December 28, 2022
By Ken Duke
When is your very best chance to catch the bass of a lifetime? Well, if you’re fortunate enough to fish in the Deep South, the answer is right now. The lunker stars are aligning, and good things are happening if your goal is a giant bass.
So why is now so good? Just think about it. While your sights are set on an honest-to-goodness big 'un, much of the rest of the fishing world is distracted.
They're prepping for or recovering from the holidays, they're climbing trees in search of deer, they're relaxing on the recliner with the TV remote in hand or they're not willing to brave the chilly weather. No matter their distraction, it's all working to your advantage. The anglers you're usually competing with for the best bass spots are nowhere near the water, and that's great.
Then there are the bass themselves. It's not time for them to spawn, but the biggest of the species are often the earliest to shake off the winter doldrums in advance of spring and the mating season.
The biggest of the bass clan are the most likely to be the first to the shallows, the first to start feeding up for the spawn and the first to find their way to staging areas just off the bays and nooks they'll use for nesting in a month or two or even three.
1. BE THERE
There's little substitute for time on the water. That's true all year long, not just in winter. The more you're out there, the better your chances for finding and catching the bass of a lifetime. But if your time is limited—like the rest of us—you can put the odds in your favor by keeping your fishing hours flexible.
Is there a warm front coming through after weeks of really cold weather? Get out there. Did a cold front just pass after lots of unseasonably warm weather? Stay home.
If you're a believer in solunar or other fishing tables, take a look at those and choose the best days. The only certainty is that you can't catch bass if you're not on the water, and even a bitterly cold post-frontal day is better than no fishing at all.
But whether you're lucky enough to choose your fishing days or your fishing days are essentially chosen for you, try to get out on consecutive days whenever possible.
Why? Because accumulated time on the water reveals things to the alert angler, and a lull in feeding has to come to an end sometime. A cold front—no matter how severe—won’t shut down feeding forever, and you want to be the angler on the water when the bass get busy eating again.
2. KEEP IT SIMPLE
December and January are not April and May. In April and May, you might be hard-pressed to pick a lure that won't catch fish. During the coldest part of the year, though, you'd be wise to narrow your selection of lures and locations. When it comes to lures, take a look at the water temperature of your favorite lake or river.
The colder it is, the more your choices are restricted. If the water's in the 30s and low 40s, stick to jigs, jigging spoons, drop-shot rigs, shaky heads and things that can be fished extremely slowly. In waters that are a little warmer, you can add swimbaits, jerkbaits and horizontal lures than can be fished a little faster. If things are really warm, lure selection can run the gamut, but generally focus on baits that are larger than average for two reasons.
First, most forage in the bass’ world is fully grown by winter. There are no immature baitfish or tiny crawfish. Second, we’re targeting big bass now. They eat more often than other bass, and they can eat bigger things than other bass. The best way to tempt them is by making it worth their while. A larger meal does that.
3. CREEP IT
Being cold-blooded, bass tend to be relatively lethargic in winter, so slower is generally better. They're not likely to chase down fast-moving prey like they might in May or June, and they're not likely to be triggered into a reaction strike as the result of a fast retrieve. Instead, make it easy on them by keeping your baits moving slowly—especially when it's really chilly.
When it comes to locations, think clear water, think vertical and think spawn. Nothing shuts bass fishing down quite like cold, muddy water. If you visit your favorite fishery and find that the water temperature is in the 40s with visibility measured in inches rather than feet, go home. Wait for the weather to warm or the water to clear—preferably both.
Vertical structure and cover is ideal for cold-weather bassin’ since it allows lethargic fish to move up and down in the water column as conditions change without having to move far horizontally. Bluff banks, ledges, standing timber, even deep boat docks all excel now.
Even though the bass are not yet ready to spawn, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it. Spawning is the most significant event on the bass’ calendar, so stay close to those areas where you’ve seen beds before. Now turn your back to the spawning area and look to the first drop-off, channel or deep point near prime bedding spots. It’s a good bet that big winter bass will be there.
4. DRESS FOR SUCCESS
While it seems rudimentary, to catch big bass when it’s crazy cold you’ve got to be comfortable. Being comfortable means you fish better. Everyone knows that layering is the key to staying warm and comfortable in cold weather, but not everyone has a clear idea about how the layers should work. Here’s your guide.
- BASE LAYER: The base layer is next to your body. It’s there to keep you dry by wicking moisture away from the skin. A base layer is essential not just for staying warm in cold conditions, but also for staying cool on hot days when wearing breathable waterproof outer garments. The best base layers are made from synthetic fibers, merino wool or a blend of both. Never wash polyester or any base layer in fabric softener, as the fibers will become contaminated and restrict wicking. And never wear cotton clothing on the water in winter. Cotton can absorb moisture and suck the heat out of your body. Ideal base layer fabrics will be smooth on the inside (for optimal contact with the skin) with a three-dimensional weave on top (for greater surface area). When the moisture is wicked to the surface of the material, it dissipates, allowing it to move away from the skin faster. The fabric should also be antimicrobial to resist odor. Wicking and antimicrobial qualities will wash out over time. Get a new base layer every year if you fish a lot.
- MID LAYER: The mid layer is there to trap dry, warm air close to the body. Mid layers are typically fleece or lofted garments, like those that feature down or a synthetic fill. If you’re still cold, trap more air by wearing more fleece. The mid-layer must be highly breathable to allow moisture to pass through. Having moisture trapped next to your body is no good when it’s cold. Wear a good quality pair of wool socks to keep feet warm, and don’t lace your shoes or boots extremely tight.
- OUTER LAYER: Finally, the outer layer must be waterproof and breathable. A jacket and bibs provide real protection against the elements. To keep moisture out, the jacket should include a hood and protective collar system, a protective flap over the front zipper and adjustable inner cuffs. When it comes to jacket fit, be sure to leave some room for bibs and a mid-layer. Few things in winter fishing are more frustrating than a long day in a suit that restricts movement.
The technology and comfort behind quality cold-weather clothing isn't cheap. But the expense will pay dividends with more time on the water and more big bass in the boat.
Note: This article, originally published this past January, has been updated.