February 02, 2021
We've been conditioned to believe the spawning season represents our best shot at the bass of a lifetime, but there are reasons to believe winter could produce the biggest bass you'll ever have on the end of your line.
For starters, there's less fishing pressure now. Plus, bass have been putting on their winter fat in preparation for the spawn, which is just around the corner.
So, what are you waiting for? Use these tips from three of the South's best trophy chasers this winter and go hook into the biggest largemouth of your life.
When a bass-fishing legend says an angler has "the best system for targeting big bass" he's ever seen, you pay attention. That's what Glen Lau, maker of the classic film Bigmouth, told me about Sean Rush.
Rush (floridatrophybass.com) has been a Central Florida bass guide since he was 17 years old, which was about 30 years ago. He and his clients have caught hundreds of largemouths weighing better than 10 pounds. He even has a "no fish-no pay" guarantee that he's never had to honor.
If you're serious about catching big bass—especially big bass in heavy vegetation—Rush believes live golden shiners will far outpace artificials.
"Golden shiners are God's perfect trophy bass bait," says Rush. "They're the right size, relatively easy to get, hearty on the end of a hook and lunkers love 'em."
Rush says shiners hold several advantages over other forms of live bait and top-producing bass lures. "First of all, they're what the bass actually want to eat," he says. "Second, you can put them in places you could never get an artificial. Third, they send out vibrations and other signals to the bass you can't duplicate with a lure. And finally, the shiner can send signals that will tell an angler a lot about the spot he's fishing. No other bait of any kind can do all that."
- BIG BASS FACT: The golden shiner is considered the best big-bass bait by many. It’s hearty on the hook, and capable of being fished in and around thick vegetation. Giant bass can’t resist them.
On a guided trip, Rush starts the day with 8- to 14-dozen shiners ranging from 5 to 10 inches, and rigs them in three different ways.
In open water, he utilizes just a 4/0 Eagle Claw 084 hook and 2-inch Styrofoam float. He runs the hook through the upper back of the baitfish—just aft of the midpoint. The bait will swim near the top and draw attention by struggling near the surface.
His most common rigging method is "free-lining," in which uses the same 4/0 hook but runs it just in front of the anal fin on the underside of the shiner. By keeping the hook point underneath the shiner, he avoids hang-ups when the baitfish swims under a canopy of vegetation.
Finally, there are times when Rush trolls a shiner in order to cover more water. On those occasions he takes the same 4/0 hook and runs it up through the bottom lip of the shiner and out one of the baitfish's nostrils. This will keep it moving straight and looking natural when pulled behind the boat.
Rush's 4 Rules for Catching Giant Winter Bass
- "Use live bait. Artificials place a lot of emphasis on casting, presentation, boat control and other factors that are more likely to scare a big fish away than put one in the boat."
- "Go big. I like 7- to 10-inch shiners for most of my trophy bass fishing."
- "Use heavy gear. A smooth baitcasting reel, heavy-action rod and 20-pound-test monofilament."
- "Slow down. If you feel like you've found a good spot, be patient. Really big bass will often watch a bait and stalk it longer than smaller bass."
GO TO COVER
The Toyota ShareLunker program recognizes anglers who catch bass weighing 13 pounds or more in the state of Texas. Richard McCarty is one of a handful of anglers to have registered three or more qualifying fish. All of his giants came from legendary Lake Fork, but his methods work everywhere there are lunkers and heavy cover. His methods for catching big bass are grounded in the basics.
As an early proponent and practitioner of flipping and pitching, McCarty (903-383-2864) spends most of his lunker-chasing time making short flips and pitches to heavy cover—the kinds of places most anglers never put a lure, but where big bass live.
When asked for his best lunker fishing tip, McCarty has a ready answer. "Gear up for it," he says. "Both physically and mentally."
He prefers medium-heavy-action rods around 7 feet in length. He uses casting reels with high line capacities (0.37/210 yards) and spools them with 30-pound-test Berkley Big Game monofilament.
- BIG BASS FACT: Big jigs with bulky trailers that mimic crayfish represent a favorite food of cold-water bass—especially the big ones.
