Best Bets for Sooner Bass

Head to our southern waters with this bag of bass-fishing tips, and you're sure to score on Oklahoma largemouths.

By Bob Bledsoe

Broken Bow. Hugo. Waurika. Pine Creek. Sardis. McGee Creek. Texoma. Murray. What do those lakes have in common?

They're all in Oklahoma's Sun Belt - that is, they're all in far southern Oklahoma. Some of them are within spittin' distance of Texas. Texoma even lies on the border, with the south side of its waters in the Lone Star State.

But proximity to Texas isn't the only thing these reservoirs share. They're also the best prospects Oklahoma can muster for catching some good stringers of bass at this time of the year.

Oklahoma bass fishermen are lucky. No - really! It's a rare year that our lakes, even in the northernmost parts of the state, actually get a lot of ice on them. They may ice up around the edges or in the coves, but there are usually useable boat ramps and enough open water that a fisherman can still find a few places to try his fishing luck.

But water temperatures in the northern half of the state get awfully chilly. It's not unusual for the surface waters in northern Oklahoma lakes like Grand, Kaw or Oologah to get down into the mid and even low 30s, hovering right there, barely above freezing, for weeks on end.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

This month and next, there might be a double-digit difference in daily water-surface temperatures between lakes up near the Kansas border and lakes down closer to Texas. And even a 5-degree difference can be significant in terms of bass behavior.

The farther south you go in the northern hemisphere, the greater the length of potential sunlight each day; the more sunlight you get, the warmer the water-surface temperatures remain. And there is a noticeable difference between northern and southern Oklahoma.

That's not to say that the difference is always radical. In a mild winter, northern Oklahoma lakes may never get icy. And it can happen that clouds and rain block sunlight in the southern areas while bright sunlight warms up the water in lakes farther north. But most winters see the water warmer and the bass more active in our southern lakes.

Wintertime bass fishing can be very predictable much of the time. For example: If you have several days of bright sunshine and mild temperatures, the top few inches of water in a pond or lake can warm by several degrees. If the winds are from the same general direction each day, they push the sun-warmed surface water across the lakes or ponds to pile up near the shore which in turn forces the colder water beneath them back down and out to the deeper areas.

If you have a surface-temperature thermometer in your boat, or if you carry a small thermometer with which you can get a reading in the water, you might notice a significant difference between one side of the lake or pond and the other. I've checked farm ponds in early March and found water about 50 degrees on one side, but 62 to 63 degrees on the other. The temperatures won't be that warm in January, but the same kind of extreme differences, created by wind and sunlight, may be found.

When you get those sun-warmed shallow zones, spinnerbait fishing can be very productive, even in the coldest months of the year. Bass move up into the warm shallows to feed, and many become aggressive enough to pursue a spinnerbait.

More typical of this time of year, though, is that black bass are more sluggish, stay farther from the surface, and have to be "teased" into biting with a slow-fall, slow-action bait. So in my book, nothing beats a jig for catching winter bass.

From April through early November, you can do most of your bass fishing near shorelines and in less than 10 feet of water. But in the wintertime, you should be prepared to do some deep-structure fishing.

I don't mean you have to fish 40 feet deep - although that can, at times, be just what you should be doing. But being prepared to do most of your fishing below 13 or 14 feet can increase your bass-fishing productivity in the winter.

I want to mention one more good wintertime bass bait before I talk about jigs: the slab spoon (otherwise known as the "structure spoon" or "jigging spoon" - a spoon of lead or steel, painted or plated, usually with one treble hook attached.

When bass are holding around deep structure, a jigging spoon is sometimes the most effective tool for catching them quickly. Jigging spoons fall fast, and can be used to probe an area quickly.

You can cast and retrieve a jigging spoon horizontally - a technique that sometimes works very effectively on white bass or stripers - but when fishing for black bass on deep structure, it's usually best to jig the spoons vertically while holding your boat directly above the target structure.

In the summertime and when fishing for white bass, I've had a lot of luck with painted spoons in a variety of colors. But when fishing for wintertime, deep-structure bass, I've had the best luck with shiny, silver spoons like the original Hopkins Spoons - elongated, hammered-finish models - or the many generic spoons that resemble it.

If you buy brand-name versions, there will probably be a split ring at the end you tie your line to. If you buy the cheaper generic spoons that aren't equipped with split rings for tying, I'd suggest either adding a split ring or tying a loop knot of some kind. I think it's important to let the spoon flop and flutter as freely as possible, and a split ring or loop-knot facilitates that action.

In theory, a fluttering structure spoon resembles a wounded or dying baitfish fluttering to the bottom. When fishing a structure spoon, let it fall freely to the bottom and then jig it up slowly, letting it flutter down after each pull. Whenever the spoon is falling, keep the line just barely short of tight by following the spoon down with your rod tip. Sometimes even big bass just barely tick the spoon, like a crappie mouthing a tiny jig. If you're not watching your line and keeping track of what the lure is doing, you could miss the strike and fail to set the hook.

Now let's talk about the bait for catching wintertime bass, especially the bigger bass. As I said earlier, nothing beats a jig for catching bass consistently at this time of year. No matter whether the fish are shallow or deep on any given day, a jig will usually draw a strike as fast as any lure.

When I think back over a quarter-century or so of bass fishing, a year spent editing a bass fishing magazine, and 15 years spent as outdoor editor of a newspaper

, and I think about all of the big bass I've caught or seen caught by pros in tournaments or by friends just fishing, I can honestly say that a majority of the big bass I've seen landed - say, those over 6 pounds - were caught on a jig of some sort.

There were quite a few big ones caught on spinnerbaits, and a few caught on crankbaits, jerkbaits, topwaters and everything else. But a jig is definitely the "money bait" for catching big bass. And that's doubly true in the winter.

