Bad weather and strong winds have hampered or ruined many a fishing trip. As anglers pull up to the launch and are greeted by angry water, they may turn and head home. Or the day's forecast may keep them away.
But professional anglers can't wimp out. Tournament schedules are set long in advance, and only the most dangerous conditions cause an event to be canceled. Through it all, many have found that rough waters can lead to fine fishing. Bassmaster Elite Pro Russ Lane, 2014 Bassmaster AOY Greg Hackney, Canadian sharpshooter Chris Johnston, and 2013 Elite Series champ Brandon Palaniuk and aren't among those intimidated by wind.
Spotted Bass Shootout
Bassmaster Elite angler Russ Lane targets spotted bass on the Coosa River Chain near his home in Alabama, as well as other waters across the Southeast and Midwest. He doesn't mind fishing in wind. "In clear water, windy conditions can trigger fish to feed, as it gets the ecosystem moving," Lane says.
During the Prespawn Period, spotted bass relate to the first transition outside spawning flats. Lane relies on a SPRO Fat Papa 55 crankbait in crawfish hues, since its tight wobble suits the sluggish behavior of spots in 40°F to 55°F water. He works it with a stop-and-go retrieve, using a Castaway Skeleton Crankin Rod with a 5:1 gear ratio and 10-pound-test Sunline FC Sniper. When spots hold deeper, he may switch to 8-pound fluoro, since these habitats don't have many snags.
He's found that wind brings spotted bass off the bottom and away from the banks. But if winds become strong enough to create muddy conditions, bass move shallower and closer to cover. In that situation, he works shoreline wood with shallow-running crankbaits.
In reservoirs of the Ozarks, bluff banks and transitions are key locations for spots in spring. Look for areas where the bank is composed of big chunk rock and where the bluff ends and transitions from chunk rock to pea gravel occur. Lane pays attention to the angle of shoreline rock, focusing on areas that change from steep bluffs to flatter banks.
Spotted bass typically spawn in water from 60°F to 68°F, and they move to areas that are protected by big rock, but offer small flat pockets of cobble and gravel 5 to 10 feet deep. The inside corners of pea gravel points with larger rock on the flat also hold fish around spawning time.
On windy days during the spawn, Lane fishes a 1/4-ounce Buckeye Spot Remover and green pumpkin 4-inch Big Bite Baits Trick Stick with the tail dyed chartreuse, employing a slow steady drag. "When spots are bedding, they nip at baits, so it's best to use something small," he says. "You often can't see the bed, since in clear water, they may nest 6 to 7 feet deep, just out of sight. "Work these areas patiently," Lane recommends, "bites may feel like a sunfish nibbling on your lure."
If wind creates a mudline, Lane fishes it along shallow points since spotted bass sometimes hold inside that line, using it as cover. He works spinnerbaits and crankbaits up high, as bass tend to move off bottom in these conditions. And if wind pushes current around a point, he probes any developing current seams there. "I begin by casting into the current and retrieve with it, but then change angles to bring the lure against the flow," he says.
Once summer arrives, spotted bass tend to move offshore. "I look for large rocks and brushpiles, then cast toward them with the wind at my back," he says. "When it's gusty, I often keep the boat pointed into the wind and cast back at an angle with a crankbait or shaky-head jig. You have a better sense of feel and greater casting distance from that position."
Bassmaster 2014 Angler of the Year Greg Hackney studies weather forecasts to anticipate fronts that typically bring windy conditions. "Often you get 2 or 3 warm days, followed by a cold front. That's the day I want to be on the water. During prespawn conditions, bass feed heavily under darker skies and choppy conditions."
When water temperatures range between 45°F and 50°F, his approach on highland reservoirs is to cover water fast, working a Strike King Pro Model Lucky Shad, in shad or perch patterns, along banks exposed to wind. He cranks it slowly with a Quantum KVD Crankbait rod and Quantum EXO 6:1 reel spooled with 10-pound Gamma Edge.
As waters warm toward 60°F, he shifts to shorelines strewn with rock and mud and fishes a crawfish-color Strike King KVD 1.5 square-bill crankbait in windy conditions. He bounces it through cover, letting it pause, then commence diving.
Hackney, a Louisiana resident, is best known for his prowess fishing vegetation for big largemouth bass. In those conditions, though, too much wind can hinder the bite. Although he won the 2014 Bassmaster Elite tourney at Cayuga Lake in New York, it wasn't without drama. On the third day of that event, he was catching bass in vegetation standing in 17 to 18 feet of water and topping out 12 to 15 feet deep. He landed four good fish in the first two hours, but once 3-footers rolled in, his fish disappeared. "I should have run to the opposite end of the lake to get out of the wind," he says. "My area was mid-lake and it was getting the full brunt of strong south winds."
