December 02, 2019
By Dr. Jason Halfen
Signs ofwinter’s arrival are everywhere. Once busy boat lifts are now empty. Fields of shrink-wrapped watercraft sprout behind marine dealers like crops breaking through soil in the spring. Cold fronts bearing wind, rain, sleet and snow roll down across the plains, increasing the angler misery index and causing many to abandon rod and reel for bow or rifle. Water temperatures are plunging, and in the northland, some intrepid explorers may be cautiously treading on frozen water pursuing first-ice action.
Short days and cold water dramatically affect fish locations and attitudes, and Midwestern bass are no exception. In lakes and reservoirs, weedy cover in the shallows is dying or dead, pushing fish to breaklines and adjacent deep water. In rivers, high flows from cold fall rains concentrate fish in areas with reduced current and some measure of thermal stability, frequently into holes. So, whether the water is moving or still, deep is often the key for winter bassin’.
Although bite windows are generally smaller, winter bass remain catchable for one simple reason: They still gotta eat. And as the water cools, there’s less forage available to them. Indeed, summer’s abundant yearling panfish and shad have either been consumed or grown to where they’re no longer an easy meal.
Yet, bass need a steady stream of calories to not only maintain overall health and body condition but also to develop reproductive tissues in preparation for the spring breeding season. Yes, some of those fat winter bass are not only well fed but also carry eggs that will be deposited as winter fades to spring. Because bass still must eat, we can catch them—regardless of any snow covering the boat’s front deck.
Let’s consider some proven techniques for river smallmouth and reservoir largemouth during early winter.
River smallmouth are notoriously migratory as fall slides into winter. Current-loving fish once scattered over shallow gravel flats in August are on the move—often traveling miles rather than yards—for suitable wintering locations. Indeed, a year-long telemetry study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found that Mississippi River smallies made distinct fall movements of up to 27 kilometers—17 miles—to reach suitable wintering habitat.
Where should you look for river smallies in the early winter? Start by searching for areas with minimal current. These could be long, slow outside bends in a small river or prominent holes adjacent to current-deflecting objects like rocks, jetties or wingdams in a large river.
Those fat brown footballs love current in the summer but tend to avoid it in winter, and for good reason: Fighting the flow burns calories. Remember, food is harder to come by in winter, and smallies need to invest those calories to support the development of their reproductive tissues. As a result, still or very slow water is the first thing to locate.
Another key attribute for winter smallmouth is depth. Frequently, a current-deflecting piece of structure—either natural or man made—will have a deeper area just downstream, where the swirling current has excavated an area of the substrate. Such depressions are top-line targets for the winter smallmouth angler.
Confluences, regions where two rivers or streams merge into one, are also premium winter smallie locations. Here, turbulent mixing of formerly independent flows can create an area substantially deeper than the surroundings. Confluence areas are typically larger than the small depressions associated with current-deflecting cover and will hold substantially more fish, many dozens or hundreds, rather than singles and pairs. Moreover, confluence fish will stick around all winter, remaining in the same area until the first significant push of warm, fast water in the spring.
Now that we’ve found them, let’s talk about how to catch them: Suspending jerkbaits are a classic approach. A 4-inch Rapala X-Rap or Husky Jerk is a good start. I present jerkbaits with baitcasting gear and appreciate the forgiving nature of St. Croix’s Mojo Bass Glass fiberglass casting rods to ensure hooked smallies remain pinned until they come to hand. Spool up with 12- to 15-pound-test fluorocarbon, like Seaguar InvizX, to provide abrasion resistance when fishing around downed trees and rocks.
Rather than an aggressive, twitching presentation that I might offer in warm water, my winter jerkbait routine is much more subtle: I crank the lure down to depth with a few turns of the reel handle and then stop, providing a long, strike-provoking delay. When you think you’ve waited long enough, wait a little longer, then repeat the sequence until it’s time to cast again. Winter river smallies will typically not provide their airborne displays characteristic of summer fish, but their tenacious, bulldog-like fight and extraordinarily dark bars and colors provide more than ample inspiration for winter smallmouth anglers.
As fall transitions to winter in reservoirs across the Midwest, largemouth vacate shallow bays and flats and become closely associated with distinct breaklines with direct access to deep water. Mike Delvisco, a Tennessee-based professional bass angler, starts hunting early winter bass in such locations once water temperatures fall to 50 degrees.
Delvisco offers that, “a good paper map will help you find these breaklines, but in reality, an accurate digital map card for your boat’s sonar/GPS unit is a necessity. These drop-offs can be on points or ledges, but I prefer ones that are in close proximity to the main channel. Sharper drops allow bass to travel up and down the water column over a much shorter distance to feed, as opposed to a longer tapering drop where the bass has to travel further. I will also target isolated rock piles, underwater points and even depressions, although these play a larger role as we get into the middle of winter. In general terms, at this time of year, my key depth zone will be 15 to 25 feet.”
Early winter bass collected along steep breaklines can be targeted with finesse techniques, but presentations provoking reaction strikes are often more productive and definitely more fun. Think heavy metal: not the loud, angry noise a rebellious teenager might blast from their favorite device, but rather spoons and blade baits. Fished vertically or with a jigging retrieve after a long cast, metal baits and early winter bass pair nicely.
Some of Delvisco’s preferred early winter lures are the SteelShad family of blade baits. He suggests that, “the SteelShad has a lot of vibration on the way up, but it also has a distinct wobble on the way down. It’s definitely one of the things that sets this bait apart from other blade baits.” Naturally, color choice relies heavily on water clarity, but silver and shad patterns are good places to start.
Just as you would when targeting winter river smallies, gear up with a baitcasting combo and fluorocarbon line. Delvisco uses a 7-foot, medium-action Duckett Fishing Micro Magic Pro rod and Sufix Advance fluorocarbon in 14-pound test, a combination that, “helps me make long casts, stay in contact with the bait and keep the fish buttoned up in deep water.”
Delvisco’s blade bait presentation is simple yet refined: “I cast the SteelShad out and let it hit the bottom,” he said. “Using the rod tip, I rip the bait up off the bottom several inches, and then follow it with my rod tip as it falls back to the bottom. Then, I wind up that little bit of slack line and repeat. My rod positioning from start to finish is from the 9 to 12 o’clock positions.”
Expect bites as the lure falls to the bottom, or when the bait first contacts the substrate.
Blade baits can be irresistible to early winter largemouth in reservoirs. Tie one up and give it a rip when you pursue the late-season bass bite.