Targeting The Winter Bass Bite
September 28, 2010
Don't let Old Man Winter scare you off the water this month. January can produce some fantastic bass fishing for those in the know. (January 2009)
While many Louisiana sportsmen will head to duck blinds or deer stands after the New Year, a small but dedicated cadre of bass enthusiasts will be out in the cold to look for some of the biggest bucketmouths of the year. Before moving shallow to spawn, big female bass stage on humps or ledges in deeper water -- and anglers finding these staging areas can connect with some impressive fish.
Displaying a bass that he took on a Calcutta swimbait at a southwest Louisiana marsh in winter is Bart Farris.
Photo by John Felsher.
"I look for fish on the graph and drop a bait right on them," said professional bass angler Tanya Kreuzer. "Once I locate them, I can figure out how to catch them. Bass always like to hang near humps, ledges, logs or rockpiles in deep water. I look for anything different on the bottom contour. Creek channels and the deep ends of points are always good places to look for bass in the winter. Where a creek channel hits the main lake is also a good place to look for bass."
When Kreuzer finds a hump with fish, she probes it thoroughly. Since cold water often makes bass lethargic, winter fishing frequently involves a painfully slow, methodical approach. Non-aggressive bass might not chase fast prey, but they may slurp something passing within easy striking range. When temperatures drop, dragging a Texas-rigged worm or a jig and pork or plastic combination slowly over the bottom could bring results. Pause frequently. Pull it over drop-off edges and let it fall.
LESS IS MORE
"Most of the time, I start out with a jig, but if the fish are biting really finicky, I'll switch to a drop shot," Kreuzer said. "With a drop shot, I use 6- to 8-pound fluorocarbon line. When fish are finicky and the bite is tough, I go to smaller hooks and line. For hooks, I use anywhere from a 1 to a 6."
A drop shot simply consists of a hook attached to the line 12 to 36 inches above a weight. Sweeten the hook with a small grub, worm or other soft-plastic temptation. Some people even add multiple hooks to test various baits or colors at different depths. Some anglers use a lead jig head tipped with plastic as the main weight and attach a grub or worm above the weight to tempt fish either directly on the bottom or suspended slightly above it.
A drop-shot rig keeps a bait in the strike zone longer. With the sinker on bottom, shake the line so that the worm vibrates in a bass's face. Although anglers typically fish a drop shot vertically, some drag it across the bottom like a Carolina rig. Sometimes, working a bait too vigorously could deter strikes, but the slightest quiver could provoke a reaction.
"In the winter, when fish are typically more lethargic, bass don't want baits that move too much," Kreuzer said. "Many people put too much movement on the bait. People don't realize that just a tiny bit of rod movement can move the bait quite a bit. When the bite is tough, I often dead-stick a bait. Leaving the rod as still as possible, I hold the line really taut and twitch it a little every once in a while. Sometimes, I lay the lure on the bottom. Occasionally, I pick it off the bottom and hold it there for a few seconds before letting it drop to the bottom again; then I dead-stick it again for awhile. Often, a bass picks it up while it's on the bottom."
A STRUCTURED APPROACH
During the winter, bass often suspend next to a hump or dropoff edge. Suspending bass can frustrate even the most diligent anglers. To target suspended bass, bounce a drop shot off the bottom or run a spoon, deep-diving crankbait or spinnerbait through the area. "Helicoptering" a spinnerbait -- or pulling it up and letting it flutter down -- can entice a lunker.
"One of my favorite ways to fish deep structure in the winter is 'worming' a spinnerbait," said Denny Brauer, a former Bassmaster Classic champion. "Throw it out and let it fall all the way to the bottom until you see slack in the line. Raise it off the bottom by raising the rod tip to the 11 o'clock or 12 o'clock position. Drop the rod tip back down, letting the bait helicopter down. Follow it down until it hits the bottom and do it again."
Most people vertically jig a spoon, dropping it to the bottom and bouncing it up and down. Small, heavy and compact, a jigging spoon gets to the bottom in a hurry, looking like a dying shad on the way down. Anglers can also cast spoons to schooling fish.
