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River Bass vs. Lake Bass: How to Catch Them As Winter Nears

As bass prepare for winter, the focus is on food. However, the preferred forage differs between lakes and rivers.

River Bass vs. Lake Bass: How to Catch Them As Winter Nears

The best way to work a blade bait now is with a painfully slow trolling speed. As little as .2 mph will keep a 1/2-ounce bait in the strike zone. (Photo by Jeff Knapp)

Though I hate to be one who wishes his life away, I must admit to a strong annual anticipation of late fall, which is prime time to catch the biggest bass of the year.

Long gone is the spring transition from spawning areas and summer patterns that find fish in a wide variety of niches based on available cover and food. The fall transition, which sees bass on the move from summer areas to zones that offer the food and stability to survive another winter, has also passed.

Stratified lakes and reservoirs have turned over; river water temperatures have dropped into the sub-50-degree range that forces fish into deeper, mild current pools.

With bass easier to locate, the question now becomes "what is the best way to catch them?"

Based on over three decades of plying such waters until ice cover forces me to stop, I suggest a strategy that employs both metal reaction baits, including vibrating blade baits and flutter spoons, as well as finesse plastics, many of which are now categorized as Ned rig offerings.

While each style of bait can excel in both scenarios, I lean more toward metal baits in lakes and finesse plastics in rivers, keeping the other on deck as a backup. Here’s how.


Flutter spoons such as Strike King’s Sexy Spoon and blade baits like the classic Silver Buddy both factor heavily in the late-fall bite on bass lakes. While both are made of metal, that’s where much of the similarity ends regarding how they are fished and why they inspire strikes.

Flutter Spoons: These lures are great for covering water since they can be fished fast. In clear-water environments, bass can see them from a great distance, which expands the strike zone. Their tantalizing, fluttering look invokes a feeding response. By contrast, blades furnish a more precise in-their-face presentation that can trigger a reaction bite from lethargic, cold-water bass. I’ve taken both largemouths and smallmouths on blades on days when I’ve had to motor through acres of crinkle ice to get to my spot.

When fishing post-turnover lakes, I often find bass holding in the 20- to 25-foot range, typically with access to deeper main-lake basins. If there is shallow-water cover toward shore—green weeds or laydowns—it ups the odds that bass will be using the area. But perhaps the biggest factor is baitfish. Baitfish such as shad, shiners and smelt often migrate toward the deeper, warmer areas of a lake come fall; seeing their presence on the sonar screen greatly ups the odds bass will be nearby.

For working flutter spoons, I prefer a casting rod such as St. Croix’s Avid X in the 7-foot range, a medium-power model with either a fast or extra-fast action. This is coupled with a quality baitcasting reel with a fast retrieve ratio. I highly recommend fluorocarbon line such as Gamma Edge when fishing flutter spoons. Fluorocarbon line transmits slackline strikes better than braid or nylon monofilament—a quality that shines considering how this lure is fished.

Using my trolling motor to creep along 20- to 25-foot-deep contours, I make a long cast with the flutter spoon, either out in front of the boat or quartering toward shore. The spoon is allowed to free-fall to the bottom on a slack line, which is when many of the strikes occur.

Absent a strike on the initial fall, the lure is then worked back to the boat with a series of aggressive sweeps that lift the lure off the bottom and then allow it to free fall before momentarily kissing the bottom once more. Some fish will just “be there” and pin the spoon to the bottom.


Blade Baits: When late-fall bass show no interest in flutter spoons, blades are my next choice. I prefer a shorter spinning rod like St. Croix’s 6-foot 3-inch, medium-power, extra-fast-action Eyecon coupled with a 1000-size reel. This lightweight outfit reduces fatigue (it can be tiring pumping blade baits all day). The reel is spooled with 15-pound Sufix 832, a braided line that repels water—a decided plus on days that can dip below freezing. A foot-long, 10-pound-test fluorocarbon leader joined with a swivel and finished with a snap terminates things. Always use a snap, as blade baits will quickly wear through the leader material.

On bass lakes in the fall, I’ve found the most efficient way of presenting a blade bait is to use the boat. Trolling along at .2 mph may seem slow, but the bait is in the strike zone the entire time. With a half-ounce blade, the line will trail out behind the boat at around a 25-degree angle. Sharp, upward snaps of approximately 6 inches cause the bait to jump up and forward while vibrating. It’s then allowed to fall back on a semi-slack line. Pause for a few seconds and repeat. Many strikes will happen on the pause, some on the fall. Other times, you’ll hook the fish on your next upward snap. Occasionally drop the rod tip back to ensure the lure is just off the bottom.

