Wintertime largemouth bass fishing: a brief history

Rick Hebenstreit of Shawnee, Kansas, with one of the 118 largemouth bass that we caught on Feb. 9, 2012, in three to five feet of water around submerged patches of curly-leaf pondweed in the back of a feeder-creek arm.

A few days after we posted one of our December logs on the Finesse News Network, a reader asked us how and when we discovered that largemouth bass could be found and caught around submerged vegetation, such as coontail, Eurasian milfoil, and curly-leaf pondweed, on shallow mud flats when the surface temperature was as cold as 39 degrees. We responded to this angler by saying that we would write about it as the winter of 2014-15 unfolds.

What follow is a brief history of this delightful Midwest finesse tactic:


Much of what I do as an angler is rooted in what I learned from being around the Hibdon clan at the Lake of the Ozarks in the late 1950s and 1960s. That clan of extremely talented anglers was comprised of the late Guido Hibdon Sr. (who we called Big Gete), the late Teen Hibdon, the late Gail Hibdon, and Guido Hibdon Jr. (who we called Little Gete back in those days), and to this day Little Gete says that his father, Big Gete, is the finest angler that he has ever known. What's more, his brother Gail's piscatorial talents often paralleled those of his father.


Nowadays, Little Gete is called Guido Hibdon of Sunrise Beach, Missouri, and he and his son Dion, who resides in Versailles, Missouri, are hall-of-fame anglers. And when I accompanied Dion, Guido, and Stella Hibdon at the Kansas City Boat and Sport Show on Jan. 24, Guido and I occasionally reminisced about how we used to fish back in what we now fondly called the good old days. One of our recollections focused on the winter of 1967-68, when Guido showed me how and where to catch white crappie during the winter around the patches of Eurasian milfoil that graced many of the shallow-water flats in the Gravois Arm of the Lake of the Ozarks.

My baptism to this phenomenon occurred on Feb. 2, 1968, when I was helping Guido, Dusty Ensley of Kansas City, and the late Harold Ensley of Kansas City create one of the Ensleys' weekly television shows, which was called "The Sportsman's Friend."

On the morning of Feb. 2, 1968, Guido took us up Indian Creek in the Gravios Arm to a shallow gravel cove on the south side of the creek. This cove lies about 14 miles upstream from Bagnell Dam. A thin sheet of ice covered much of the cove, which Guido and I destroyed by cutting it to smithereens with our aluminum boats and tiller-steering outboard motors. It took us about 15 minutes to remove all of the ice, and once it was removed, we anchored the two boats adjacent to one another so that the Enlseys' motion-picture camera could capture the goings on in both boats. The five of us wielded 5 1/2-foot spinning outfits that were spooled with six-pound-test monofilament line. To each outfit, we affixed a small bobber and a 1/16-ounce chenille-body-and-marabou-tail jig. The jig was situated from 2 1/2 to three feet below the bobber. We made 20- to 35-foot casts with the bobber and jig and slowly retrieved this combo across the top of the milfoil. At times, we would pause the retrieve for a spell, and nowadays most anglers call the pause the deadstick motif, but back in those days, we merely called it a stop or a pause. And to our mutual delight, all of us caught scores of crappie, and the Enselys got a bounty of footage for their television show.

After that introduction, we gradually discovered in 1968, 1969, and 1970 that some of the Gravois Arm's largemouth bass and white bass could be caught around shallow patches of milfoil, too.

Until Guido and I were reminiscing on Jan. 24, I didn't know how Guido originally discovered this phenomenon. He told me that his brother Gail was the one who discovered it. And it happened on a winter night when Gail was gigging buffalo, carp, and suckers. While he was searching some shallow-water areas for buffalo, carp, and suckers to gig, he spotted some crappie milling about in a milfoil patch. Then during the next day, Gail Hibdon jumped into his boat with his crappie tackle and went to the patch of milfoil where he spied the crappie milling about, and he caught an impressive array of them.

From that time until the milfoil disappeared at the Lake of the Ozarks in the early 1970s, it yielded untold numbers of fish throughout a calendar year. According to Guido, herbicides and significant water level drawdowns in the winter eventually eradicated the milfoil. And since its disappearance, rarely does a day go by when he is afloat on the Lake of the Ozarks that he doesn't wish that there were some patches of milfoil to dissect and extract a bevy of crappie or largemouth bass from.