I've known fishermen who swear by a particular kind of jig. Some prefer jigs dressed with silicone skirts. Back when I was fishing more than 100 days a year, "living rubber" skirts were all the rage. And there are those who prefer jigs dressed with bucktail hair, or even with feathers. They all work, and as any one may work better than the others at any given time, it pays to experiment with jig sizes and types so you can find some in which you have confidence and fish them diligently.

I prefer smaller jigs, but sometimes a heavy jig is needed. If the wind is blowing, or if you're fishing really deep structure - down below 20 feet or so - you may need a 5/8- or 3/4-ounce jig to get down to where you want to fish and to provide enough weight on the line to give you a good sense of feel through the line. When you're fishing deep, or in strong winds, lighter jigs take too long to fall, and sometimes you just can't feel 'em, or detect a strike.

Paying attention to your line and concentrating on what that jig is doing down below you will prove very important in wintertime jig-fishing. Sometimes even big bass don't make much of a strike.

A few years ago, I fished frequently in the winter and early spring with bass guides. All of them fished jigs 90 percent of the time when trying to catch big bass in cool weather. Often we'd never feel a strike; the only indication that a bass might have my jig in its mouth was that there would suddenly be no weight at all on the line. It was as if the knot had come untied and the jig had fallen off.

Several times when I felt that "weightless" sensation through my line, I'd lower my rod tip and set the hook with a strong upward snap, driving the hook home in a bass that I never actually felt. Sometimes these bass weighed 7 or 8 pounds, but they never even provided the slightest tick on the line.

After catching an 8-pounder in that manner one morning, my guide asked me if the bass had hit hard. I said no: My line had just suddenly felt weightless. He said that he was glad that I'd caught the fish, and that he wished he could teach more of his customers that when you're fishing a jig and you don't feel anything, it may be time to set the hook!

Yeah - you may feel foolish now and then when you set the hook and it turns out that there's really nothing there at the endof the line. But you'll also catch more bass that way. When in doubt, set it!

I learned another trick from a Texas guide that has served me well while jig-fishing for wintertime bass on Oklahoma lakes. This guide advised his client thus: "Try to hop the jig up and down as many times as you can without moving it a foot."

It takes some getting used to, but that method pays off on days when bass seem reluctant to bite. If you can move the jig up and down, but move it only an inch or two horizontally, it seems to tease reluctant bass into striking. Why? I haven't the slightest idea. I don't know of any aquatic creature that moves like that, but I know from experience that it seems to work.

Some winter jig-fishermen like jigs with lots of bulk, even putting two or maybe three silicone rubber skirts on a single jig to make a thick-bodied bait with lots of movement in the body. Just don't put so many skirts on the jig that the hook can't find its way through the tangle of rubber filaments to a bass' mouth.

Multiple skirts make a jig sink more slowly; they seem to help neutralize the weight of the jighead. So don't overdo the skirts. You need enough weight to maintain the feel of the jig solidly through your line.

I sometimes feel like a relic from the past when I fish with one of my favorite winter jigs. Bass fishermen sometimes give me a look of disdain when they see bucktail jigs dangling from my rod tips. But I've caught lots of bass, during winter and other seasons, on bucktail jigs.

I've found that bucktails work especially for fishing for smallmouths or spotted bass in reservoirs - but largemouths like 'em, too. On bucktail jigs, I generally use dressings different from those I'll use on rubber-skirted jigs (which I'll address next).

The big question in jig-fishing for bass is: pork or plastic?

Back when I cut my teeth as a bass fisherman, virtually everyone dressed jigs with Uncle Josh Pork Rind baits of various styles. A "jig-'n'-chunk" was a universally understood expression that meant a jig dressed with a pork-rind "frog" - usually a No. 11 Uncle Josh. A 1/2-ounce or 5/8-ounce jig dressed with a No. 11 pork frog was, like a plastic worm or a spinnerbait, a vital part of nearly every bass fisherman's arsenal.

There are pork lizards, pork eels and various other styles of pork baits, and all can be effective. But I believe the pork frog was always the most popular for use with bass jigs. When fishing bucktail jigs, I usually favored the smaller "spin frogs" or the split-tail eel pork dressings.

Typically, most bass fishermen chose pork dressings in colors that matched jig and skirt - brown pork on a brown jig, black pork on a black jig and so on. I still follow that method most of the time.

In the 1970s, and especially in the 1980s, soft-plastic baits gained tremendously in popularity as jig dressings. Plastic lizards, plastic frogs and, most popular of all, plastic crawfish replaced pork on the backs of many a jig. Plastic is easier to carry, doesn't sit in a jar of corrosive brine like the pork baits, and comes in a wide variety of colors and styles. With plastic, anglers can choose trailers that match their metallic, brightly hued jig skirts. They can use trailers with contrasting fluorescent claws or tips. All in all, plastic's much more versatile.

And there is no doubt that plastic trailers do the job. Much of the time, they'll catch bass just as effectively as pork. But I've never been convinced that plastic is as good as pork in all situations. And the one case in which I really think pork retains significant superiority is when the water is really cold and the bass are really reluctant to bite. There have been days on which I couldn't buy a bite on a jig tipped with a plastic craw, but switching to a pork dressing triggered strikes.

If I'm going fishing for bass in midwinter or early spring, I always have at least one jar of pork frogs and one jar of pork eels available in my boat. I may use plastic more often than I do pork, but I believe that there are times that pork is better.

If you've got a bass outing planned in the next few weeks, no matter whether it's an early-season tourn

ament or just a casual Saturday on the water, take along a heavy-action rod spooled with 17-pound-test or heavier line, and an assortment of jigs and dressings. At this time of year, a jig is tough to beat at most Oklahoma lakes.

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