McCarty's go-to bait is the jig-and-craw, but isn't particular about the color. "I don't believe in colors," he says. "I've never seen it make a difference." So, he sticks with basic hues like black-and-blue or green pumpkin for his jigs and trailers.
If color doesn't matter in McCarty's fishing, what does? "The most important things are location, depth and retrieve speed," he says. "Everything else pales in comparison."
Gearing up mentally is something that requires discipline. "I don't get lackadaisical on the water," McCarty says. "I never fail to re-tie my line when I need to. I know what a big fish can do—how hard it pulls and what kind of stress it can put on your equipment. I have the same mindset with every bite I get—I treat it like a big bass until I find out it isn't."
For McCarty, there's no difference between lunker hunting and bass fishing 101. "You need to have an intense knowledge of the basics to consistently catch big bass," he says. "There are no tricks."
Matt Peters is a Californian by birth, but he's chased lunker largemouths all over the country, including the South. Peters came to Atlanta in 2005 after being transferred by his employer.
"I was excited to see more of the country and fish different types of waters," he says. "I had gotten into throwing big baits and wanted to see how those methods would work outside California."
Peters' swimbaits caught trophy bass wherever he found trout…and many places he didn't. In all, he's caught well over a thousand largemouths weighing better than six pounds on big swimbaits, mostly in Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee and the Carolinas. Those include a 14-pound, 6-ounce giant that swallowed an 8-inch Huddleston Trout in South Carolina—about a pound and a half shy of the state record.
"I like the Hudd when I'm looking for the largest possible fish," he says. "It has an amazing track record of catching the biggest bass that take artificials."
The Huddleston is a soft, sinking swimbait that can be fished throughout the water column. It mimics stocker-sized rainbow trout—usually in the 6- to 10-inch range.
- BIG BASS FACT: Giant swimbaits offer the ultimate in big-bass bait profiles. Throwing one requires resolve, though, as bites can be few and far between.
When casting a lure that weighs several ounces, you have to scale up from traditional bass gear. Peters prefers a 400-size casting reel clamped onto an 8-foot rod designed to handle baits weighing between three and 10 ounces. He spools the reel with 80-pound-test braid. To the end of the braid, he ties 4 to 6 feet of 25- to 30-pound-test monofilament leader. The braid gives him plenty of brute strength for setting the hook, while the leader offers a little "give" and reduced visibility.
Peters' best advice for aspiring lunker hunters is to pay attention to what's happening around your bait.
"When you're fishing big baits, you need to develop 'tunnel vision'," he says. "Wear a good pair of sunglasses and focus on what's going on with your lure. Watch behind it, below it and off to the sides. Look for fish that are following it or reacting to it. Bass are curious creatures. They may follow your bait without ever striking. If you're getting follows or nips at the bait, it might be time to change retrieve, bait color or size."
When asked why anglers mostly fail when targeting the biggest bass on a body of water, Peters has a quick answer. "They compromise. If you're going to use big baits, use truly big baits. A 6-inch swimbait might not be big enough to interest the big fish in your area, especially if they're regularly feeding on 8- or 10-inch baitfish."
For more on Peters' methods, pick up his instructional DVD, "Southern Trout Eaters," at tacklewarehouse.com.
Two fish that prove now is the time to be on the water.
If you need examples of Deep South lunkers that were caught in the depths of winter, look no further than a couple of state records—and the last two certified Southern bass weighing more than 18 pounds.
Barry St. Clair took the Texas record largemouth from Lake Fork on Jan. 24, 1992. The monster weighed 18.18 pounds and struck a minnow in 42 feet of water. Incredibly, St. Clair was targeting crappies that day, and the minnow was impaled on a No. 1 gold Aberdeen hook.
“I thought at first I had a log,” the rancher said at the time.
In December of the same year, the Mississippi largemouth record fell to Anthony Denny at Natchez State Park Lake. It was the last day of the year, and air temperatures were in the 70s. Denny saw a big swirl in the extreme shallows and cast his jerkbait to it. Moments later he set the hook into an 18.15-pound monster that remains the biggest bass in Magnolia State history.