Lake ice is the substance of Alice’s looking glass. Things live on the other side. Punch holes in the looking glass and you can see them. Reduced through distance and layered filters of depth, or magnified by the lens of an underwater camera, active bass can be seen cruising along very slowly one to five feet above bottom. Inactive bass seem excessively torpid, laying on bottom in a trance.
Ice fishing for bass is an elemental game of reduction. Rods shorten by 3 or 4 feet. Line thins down to a wispy thread, and reels shrink deep into the panfish category, all because the lures required often weigh less than 1/32 of an ounce.
Tiny lures take big bass through the ice because reduction is the order of the day. For bass—not truly a northern fish like pike or lake trout—feeding periods are reduced under the ice, because their metabolism slows more than that of a pike or trout in cold water. More closely related to panfish, bass feed more like bluegills within a few weeks after ice up.
Reduced to the smallest common denominator, bass fishing in winter becomes a game of identifying those reduced periods of higher activity, and matching tackle to their reduced intake. Bass beyond the looking glass are all about reduction.
Timing and Location
Smallmouths and largemouths winter in different zones. Even in the same lakes, they tend to hold in different areas with different substrates. Largemouths prefer soft-bottomed, weedy areas and seldom seem to winter much deeper than 30 feet. During milder winters they stay close to healthy, green, deep weed edges. Smallmouths typically winter near hard-bottom points or on isolated rock humps 40 feet down or deeper where they have that option, but often rise shallower when active.
Bass are most active under the ice during periods of warm, stable weather. The more unseasonably warm it gets, the more bass feed. After an “Alberta Clipper” sails through, bringing Arctic winds and weather, bass tend to go comatose in most environments, though exceptions exist. Largemouth bass in river systems can remain active when temperatures drop to single digits, as can smallmouths in lakes of the far north. Conversely, and ironically, smallmouths in river systems seem to remain dormant all winter. In fact, once the water drops below 40°F in the fall, most river smallmouths become very tough to catch.
In stable, fair weather, smallmouths and largemouths both tend to rise up and move to shallower spots to feed. It all depends on the forage profile of a lake, of course. Most are looking for smaller minnows, but they feed opportunistically on smaller items they see. I know this because using cameras, sonar and the naked eye, I’ve watched many hundreds of bass turn to inspect small jigs. And, most of the time, they inhale those tiny offerings. The same jigs they would swim right past in summer without so much as a second glance.
Location is not a simple matter in big lakes, but space restrictions here demand a short explication. Stick to the main lake to find either species. Bays are seldom homes for wintering bass. For largemouths, look for enclosed or isolated basins with a maximum depth of 20 to 30 feet, and then find the last remaining stands of thick, healthy weeds around the rim of that basin. Bass often relate to the deep edge or those weeds when active, and are more likely to be deeper, beyond that edge, than shallower. The best fishing often occurs on flats somewhere between 10 and 25 feet.
For smallmouths, look for isolated rock piles, reefs and main-lake points intersecting the edge of the lake’s main basin. In warm stable weather, smallmouths often rise up on these structures and feed in depths of 10 to 25 feet, just like largemouths. The difference is, the structures are rocky and tend to be more vertical. And these are generalities, of course. In some lakes smallmouths can be caught on flats in depths of 6 to 8 feet all winter, and largemouths often move quite shallow just before the ice breaks up.
Lake type, depth profile and micro seasons within the overall ice-fishing season play huge roles in determining location from one week to the next. One thing seems universal, however: Active bass under the ice cruise along very slowly about 1 to 5 feet off bottom when hunting for food, casting off their image as “ambush feeders” always lurking behind weeds or boulders.
Ice Bass Tactics
The best equipment for bass is precisely the best equipment for panfish through the ice, with a bit longer rod. A tiny reel with a good drag (I like the Shimano Stradic 1000) is a must.
Insects, like aquatic worms and mayfly nymphs, schools of relatively small minnows and sometimes larger fare can attract bass in winter, but the time it takes to digest larger items increases for bass in cold water. It is possible to catch bass quite consistently on jigs weighing 1/64-ounce or less through the ice. In fact, the hottest bites I’ve seen or been a part of (upwards of 60 bass on the ice in a day) always happen with tiny jigs tipped with maggots, wax worms or tiny plastics.