When we moved from central Missouri to northeastern Kansas in 1970, we searched almost in vain for submerged vegetation in northeastern Kansas' flatland reservoirs. At some waterways, there were a lot of American water willows, as well as some patches of cattails and American pondweeds. American water willows and cattails are emergent species. The American pondweed is part emergent and part submergent, but it disappears in the winter. We occasionally found some patches of bushy pondweed when the water was warm, but it disappeared in the winter. Not until after the turn of the millennium did submerged vegetation, such as coontail, curly-leaf pondweed, and Eurasian milfoil, begin to flourish in several of the small flatland reservoirs that we regularly fished. And as the submerged aquatic vegetation flourished, the numbers of largemouth bass that we caught increased. But it wasn't until the winter of 2005-06 that we began to seriously fish it when the water temperature hovered around 39 to 41 degrees, and ever since then, fishing submerged vegetation has been one of our wintertime mainstays, as it was for the Hibdons at the Lake of the Ozarks in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This winter Jeremy Smith and James Lindner, both of Baxter, Minnesota, and Lindner Media, added a short video about wintertime largemouth bass fishing to Lindner's Angling Edge Facebook site. In our eyes, this 2:48 minute video was extremely captivating, and in many ways, it opened our eyes the same way Guido Hibdon opened them on Feb. 2, 1968.

Even though, Smith and Lindner are ice fishing in this video, it has some parallels to the way we find and locate wintertime largemouth bass in northeastern Kansas. It focuses on finding and catching largemouth bass under the ice around patches of submerged vegetation at some of the natural lakes that adorn the Heartland region of Minnesota.

After watching their video a half of a dozen times, we telephoned Smith and Lindner and asked them a number of questions. They responded by saying that the bulk of largemouth bass that they have caught have been abiding in five to 12 feet of water. Day in, day out, the most productive patches of submerged vegetation are graced with broadleaf cabbage, and it seems to be essential that the stems or stalks of the cabbage plants are vertical and the tips of the stalks are pointing up towards the ice. In other words, if the cabbage plants are wilted and bent so that their stems or stalks are horizontal to the bottom of the lake, these patches rarely yields a largemouth bass. Besides vertical patches of broadleaf cabbage, Smith says he has caught them under the ice around healthy patches of coontail and milfoil, and the stems on these species need to be vertical, too.

Rich Eckholm of Baxter, Minnesota, who is one of Smith's colleagues at Lindner Media, caught some extremely shallow-water largemouth bass while ice fishing this winter in extremely shallow. These largemouth bass were inhabiting an area adjacent to a patch of wild rice, which is an emergent vegetation, and in Eckholm and Smith's eyes, this was a startling revelation.

Across the years, Smith and Lindner have inadvertently caught an occasional largemouth bass while ice fishing for other species. And they caught them at a variety of depths — even as deep as in the basin areas when they were ice fishing for bluegill, but they never seriously pursued them until recently.

Even though Smith has spent more time focusing on how, when, and where to catch largemouth bass than he had previously done, he says he is just in the rudimentary stages of understanding the behavior of the wintertime largemouth bass and developing a precise method for catching them.

But he has discovered that during the winter in the Heartland region of Minnesota that a significant number of the largemouth bass inhabit shallower lairs than they do in the days before the ice covers the lakes. For instance, one of the largemouth bass that Smith caught in the Facebook video was milling about just a few inches under the ice, and Smith says it is not unusual to catch a bass a goodly distance above the tip tops of the submerged vegetation.

During those days immediately before the ice forms, Smith says it is not unusual to catch largemouth bass by wielding power tactics, but once the ice forms, Smith and Lindner have had to employ super finesse tackle. In fact, Smith and Lindner catch most of their largemouth bass on 1/16-ounce hair jigs, and at times, Lindner affixes a Trigger X Mustache Worm as a trailer on a hair jig. What's more, the strikes are so subtle that that they are extremely difficult to detect, and in fact, Smith attaches a spring bobber to the tip of his rod in order to detect a strike. Yet, there are spells when the largemouth bass are brazen enough to attack and even attempt to engulf the underwater camera that Smith and Lindner use when they are creating a video, and when Eckholm caught the largemouth bass in the extremely shallow water adjacent to the patch of wild rice, he was using a spoon.