"I look for a ball of shad and jig a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce spoon around it," Kreuzer said. "In really deep water I might shift to a 1-ounce spoon. Bass hanging under the school of shad and shooting up into them is the perfect scenario. If fish are suspended off the bottom, I pull the boat back and throw the spoon into the school. I make really long casts and let the spoon sink all the way to the bottom. Then, I bounce it off the bottom and let it fall again. Bass chase the bait up and hit it when it starts to fall."
CENTRAL & NORTH LOUISIANA HOTSPOTS
Toledo Bend Reservoir
Anglers can employ these methods in almost any central or north Louisiana lake and some places in the southern parishes, but Toledo Bend probably offers the best combination of big fish, numbers and deep water in the state. Each year, the 186,000-acre reservoir along the Sabine River channel separating Texas from Louisiana produces many double-digit bass. About 65 miles long, "the Bend" offers anglers numerous coves and creek channels touching more than 1,265 miles of shorelines. It averages about 60 feet deep, but some holes drop to more than 110 feet deep. Both Texas and Louisiana routinely stock the massive reservoir with Florida-strain largemouths.
"Toledo Bend is the premier place to go in Louisiana," exclaimed Jason Pittman, a professional bass angler from Covington. "It's not unusual to hear about someone catching a 10-pounder. Just about any place on the Texas side south of the Pendleton Bridge can hold big bass in the winter. Some better places include Six-Mile Creek, Housen Bay and the Indian Mounds on the Texas side or Tennessee Bay on the Louisiana side. Main lake points are also good places to catch bass."
On the north end, several islands, humps and channels provide bass cover where the Sabine River enters Toledo Bend. In late winter, pre-spawn bass stage on these humps. When the time comes, they follow creek channels or points as they move shallow. Many bass spawn in flooded buck brush in two to four feet of water.
"A hump on a channel near some buck brush is a good spot to look for bass in January," Pittman said. "In late winter, fish play the waiting game. If there's a deep creek that swings near a buck brush island, the fish might be in the bottom of the creek or along the e
dge. If we have a mild winter, bass may move into the shallows in late January."
Once bass move into flooded brush, tempt them with Texas-rigged tubes, worms or weedless jigs. Skilled anglers can flip baits to openings in thick cover with pinpoint accuracy at short range. By using long rods almost like cane poles, anglers can target specific twigs or grass stems. Hitting subtly next to cover, a tube spirals down through the branches like a dying shad. At the bottom, it looks like a crawfish.
"Flipping is a technique that allows me to have a finesse look while I'm still using big, heavy tackle," said Alton Jones, the 2008 Bassmaster Classic champion. "It's a matter of looking at available cover, imagining where a bass might be and putting a lure on his head very softly."
Caddo Lake & Lake Bistineau
Just north of Toledo Bend, Caddo Lake and Lake Bistineau near Shreveport can produce bass topping 10 pounds. Caddo, a 26,810-acre lake spanning the Louisiana-Texas border, actually produced a fish exceeding the Louisiana record, but the angler weighed the fish in Texas. Bistineau stretches across 17,200 acres east of Bossier City, and typically produces bigger numbers but smaller fish than Caddo. Bistineau averages eight feet deep, but holes in the old Bayou Dorcheat channel drop to more than 18 feet deep.
Caney Lake offers another place to find winter lunkers in north Louisiana. This 5,000-acre impoundment near Chatham produced seven of the 10 biggest Louisiana bass, including the top four. Greg Wiggins holds the record with a 15.97-pound fish he caught in February 1994. In 1994, the state released 12,000 grass carp into the clear lake with little other structure than grass. The carp stripped vegetation from the lake until the state allowed archers to thin them. Anglers can again find grass growing in parts of the lake.
Although more known for shallow, flooded timbers than depths, Lake D'Arbonne near Farmerville can hold water as deep as 30 feet, mostly along the old Little Corney Creek and Little D'Arbonne Bayou channels. The rest of the 15,250-acre lake averages about eight feet deep and looks more like a cypress swamp. The lake can produce fish exceeding 15 pounds.
Poverty Point Reservoir
Among the newest Louisiana lakes, Poverty Point Reservoir opened to fishermen in April 2003. The 2,700-acre impoundment north of Delhi averages 10 feet deep, but some holes drop to more than 20 feet. Anglers fish the offshore humps, submerged brush piles, logs and stumps.
