January 13, 2024
Despite the fact it was Christmas morning, I could not help but notice the day was unseasonably mild. With the holiday obligations out of the way, and armed with the knowledge that the local lakes were ice-free, it seemed my duty to discover what the day could produce.
An hour later I was easing the boat along the edge of a rocky drop-off. The chartplotter screen showed clouds of baitfish in the 25- to 30-foot zone—a good sign. A light breeze rippled the surface. Not surprisingly, I had the lake to myself.
Keeping in mind the location of the bait balls, I lowered a 1/2-ounce blade bait to the bottom. Once it touched, I regained a few inches of line with the reel and gave the bait a sharp, upward snap before lowering it back down. Lather, rinse and repeat. After a half-dozen such pumps, the rod loaded up with the weight of a heavy fish. A couple minutes later, a 4-pound smallmouth was in the net. After texting a buddy a celebratory selfie (along with holiday greetings), I proceeded to catch another four such specimens before calling it a day.
While this experience was a good one, it was not exceptional. Winter bass, in both lakes and rivers, are certainly catchable. And blade baits, those compact, tightly vibrating metal lures, are one of the most reliable means to do so.
Fishing a blade bait in the frigid waters of early winter is a specific method that favors a particular rod/reel/line combination. I prefer a shorter spinning rod, such as St. Croix’s 6-foot-3-inch Eyecon with medium power and an extra-fast action. This is paired with a 1000-size spinning reel spooled with 10-pound-test Sufix 832 braided line. A 6-inch to 1-foot section of 10-pound-test fluorocarbon serves as a leader and is joined to the braid with a quality swivel. The terminal end is finished with a snap like VMC’s crankbait snap, size 0 or 00. (Never tie your line directly to a blade bait; the metal will cut the line.)
This combination is light, which is a plus since it can be tiresome working a blade bait for hours. The thin-diameter line allows the blade to quickly sink to the bottom. It’s sensitive enough that you’ll know if your lure has dredged up some bottom litter, dampening its action.
Blade baits excel in catching both smallmouth and largemouth bass from cold water. Which one you catch is largely a matter of the lake’s population dynamics and the type of cover you are fishing. Zero-in around deep wood and it will likely be green bass. Work rocky ledges and odds are the bass will be of the bronze variety.
Whatever type of water you are fishing, it’s important to understand that blade baits are not a great cover-the-water lure, at least not in this application. Here, you are putting the bait in front of the nose of lethargic (yet catchable) fish. You’re hoping the repetitive jigging of the bait will provoke a reaction bite. Hence, it’s desirable to fish areas where you know or suspect bass are present. This includes marking baitfish and/or gamefish on sonar, as well as working high-percentage structure and cover.
There’s an art to “pumping blades,” as experienced enthusiasts call it. In the cold water of early winter, it’s often best to fish them vertically, nearly straight under the boat. The jigging motion should be sharp but short, with lengthy pauses between jerks. I keep the upward jigging stroke in the 6-inch to 1-foot range. Again, it should be sharp—a snap, not a lift. Allow the lure to drop on a semi-tight line. Sometimes bass will hit the lure on the fall, and you’ll feel it. More often they will hit the lure during the pause. Think of it in terms of a cold-water hard jerkbait. The twitch gets the fish’s attention; the pause gives it the opportunity to strike. At times, the fish will just “be there” when you go to give the lure another upward snap.
I like to let the lure to touch bottom after every five or so jigging cycles. This confirms that the lure is still near bottom but minimizes excessive bottom contact.
In depths of 15 to 30 feet, which covers most situations, I prefer 1/2-ounce blades in the Silver Buddy style. I assemble my own, using either nickel or brass blades, then powder-coat them to suit my needs. My preference is to use clip-in hooks (treble hooks with one open tine) rather than split rings and conventional trebles. I endure less fouling, where the hook grabs the line while jigging it, with the clip-in hooks.
In clear-water lakes, nickel tends to edge out brass. A touch of white (or luminescent) paint adds some accent. In dingy water, brass gets the nod, with the addition of chartreuse or gold fleck paint. One could argue that bass don’t see much color in 30 feet of water, but experience has shown that certain colors are more productive depending on the scenario, so visibility must come into play.
An exception to the vertical presentation is when working along a steep break line. In situations where you want to work a lengthy section, it can be productive to use the trolling motor to inch along the edge, around .3 mph, trailing a blade bait behind and working it in the same pump-pause cadence.
DOWN BY THE RIVER
Much of what’s been said about lake bass also applies to river bass, which tend to be smallmouths. The same cadence should be applied to the lifts—short and sharp with lengthy pauses. Sometimes I’ll “hang” a blade motionless for half a minute.
When river bass are somewhat active, they’ll move shallow, becoming targets worthy of Ned rigs, tubes, hair jigs and the like. But let’s face it: With water temperatures in the mid to low 30s, they will likely be in nearby wintering holes where they’ll hunker down for the next two to three months. Anything over 10 to 12 feet deep is blade country.
Wintering holes will have current—mild current, but still current. A top tactic is to drift along with the light current, fishing the blade just off bottom. Drifts that put the boat over the deep side of a ledge or drop-off are productive. It’s critical to keep an eye on the sonar so you can adjust for depth changes. Failing to do so will cause you to fish well over the bass when the bottom falls off, and the fish won’t move up to eat the bait. If it gets shallower, you’ll be dredging bottom.
Rivers play host to a variety of gamefish species that tend to collect in these same areas this time of year, and they respond favorably to blade baits. So, depending on what lives in your rivers, don’t be surprised when a walleye, northern pike or musky shows up on the end of your line.
Blade baits of different designs produce various actions. Most of the time I stick with the classic Silver Buddy profile, but I’ve had success with Reef Runner Cicadas, which are built around a willow leaf blade. Acme V-Rod and Rapala Rap-V blades have their fans, too. As is the case in so many fishing situations, it often pays to experiment.