The winter months are a period of relative stability for bass. Water temperatures are at their lowest point of the year, which concentrates forage and bass in deep water where both will linger until spring. Low metabolic rates, a consequence of winter’s cold water, ensure that bass do not feed nearly as aggressively as they do during the warmer months. However, when you put the right bait in front of the right fish at the right time, winter bass success can indeed be yours.
Where to look
We need to refine the word “deep” when describing winter bass location, because not all deep water will hold catchable numbers of bass.
In large reservoirs, fish will pull out of tributaries and coves and congregate in main lake areas. Look to edges of the original river channel, main lake points that extend into 30-40 feet of water, and even steep shoreline breaks. When fishing near-shore areas, focus on regions where the shoreline descends into the water at a 45-degree angle; this will allow you to position your boat over 30-40 feet of water and still reach the shore with a long cast.
The slow metabolism of river bass won’t allow them to fight significant current in cold water, so they will typically be found in areas of very low flow. Look for winter bass in rivers to be concentrated in deep holes, frequently along outside bends or off the tips of wing dams or other current-deflecting structure. Pay close attention to current speed – if your boat is moving downstream faster than 0.5 mph, you’re far more likely to catch walleye and sauger than bass.
Warm water discharges from power plants can be incredibly productive, especially in the northland where most lakes and rivers are capped with ice. When power is being generated, the warm discharge water can energize the local bass population, providing spring-like action even in the dead of winter. The power plant-warmed waters of southern Illinois’ Lake of Egypt, as well as the upper Mississippi River near Monticello Minnesota, each provide exceptional winter bass fishing opportunities.
What to throw
Choosing a presentation for chasing bass in cold, clear water is easier when you appreciate a few simple facts about our targets. As noted above, winter bass are typically found in relatively deep water, where they can be either associated with the bottom or suspended. While they certainly exhibit periods of higher activity, making them more catchable, the general mood of the cold-water bass is neutral to negative. These simple facts of biology mean that we can leave the topwaters, buzzbaits and spinnerbaits at home; rather, winter bass fishing often calls for jerkbaits and jigs.
Jerkbaits serve as the foundation of many cold-water bass trips from fall through spring. Success with jerkbaits is frequently coupled to high water clarity, so if a January rainstorm muddies the water in your target zone, you’ll want to pivot to another presentation option. One key to successful jerkbaiting during the coldest months is a cadence that includes lots of long pauses; a motionless, vulnerable, deep-diving jerkbait often proves irresistible to nearby suspended bass. Make long casts parallel and perpendicular to cover, using a strong, castable fluorocarbon that reduces line visibility in clear water, like 12 lb test Seaguar InvizX.
Jigs are a great way to target winter bass that are associated with cover on or near the bottom. A ½ oz football jig with a relatively compact soft plastic trailer can be cast onto a point or toward the shoreline, and then worked slowly down the drop into deep water. Be sure to trim the jig’s skirt so that it extends just to the bend of the hook; this will reduce the profile of the bait and help to move the point of attack forward, increasing your hooking percentage. A slow, crawling retrieve works best, and is most effective through rocky cover. Fishing a jig in the rocks can be tough on line and cost you fish, so spool up with an abrasion-resistant fluorocarbon line, like 15 lb test Seaguar AbrazX.
When to go
Just as they do in other seasons, winter bass love stable weather. A string of days with consistent air temperatures and light winds will put bass into a feeding mood. Fold in a few sunny days when water temperatures might climb by a couple of degrees, and it’s time to hook up the boat and head to the ramp.
Remember that bass are cold-blooded creatures, with metabolic rates closely coupled to the temperature of the water they inhabit. At this time of the year, just as in the spring, slightly warmer water can make all the difference. This also explains why winter bass often bite the best in the afternoon, when the sun’s rays have had a full day to warm the water. Northern shorelines, protected from winter winds and providing enhanced exposure to the southern sky, are frequently more productive than other areas.
Winter bass patterns will hold until the springtime sun warms the shallows into the low 50s, pulling bass out of their doldrums and toward the shorelines to feed aggressively, and eventually, to build beds and spawn. Until then, while your friends are planning ski trips in the mountains, use these tips to beat the winter bass blues.