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Let's Get Vertical: The Ups and Downs of Winter Bassin'

The ability to locate and catch wintertime bass in the South requires a distinct top-down approach.

Let's Get Vertical: The Ups and Downs of Winter Bassin'

Bass gravitate to deep water in winter, in part because of the amount of bait that occupies the depths then. (Photo courtesy of Britt Myers)

Whoever first said, "what goes up, must come down," was clearly not an optimist … or a bass angler. An optimist might have anticipated satellites or even space travel. Some of that stuff goes up and never comes down.

A bass angler knows that what goes up often gets eaten by a waiting bass before it can fall very far. It happens in all four seasons of the year, but especially in winter. In fact, if you had to pick a word to best capture winter bass fishing, that word would most likely be "vertical." It applies to the best wintertime structure and cover and to the best presentation methods. If you're not "thinking vertical" in winter, you're not catching as many bass as you could be.

Major League Fishing standout Britt Myers agrees. He believes there are large groups of fish living in "deep" water that only leave their sanctuary to spawn in the spring. What's more, he thinks the key to catching them in great numbers is a vertical presentation.

MYERS' MAGIC DEPTH

"I'm an offshore guy," the South Carolinian explains, "and I've learned that there are deep-water fish that hold in one area all year except during the spawn. These places have everything the bass want, so there's no need to move. But to catch them, you must use different methods and baits depending upon the time of year.

"In my experience, the magic depth in the South is 18 feet," Myers continues. "At 18 feet and deeper, the bass can find the kind of stability they need to thrive all year long. Of course, there are exceptions. In Florida and other waters in the extreme South, they don't need that much depth because it stays relatively warm, even in winter."

The other magical thing about 18 feet, according to Myers, is it's the shallowest depth he can approach with a true vertical presentation. From experience, he's noticed that any shallower and the bass are likely to turn off when a boat hovers over them.

Winter bass fishing
When bass use schools of baitfish as de facto structure, use sonar to work your lure through the bait ball rather than dropping it all the way to bottom. (Photo courtesy of Britt Myers)

BUMPIN’ BASS

"Whenever you're fishing deep water vertically, you need to make good use of your sonar," Myers says. "The good news is that you don't need the latest forward-facing units to load the boat when it's really cold and bass are holding tight to the bottom. Old-school 2D sonar is enough, and I rely heavily on my Garmin 126sv."

In January, when the days are short and the water's cold, bass are often hunkered down, basically resting on the bottom where they cannot be readily detected on sonar—there's simply no separation between the bass and the substrate. As a result, it just looks like an uneven bottom. This means you may have to get a bite before you can be certain fish are there.

When targeting winter bass on Southern impoundments, Myers typically starts on main-lake points that intersect with a creek or river channel. If the lake is extremely deep and the water's very clear, he might start as deep as 50 feet. He'll put his boat over vertical structure, like the drop-off into the channel, or over vertical cover like submerged timber, then he'll reach for one of his favorite vertical-fishing baits—the 3/4-ounce BD Blade from Duckett Fishing.




As you probably guessed, the BD Blade is a blade bait—like the venerable Silver Buddy or Cotton Cordell Gay Blade. Lots of anglers use blade baits in the fall by making long casts, letting the lure sink to the bottom and using a lift-and-drop retrieve. Myers maintains it's even more effective when fished vertically in winter.

"I fish it on Sufix 10-pound-test fluorocarbon spooled onto a high-speed spinning reel and a 6-foot-8-inch medium-action Britt Myers Signature Series spinning rod from Duckett Fishing. I let the bait go to the bottom, then I lift it up with 12- to 14-inch hops of my rod tip. I want the bait to free-fall back to the bottom. Sometimes I can feel it bounce off bass in the process, which can trigger an impulse strike."

NOT BOTTOMED OUT

When the bass are just off the bottom and there's a little separation on his sonar screen, Myers likes the drop-shot rig. He opts for a 6-inch Roboworm Straight Tail in Margarita Mutilator above a 3/16- to 1/4-ounce drop-shot weight. "I fish it on my 6-foot 8-inch Duckett spinning rod and 10-pound Sufix 832 braid with a [10-pound Sufix Advance] fluorocarbon leader."

