate water until the proper fish-holding depth is found.

When fishing dropoffs, he recommends keeping the boat directly over the drop and casting to the top of the breakline, hopping the bait all the way back to the boat. When fishing high spots, he keeps his boat positioned off the hump and casts to it, working the bait on top first, then down the sides into deep water. The presence of baitfish and deep water nearby will make these areas more desirable for coldwater bass.

As with the tailspinner, most blade bait strikes occur on the fall. Westmorland encourages line-watching and keeping your line tight during the retrieve. During the colder months, he employs a ripping or hopping retrieve, letting the fish dictate how high to hop it off the bottom. Sometimes they want it snapped 2 to 3 feet off the bottom or lightly hopped 8 to 12 inches off the bottom. "This bait makes a very distinct noise as it falls on the initial cast," says Westmorland. "Then it makes a noise when it hits the bottom and yet another noise when it's ripped or hopped off the bottom. This series of different sounds is often what triggers coldwater strikes."

Although Westmorland claims to cast the lure 95 percent of the time, the other 5 percent is spent vertically jigging a blade bait. "I jig a blade bait when the water is extremely cold and the fish hold tight to the bottom or cover. You're not going to be able to cast a blade bait into a submerged brushpile and expect to get it back. You have to sit directly over the brush and jig the lure."

Westmorland prefers to use spinning tackle for most of his blade bait fishing. He uses a 6-foot light jig rod with a fast tip for fishing smaller blade baits and a 6-foot heavy-action jig rod for the larger sizes. Reels should be spooled with 10-pound-test when you are fishing vertically and when using small baits. Use 10- to 17-pound-test when casting.

When the water is cold and the bass head deep, blade baits can be on the cutting edge of catching January bass.

"Experienced spoon fisherman form a small fraternity," says respected fishing guide Randy Edwards. "You have to be willing to invest a lot of time to become consistently successful." Edwards is envied by his peers because of his mastery at plucking spotted bass from the depths with a jigging spoon. He's quick to point out, however, that, "every member of the bass family will hit a spoon."

The idea of using a spoon as a lure was conceived more than 100 years ago when an angler accidentally dropped an ordinary tablespoon overboard. As he watched the utensil flutter toward the bottom and wondered how he would explain the loss to his wife, a fish grabbed it! The rest is angling history.

Today, spoons are designed specifically for fishing, and diners everywhere can rest easy that their soups are safe from treble-hooked silverware. These baits are available in an array of colors and sizes. The cupped or convex versions are primarily used for casting or trolling. Others are little more than flat pieces of steel or lead, designed to be fished in an up-and-down or jigging fashion. These jigging spoons are of greatest interest to winter bass chasers.

During January, you'll find Edwards targeting schooling fish suspended in open water. "A strong understanding of electronics," says Edwards, "is the most important aspect of this open-water tactic. I recommend using your electronics in the manual mode, which will allow you to choose and set the depth scale closest to the actual depth. Most importantly, increase the sensitivity on the unit." This adjustment will help to display even the smallest objects found between the boat and the bottom, making it easier for you to locate baitfish.

Baitfish are the key to locating suspended bass. If fishing familiar waters, Edwards begins his search in areas such as a major creek or deep main-lake cove where he has visually noted baitfish during the summer months. In unfamiliar waters, he checks main-lake points or the mouths of major creeks. Once bait is located, he treats the school as a form of structure. "A school of baitfish should be treated like a brushpile, for example," he says. "Some days they are out in front of the brushpile. Other days they just hang over it. The same holds true for bass relating to bait in open water."

With this baitfish structure approach, Edwards begins circling the area trying to locate bass. He can determine which fish are feeding by how they are positioned in relation to the school of baitfish. "If you see bass hanging over the baitfish, move on," says Edwards. "Keep looking until bass are found under the baitfish." Bass positioned here often wait for baitfish that have succumbed to the cold water. The fluttering meal is hard to pass up, and it's exactly what the jigging spoon mimics.

The initial drop is often what catches the larger, aggressive bass found in the school. "Presenting the bait above the fish is critical. Many times, I've seen anglers feed out too much line," recalls Edwards. "They put the bait under the fish and then spook them when they jig the bait in and out of the school from below. To remedy this, I find water 15 feet deep with my electronics, lower the spoon to the bottom and mark my line with a permanent marker at the reel. Now I know that the bait is exactly 15 feet deep. Knowing that my rod is 5 feet long, I can accurately lower the bait another 5 feet by moving the mark to the rod tip."

Edwards recommends beginning the jigging motion with the rod in the 8 o'clock position. From there, raise it to the 10 o'clock position to lift the spoon. Repeat this until you find the action. You may need to experiment with how fast you raise and lower the bait. Just as with tailspinners and blade baits, the strike generally occurs on the fall and is detected by the same subtle tap.

Unlike Mann and Westmorland, Edwards likes to use his favorite heavy metal bait on baitcasting gear. He likes using a 5-foot medium-action rod for most of his spoon jigging. The short rod helps to keep the bait in the vicinity of the depthfinder transducer's cone. He spools his spoon-jigging rods with 10-pound-test line.

* * *
If you want to heat up your January fishing, heed the advice of these experts. With a little practice, you just might drop one of these heavy metal baits into a mosh pit of hungry bass.

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