Back-Up Plan: Finesse plastics like Z-Man’s TRD Tubez and Ticklerz can be fished along the bottom using the same boat-control tactics used with blades. And if there’s any remaining submergent weed cover, plastics can be worked along inside and outside edges in a manner we’ll look at closely in the next section.

Winter Bass
Later in fall, river bass congregate in large, deep holes with light current where they will remain until spring. (Photo by Jeff Knapp)


Rivers, which by their flowing nature favor smallmouth bass, are prime waters during late fall. One can reasonably expect to catch river bass until water temperatures dip below 40 degrees, and chances are they will be big bass. Larger, deeper holes with light current can gather fish in huge numbers. These are spots where the fish will spend the winter and where they’ll be to greet you in March.

Finesse Plastics: Whereas metal baits figure prominently on lakes, I reach for finesse plastics first on rivers, especially tubes, worms and grub tails. These are coupled with light lead-head jigs from 1/8 to 1/4 ounce in weight. I’m particularly partial to 3/16-ounce jigs with a mushroom or worm-nose design fashioned on a light-wire hook.

On rivers, my basic strategy is to first target shallow areas, which generally are closer to the bank. Shallow bass tend to be biting bass. Higher flows also push bass closer to the bank, which favors the angler by narrowing down the search.

Rivers are snaggy places, heavily seasoned with rock and imbedded wood. As such, presenting finesse plastics is more of a short game—not one for firing lengthy casts. Casts of 20 to 35 feet where you can maintain control of the jig, slowly working it along the bottom, are in order.

A medium-power, fast- or extra-fast-action spinning rod in the 6 1/2- to 7-foot length, like St. Croix’s 6-foot 8-inch Mojo Bass, coupled with a 2000-size reel, is ideal for working finesse plastics like the Z-Man TRD Tubez and original TRD and the Galidas Grubz (a 4-inch twister-tail grub). The reel is spooled with 15-pound braid and finished with a 3-foot leader of 10-pound-test fluorocarbon joined with an Albright Knot.

The basic presentation—and this goes for working along weed edges on lakes, too—is to make a moderate-length cast to the targeted area, maintaining a tight line as the jig falls. If a strike doesn’t occur during the initial fall, begin dragging/hopping it along with short 1- to 2-foot pulls followed by pauses. Some days bass respond well to shaking the jig during the pause, as you’d do with a shaky-head presentation. Experiment. The same goes with bait profile and color. While I’m partial to the TRD Tubez, I’ve seen days when the bass respond better to the half-a-Senko look of the TRD or a grub. Color-wise, green pumpkin or watermelon seed are seldom poor choices.

Back-Up Plan: Blade baits are an important backup on rivers when bass are inactive and holding in deeper water, such as 10 to 20 feet deep. In this case I’ll fish blades vertically, under the boat, as it drifts slowly in the mild current. Due to its snaggy nature it’s important to maintain good contact with the blade, giving it short, 6-inch to 1-foot upward strokes to activate the lure, but keeping it off the bottom a few inches during the pause. Keep a close eye on the sonar unit to adjust line let-out for fluctuations in depth.

The one-two punch combining heavy metal and finesse plastic options is a great way of targeting fall bass when they are on the feed—as well as not.


In praise of the versatile bucktail jig

It’s interesting that the bucktail jig is enjoying newfound popularity in bass fishing circles. For many of us, it never went out of style.

Hair jigs—typically made of deer hair, but also rabbit and bear hair and synthetics—can be substituted for many of the presentations detailed above. Like finesse plastics, lightweight hair jigs of 3/16 or 1/8 ounce can be offered to river bass holding in mild current areas. Cast them to weed edges for lake-dwelling largemouth and smallmouth bass.

When fishing deeper in a lake, move up to 3/8- or 1/2-ounce bucktail jigs in place of blade baits to show fish an alternate profile. Like plastics, they can be dragged or shaken along the bottom, or they can be snap-jigged more aggressively like a blade bait.

Whether fishing a lake or river in fall, I never go on the water without a hair jig rod on the deck of the boat.

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