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The key with the drop shot, he says, is to keep the bait just above the fish when they're off the bottom. Just how far off the bottom they are will determine your leader length. "I'll get over the fish or slightly off to one side and drop the rig down to them," Myers says. "Then I'll shake or twitch it lightly. It doesn't take much action to get their attention, and too much action can be a turn-off for lethargic winter bass."

SUSPENDED?

Sometimes in winter—usually in extremely clear water—Myers finds bass suspended far off the bottom and far from any structural reference point like a channel drop, ledge or point. When that happens, he reaches for a brown 3/4-ounce casting jig and Zoom Fat Albert Twin Tail Grub trailer in Green Pumpkin. He matches it with 17-pound Sufix Advance, a high-speed Duckett casting reel and 7-foot, heavy-action Duckett Micro Magic casting rod.

"The fish might be 25 feet or more from any traditional structure or cover," he says. "They're using schools of baitfish as structure and as their food source."

As long as these fish are at least 18 feet deep, Myers will try to approach them vertically, dropping the jig and counting it down or following it down on his sonar unit. Before it reaches the depth of the fish, he stops it and works it through any bait that may be hovering there. "My jig never touches the bottom," he says. "I sort of double-hop it through the bait, and the bass underneath will often come up and grab it. It's OK to have the jig passing through the baitfish, but you don't want it moving up and down through the school of bass. That can look unnatural."

Myers' secret weapon when fishing vertically for winter bass isn't some prototype lure or space-age sonar unit. It's his confidence in the pattern and presentation. "This is my favorite way to catch bass," he says. "Once you find them, you can catch one after another after another. It can be a challenge to get on them, but once you do, it can be the best fishing of your life."

NOT-SO-DEEP TACTICS

Don’t fret if you don’t have deep-water structure on your home lake.

What if your favorite fishery doesn’t have 18 feet of water? After all, "Deep South" can be a real oxymoron, especially if you live far below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Don't despair. The bass are still there, and you can catch them in the winter. You can even use some of Britt Myers' vertical fishing principles. In these waters, the primary cover is usually some form of vegetation. Structure—changes in the bottom contour—is typically scarce, so cover often serves double duty. The verticality of a weed bed becomes a substitute for a bluff or sharp drop into a river channel.

And the bass like this shallow vertical cover for the same reason they like vertical structure in the depths: It offers the opportunity for easy movement from deep to shallow water. But, instead of getting right on top of the target and dropping your lure to deep fish below, punching is often the best approach in these weedy shallows.

It's also a lot of fun. Just use heavy line (50- or 65-pound braid), a stout rod, a heavy sinker (a full ounce or more), a streamlined soft-plastic bait and short, underhanded pitches to penetrate the dense canopy on the surface. When the bait falls through, there’s often a bass there to intercept it. "That initial fall is everything," Myers maintains. "If you don't get bit on that, you might as well wind it in and try again."

GAME CHANGERS

Forward-facing sonar is reinventing the way we fish.

Winter bass fishing
Forward-facing sonar enables anglers to locate fish as far as 500 feet from the boat.

Forward-facing, live-action sonar is all the rage these days, and with plenty of justification. It gives anglers a real-time look at structure, cover, bait and bass. You can even watch the fish react to your lure as you’re fishing it. For those in the know, it can be like playing the world’s greatest video game.

Two of the leaders in the world of forward-facing sonar are Humminbird and Garmin, and both have impressive new releases that will be in wide use in 2023.

Garmin’s new Livescope XR system delivers real-time images of fish and structure up to 500 feet in front of or below the boat. That’s a lot to look at, and for those who thought this newest technology was mostly for saltwater use, it could be just the ticket for wintertime bass, too.

Humminbird’s MEGA Live TargetLock solves a problem that existed with all forward-facing sonar until now. If you weren’t deliberately pointing the transducer directly at your desired target, you couldn’t see it. And you could spend long minutes relocating it while repositioning your boat to make a better approach.

However, TargetLock does just what its name implies. It allows you to lock on a specific piece of cover or structure and keep it on your screen even while you maneuver the boat for a better angle.

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