Bass often prefer baits that circle or glide off center on the drop. A small flat-sided jig like the old Comet Shiner or Northland Forage Fry, a panfish tube with the jig inserted, the Apex Mini Jig-A-Low and several other heads on the market perform nicely. Bass approach a panfish jig quite closely and stare at it for some time, and they soon leave if the jig doesn’t move in ways that hold their interest. It’s unnerving at times.
One effective method is an 8- or 9-inch lift-drop. Pop the jig up 8 inches and let it fall, stopping it right where it started. Pause 4 or 5 seconds and repeat. A bass may watch this tableau for one lift-drop or 30, but as long as she keeps staring, keep repeating the process until the rod doubles into an arch. If the bass begins to move away, drop the jig right to bottom. If bass keep losing interest in this (which seems rare among active bass), try slowly twitching the lure up to 8 inches above them and letting it drop. If that fails, don’t let the jig drop—lower it very, very slowly back down, pause it, then tap the rod blank 3 or 4 times.
When those tactics fail, it’s often because bass are tentative and it’s time to let livebait do the talking. Several maggots (3 to 5) on a Lindy Fat Boy provide plenty of triggering motion all by themselves. But even with maggots or wax worms, it’s best to keep the jig vibrating softly much of the time while slowly lifting and lowering the jig. This method tends to work best with smallmouths.
The key is to keep doing whatever it is that brought the bass over to the bait. It seems rare for bass—especially big bass—to just race over and plow into these tiny baits. They sometimes rip it on the first lift-drop, but if they approach and stare for long periods, keep doing what you’re doing until they bite it or begin to turn away.
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These tiny jigs are best served up on 2-pound test line, which seems ludicrous at first, but bass are sufficiently slowed and weeds have died back in water temperatures ranging from 34°F to 39°F making it possible to land 6-pound bass with 2-pound line. And that’s where the longer rod comes in. It has to be light enough to protect 2-pound test, but long enough to absorb some shock. Thorne Brothers makes one great rod, the new 32-inch Panfish Sweetheart. Big bass double this rod up and run off 30 to 50 feet of line sometimes before you can turn them, but they seldom snap the line. The big problem is setting hooks. The gaps on most hooks that match 2-pound line are too small to bite anything, and usually just grapple onto the teeth or lip of a bass. Amazingly enough, the longer rod won’t allow bass to relieve tension on the line enough for the jig to fall off their face until you put a lip lock on them in the hole.
Sometimes bass are going on slightly larger fare that matches better with 4-pound line. A 1/32-ounce Gamakatsu leadhead has the right hook, for a small jig, and it penetrates bone on 4-pound. Coupled with a small 3-inch plastic worm or soft-stick bait, it’s the right tool when bigger is better. Small size #2 to size #3 Jigging Rapalas perform well at times, but generally require an upgrade in trebles. Try going two sizes bigger with the replacement treble.
I’ve noticed over the years, however, that the bigger the bait becomes, the fewer bass I catch. Big numbers come on tiny, tiny baits, with no corresponding rise in the average size of the fish when using larger baits. So I now experiment with larger baits only during the hottest bites. At times, a crappie-sized shiner on a size #6 Custom Jigs & Spins Rat Finkee produces more bites, but most days a size #10 Rat Finkee packed with 2 or 3 maggots outperforms the larger version. Play with 3-inch auger-tail grubs and 4-inch finesse worms. Just don’t be surprised when your 10-year old catches more bass with a 1/80-ounce jig under a spring bobber.
Most of my ice-fishing for bass has taken place in Minnesota, Michigan, the Dakotas and Wisconsin near the far northern rim of the natural range of both species. The water is cold and the ice quite thick. In Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and other latitudes where ice prevails, it’s possible to find bass of both species somewhat shallower in winter, biting more often and chasing bigger forage items. But the consensus up here is, bass under the ice become excited by tiny offerings—things they would probably ignore in warm water.
This preference for tidbits continues for several weeks after ice out. I often catch my biggest largemouths of the year with ultralight tackle and 1/64-ounce jigs under a bobber in early spring. And the change is quite dramatic when, a few weeks later, bass begin ignoring those tiny baits altogether. Happens every year. Like Jekyl and Hyde, bass morph into something else in cold water, becoming more like their panfish cousins and less like the rapacious, gluttonous image they’ve developed among anglers over the past few centuries.