Not only are the largemouth bass brazen at times, Smith says they seem to roam a lot, and roaming it in what appears in Smith's eyes to be a circular motif.

Back in 2011, Gord Pyzer, who is an In-Fisherman field editor from Kenora, Ontario, told us a story that corresponds to what we learned from Guido Hibdon 48 years ago at the Lake of the Ozarks, and what Jeremy Smith and James Lindner are experiencing in Minnesota, and what Midwest finesse anglers have been finding in northeastern Kansas since the winter of 2005-06. Pyzer said that most anglers think that largemouth bass move to deep water and hibernate when ice covers a lake. But Barry Corbett, who is the fisheries biologist at the Lake of the Woods, tracked several three- and four- pound largemouth for several seasons, following them even under the ice in the winter, and he found that they rarely migrated to deep water. In fact, he has found them inhabiting water as shallow as two and three feet under the ice. Furthermore, Corbett discovered that these bass moved around a lot, noting that they are much more active than most folks thought they would be, and Corbett postulated that these bass made these radical moves in order to feed.

In sum, this is what we have learned about the habits of wintertime largemouth bass during the past 48 years that we have fished for them. Here's hoping that Jeremy Smith's ice-fishing endeavors and underwater explorations with a video camera will open our eyes even more in the winters to come.

These are two of the three species of submerged vegetation that we fish in northeastern Kansas during the winter. The one on the left is Eurasian milfoil. The one on the right is curly-leaf pondweed. The third species, which is not in the photograph, is coontail, and a photograph of it is below the endnotes.

Endnotes

(1) Here is a link to Lindner and Smith's Jan. 9 Facebook entry: https://www.facebook.com/LindnersAnglingEdge.

(2) Here is a link to a Midwest finesse column that focuses on catching wintertime largemouth bass on shallow mud flats and submerged aquatic vegetation in northeastern Kansas: http://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/wintertime-strolling-shallow-water-largemouth-bass/.

(3) To attain more insights about how Midwest finesse anglers catch cold-water largemouth bass, please examine the Dec. 9, 12, 16, and 20 logs at this link: http://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/midwest-finesse-fishing-december-2014/, and for some insights about our most fruitless wintertime outing, examine our Dec. 29, 2014 log.To read about one of our most fruitful winter outings, please read our Feb. 9, 2012 log at http://www.in-fisherman.com/midwest-finesse/an-addendum-to-the-month-by-month-guide-to-midwest-finesse-part-2/. For a few insights about two humdrum ice-off outings, please read the Jan. 28 and 30 logs at this link: http://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/midwest-finesse-fishing-january-2015/.

(4) James Lindner says that smallmouth bass can be caught during the winter in the natural lakes of Minnesota, but most of the time the smallmouth bass are more tentative and unresponsive than the largemouth bass.  What's more, they reside in deep-water lairs. Thus, when an angler extracts them from those deep-water lairs, those smallmouth bass are afflicted with the adverse effects that barotrauma renders. Therefore, he and Smith do not pursue them, and they recommend that other anglers do the same.

(5) Back in the late 1960s, Guido Hibdon's brothers, Gail and Teen, accidentally gigged and killed the biggest largemouth bass that Guido has ever seen at the Lake of the Ozarks, and Guido seen a 10-pounder.  This humongous bass was gigged during one of their nighttime buffalo-carp-and-sucker forays around  milfoil patches.

This is a sample of winter-worn coontail that Rick Hebenstreit of Shawnee, Kansas, and I found while we were fishing at a 100-acre community reservoir on Feb. 10, 2015. When we extracted the coontail from the water, it was coated with filamentous algae, and some of that algae can be seen in this photograph. Filamentous algae often clings to jigs and hooks when anglers probe patches of coontail, which can be a bothersome ordeal. On our Feb. 10, 2015, outing,  one of the largemouth bass that we caught was  defecating some coontial, which was a phenomenon that we had never witnessed before.

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