Mississippi River Oxbows
Several Mississippi River oxbows can provide good action. Lake Concordia, a 1,000-acre oxbow near Vidalia, produced several double-digit lunkers. About six miles long, the lake averages about 10 to 15 feet deep, but some holes drop to more than 55 feet deep. In the winter, work jigs near cypress trees or docks and let them fall over drop-offs.
About 25 miles northwest of Baton Rouge in Pointe Coupee Parish, the "U-shaped" False River stretches over 3,212 acres. Other oxbows include Lake Bruin, a 2,342-acre lake in Tensas Parish, and Lake Providence, a 1,380-acre lake in East Carroll Parish. Just north of Lake Concordia, Lake St. John covers about 2,100 acres, much of it in flooded cypress.
Central Louisiana anglers can find summer-like conditions all year long at Lake Rodemacher. Also called "CLECO Lake" (after the power company that owns it), it provides water to cool equipment. The hot-water discharge heats water in the 3,200-acre lake near Boyce.
The son of a CLECO employee, Pittman grew up fishing Lake Rodemacher. The discharge channel runs for about a mile or two from the power plant to the main lake. A barricade keeps anglers from approaching too closely to the discharge area, but anglers can approach within a few hundred yards.
"There are some creek channels that are just phenomenal." Pittman said. "No doubt, it will produce some double-digit bass this year. I've fished there when I've had ice in the rod guides and the water temperature was 82 degrees. It's not uncommon to hear someone say they caught a bunch of fish on a topwater bait in January."
With little deep water, sportsmen in south Louisiana generally spend January scanning the skies for ducks, but a few places in the coastal parishes can produce good winter bass fishing. Although Hurricanes Rita and Katrina caused massive fish kills in parts of southern Louisiana, affected areas came back, at least in terms of numbers. Never known for holding double-digit bucketmouths, the southern marshes can again produce fish in the 3- to 5-pound range, along with plenty of smaller fish.
Southeast of New Orleans, a siphon diverts water from the Mississippi River at Caernarvon to freshen brackish marshes and rebuild vanishing wetlands with river silt. This water now flows through myriad canals and numerous unnamed sloughs near Lake Lery or Big Mar. In the past, this area could produce 150 bass a day with an occasional fish weighing close to 10 pounds.
"It's coming back," Pittman said. "In the winter, the cold river water coming down the Mississippi from the north can kill water hyacinths, but even the dead ones can still hold heat. Bass migrate to the hyacinths and suspend under them. The best technique for fishing hyacinths during the winter would be to punch through them with a heavy jig. I use a 3/4-ounce jig and a craw worm or a 1-ounce tungsten weight attached to a brush hog for punching through hyacinths."
Most people only consider "punching through hyacinths" in the summer, when bass seek shade under canopy cover. However, hyacinths can hold fish all year long. For punching, Pittman recommends using a stout 7.5-foot flipping rod and Power Pro braided line.
North of New Orleans, Katrina wiped out the freshwater fisheries in the Pearl River delta near Slidell, but the area again produces numbers of small fish. Anglers may find better fish in other rivers of the Florida Parishes, including the Tangipahoa, Tickfaw and Tchefuncte. During the winter, fish jigs along the deeper outside bends in these streams. Deep canals along Interstate 55 near Manchac can also offer good fishing.
North of Slidell, the Pearl River Navigation Canal looks more like an impoundment than anything else in southeast Louisiana. Known locally as the "Locks Canal," the abandoned navigational channel separated by several locks produced bass exceeding 8 pounds in the past. Although salt water from Katrina never entered the system, the storm did kill fish because decaying organic matter blown into the system consumed dissolved oxygen.
"The Pearl River Locks Canal is probably the most stable place in southeast Louisiana," Pittman said. "People are catching some big stringers. I've seen a lot of 4-pounders come out of that canal. All those trees that went into the water from the storm helped the fishing tremendously by giving the fish much more structure to congregate around. Also, the canal has a lot of lily pads and hyacinths now."
With a little patience, Louisiana bass anglers looking fo
r something to do during the winter can still find good fishing just about anywhere in the state. If the state experiences a mild winter, the action might start early.