January 05, 2023
By Al Raychard
Ask a dozen ice fishermen what their favorite wintertime target is, and you'll likely get a variety of answers. Some answers will depend on geographic location and the species that are most readily available. Northern pike will be commonly mentioned due to their potential size and tenacity once hooked, while others such as trout will get the nod due to their delicacy. A variety of panfish will undoubtedly rank high. They are common just about everywhere, and during the winter season offer steady action when the bite is on.
For these very same reasons, both largemouth and smallmouth bass should also be mentioned. One or both species are found in every eastern state in a variety of habitats. Bass grow to good size, put up a good fight even in frigid water and can be quite tasty when pan fried, though keep in mind that bass often taste like what they eat and where they live. Those caught in a cold, clear lake are far better eating than their counterparts from a muddy backwater. Additionally, bass are willing takers of a variety of baits and lures, and can be caught on tip-ups or by hand lining.
TIMING THE BITE
Black bass, especially largemouths, prefer warm water temperatures; smallmouths are more tolerant of colder conditions. Regardless of water temperatures and slower metabolisms, both have to eat throughout the winter season. Because of that necessity there's never a bad time to ice-fish for bass—just better times.
Many fishermen who specifically target bass like to hit the ice early in the day, adhering to the old adage that the early bird gets the worm, and bass can and are certainly caught during the early-morning hours. This is especially true on clear mornings early and late in the season. Although ice and snow create a buffer of sorts between air and water temperatures and limit light penetration, they are thinnest during these times and the water temperature just below the ice and in certain locations will be slightly warmer than the air temperature. Also, the morning sun is stronger during the early and latter parts of winter than it is in the middle of winter. The difference between air and water temps may be very slight, but bass always seek the warmest available living conditions during the winter season, and that slight difference is enough to increase both baitfish and bass activity.
During the dead of winter, however, from about mid-January through mid-March, the sun is strongest during the afternoon hours, from around noon to midafternoon. Whether overcast or sunny, any warming of the water temperature will occur during these hours. Several experienced, successful bass fishermen I know rarely hit the ice during mid-winter until later in the day, knowing it is the best time to find active baitfish and bass on the feed.
But other conditions should not be overlooked. Overcast or partially overcast days can be extremely productive. Bass are predators that use dark cover, structure and concealment to ambush their prey. With slower metabolisms during the winter season, that trait is only enhanced. Bass move less in winter, but when they do, especially during the mid-day hours, the lower light conditions under darkened skies gives them an advantage over unsuspecting prey.
Bass also tend to feed more heavily during winter warming trends. The more unseasonably warm surface temperatures get, such as during a February thaw into the mid-and-upper 30s or lower 40s, and the longer it lasts, the more active bass will become and the longer they will actively feed. This is especially true after a period of extreme or abnormally cold temperatures during which bass can lay almost dormant. After a few days, once temperatures "normalize," the bite can be extremely aggressive.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
There are long, ongoing debates about where to find bass during the winter season. Some claim small bays and coves hold few bass during the ice-over months, while others attest to good success in these areas. Others claim the main body of a lake, pond or reservoir is where the action will be found while others don’t always agree. Over the years I have fished all of these spots and can say that at times all have proven worthwhile…and all have been disappointing.
What really matters is keying on the living conditions bass prefer, and preferred winter locations do not always differ from those of open-water season. It comes down to a specific body of water and its contours, depth, substructure and available cover. Put simply, if a spot provides bass what they want and need to live, they will be there no matter the time of year. The calendar month makes little difference, and areas of a given lake that produce bass in June or July can and will hold bass in February.
But living amenities matter, and those preferred by largemouths differ from those preferred by smallmouths. The depth at which bass will be found can vary depending on weather conditions and slight differences in water temperature. As they are during the open-water season, largemouth bass in winter will typically be found near any remaining weeds, generally hugging soft or muddy bottoms at depths down to 30 feet, though often less. The outside edges along a drop-off, near flats and in basins at the 10- to 25-foot mark are good examples. Wherever healthy vegetation is available, largemouth bass will be there.
Smallmouth bass generally prefer deeper bastions, down to perhaps 40 and 50 feet over gravelly or hard bottoms. Submerged boulder and rock fields at the 30- to 40-foot mark can be quite productive. The same is true along the edges of rocky points, humps and rocky channels at the same depths, especially where they drop to deeper water. Keep in mind during warming fronts and days when the sky is clear and the sun is intense, it is not uncommon for both largemouths and smallmouths to move to shallower depths to feed, sometimes as shallow as 10 or 15 feet. Given these conditions, the bite can be quite productive during the afternoon hours.
TACKLE AND TACTICS
Winter bass are typically caught two ways: jigging and with tip-ups. Short, light-action jigging rods equipped with 4-pound-test fluorocarbon line is a popular combination. After finding the bottom, reel in several inches and work with a slow, methodical up-and-down action. The slow action not only helps locate fish but encourages a reaction due to reduced metabolisms.
When it comes to jigs, "small" is the word. Winter bass just don’t have the energy or inclination to chase larger foods, instead subsisting on small minnows, nymphs and various aquatic insects. Micro jigs weighing 1/32 ounce down to 1/64 ounce are often most productive. They can be equipped with soft-plastic bodies and tipped with wax worms, meals worms or minnow heads for added incentive.
Tip-ups are popular because several locations can be fished simultaneously. It is not uncommon to fish several tip-ups and jig at the same time. Tip-ups are generally rigged with heavy braided nylon line, with a barrel swivel connecting to an 8- to 10-foot-long, 6-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. A split shot sinker is often attached a foot or two above the hook to keep it at the desired depth and strike zone.
Tip-ups are generally fished with live shiners, chubs or other minnows. Some fishermen prefer small baits, but those mini morsels seldom live long, even when impaled through the lip. Bass prefer offerings that move, so I generally fish with baits around 2 inches in length, hooking them just below the dorsal fin. They provide better action this way and live much longer.
A handful of the East's best winter bass lakes
- Great East Lake, ME/NH: Great East Lake is located near Acton, Maine, and Wakefield, N.H., and is home to both largemouth and smallmouth bass. The western section in New Hampshire is deep with rocky shorelines and is prime smallmouth habitat, while the eastern end is shallow and good for largemouths. Being a boundary water, special regulations apply, so be sure to check.
- Lake Champlain, VT/NY: The best largemouth water will be on the southern end from about Crown Point, N.Y., to Addison, Vt. Prime smallmouth areas are in the central and northern portions, from just north of Plattsburgh, N.Y. to Colchester, Vt. Ice conditions can vary greatly and some years the lake doesn’t completely freeze over, so check for conditions. Special regulations also apply.
- Marsh Creek Lake, PA: Located in Chester County within the state park of the same name, Marsh Creek Lake is known for lunker largemouth bass. Only bass 15-inches and larger may be kept. Finding weed beds is a key to success. Good places to start are the Park Cove area and off Little Conestoga Road, but don’t hesitate to explore. March Creek Lake does not always freeze over, and ice conditions can be treacherous, so caution is advised.
- Rogers Lake, CT: Covering just 260 acres in Lyme and Old Lyme, Rogers Lake produces some nice-sized largemouth bass, and the action can be steady when the bite is on. The lake is shaped like an upside-down boot, and some of the best fishing action is near the shoals separating the two basins, near the dam on the south end and around the numerous humps in the north basin.
Note: This article was featured in the East edition of the February 2022 Game & Fish Magazine. Learn how to subscribe.