Many anglers bail once their sight fishing deal gets washed out. Hackney stays the course as he's found that strong wind can, at times, make bedding largemouths easier to catch. He fishes a Strike King Pure Poison or Rage Blade in areas he'd previously found beds. He feels the thumping action and vibration help trigger bites in murky water, which also hides the angler from the fish. "You often get defensive strikes," he says. "These bass aren't feeding, but they feel the lure and don't want it around their nest." If bass are bedding in vegetation, he makes long casts and brings the lure slowly through the zone.
When the tours stop at Toledo Bend, Kentucky Lake, Guntersville, or other southeastern reservoirs in early summer, the shad spawn often is in progress, attracting bass to the reproducing baitfish. This pattern can be tenuous, as shad often spawn at first light, then move off, leaving bass to disperse. Hackney has found wind keeps them spawning later into the morning. "Shad, along with blueback herring and alewives, spawn at night for protection. But moderate wind holds them longer after sunrise around the rockwalls and grasslines where they lay eggs."
The Canadian Connection
Chris Johnston has drawn international attention with his 13th place finish at the 2015 Bassmaster Bass Fest on Kentucky Lake in 2015, his numerous top-10 finishes on the FLW Rayovac Northern series, and his dominance on the Canadian scene, teamed with his brother Cory. Johnston believes that his experience under the typical nasty conditions of the Great Lakes gives him an advantage over other anglers.
"In rough water, you have to proceed slowly. It does no good to pound your gear and find things broken when your reach your spot," Johnston says. "You might only be able to run 7 to 10 mph in 8-foot waves since you're basically trying to keep your nose up. I generally hope for a good breeze. It intimidates a lot of guys from fishing the big water because they're not sure if they can control the boat and hold well enough to catch fish."
In spring, he targets big smallmouths in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, where he looks for fish setting up on points leading to spawning bays. And he finds the bite best with a 2- to 3-foot chop blowing in. He figures that wind moves baitfish around and distorts the light, making bass more willing to roam and aggressive.
"In choppy conditions, jerkbaits work well," he says, "as their action is erratic and you don't have to be in constant contact." His favorite is Jackall's Squad Minnow 95 with a pale belly. He fishes it on a G. Loomis GLX CBR 855 rod (7-foot 1-inch), with a Shimano Chronarch Ci4+ spooled with 10- or 12-pound fluoro. He typically jerks it twice with a sweeping motion, before pausing it three seconds and repeating.
When waves exceed 4 feet, he switches to deep patterns. "In rough conditions, bass move tighter to bottom where they're still catchable," Johnston says. He points the bow into the waves with his trolling motor at 100 percent. Upsizing to a 1/2-ounce weight on his drop-shot, he rigs a green pumpkin 3-inch Jackall CrossTail Shad on a G. Loomis NRX Dropshot Rod. His Shimano Sustain 2500 is spooled with red Power Pro, which he finds easier to see in wind. If it's too windy to stand, he watches the Garmin Panoptix unit on his console and fishes from the driver's seat.
Palaniuk's Advice for Windy Waters
Bassmaster Elite pro Brandon Palaniuk proved his smallmouth mettle with his 2012 win on the St. Lawrence River, making 2½-hour runs to Lake Ontario and back in treacherous conditions. When the wind blows 10 to 15 mph during the Prespawn Period, he looks for windblown banks. "During a warming trend in spring, wind-blown banks receive water that's well mixed and typically warmer," he says. "The key is targeting the first break and transition areas where the substrate changes from big chunk rock to gravel.
"Bass want to start to pulling up into shallower water at this time and crankbaits allow me to cover water, testing different retrieve speeds and stop-and-go cadences. They're overlooked lures for bass still sluggish in cold spring conditions. I've caught fish on crankbaits in the low-40°F range." He favors a Storm Wiggle Wart, Storm Arashi Deep, or Storm Arashi Flat Shad on an Abu Garcia Ike Delay Series 7-foot 3-inch medium-power rod and Abu Garcia Revo Winch.
If bass don't respond to crankbaits, he tries his confidence bait, a Rapala Shadow Rap jerkbait, fishing it on a medium-light Abu Garcia Fantasista Regista and MGXtreme baitcaster. While Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon is his usual choice, he switches to 10-pound Berkley XL mono if he's working the jerkbait with long pauses because fluoro sinks below the bait, hindering its action.
An advancing mudline can be the bane of springtime anglers. Palaniuk has found, however, that smallmouths usually don't move far when their world is shaded. "Often there's a layer of silt near the surface and not all the way to the bottom as it appears," he says. "It's still clear underneath. Bass often hold if the mudline hasn't been present too long."
This Idaho pro is known for his prowess with a drop-shot rig. He says he typically uses a 3/8-ounce weight when it's choppy, 1/2-ounce when waves increase further. "Drop-shots work well in deep rough water because you have more precision in presentation than with other lures or rigs," he says. "The sinker stabilizes the bait in the strike zone so it doesn't jump around unnaturally. Always leave slack between the rod and weight in wavy conditions." On the slack line, he may shake the lure a bit, then hold it still, creating a bit of quivering action. For drop-shotting, he uses a 6-foot 10-inch medium-light Abu Garcia Fantasista Regista and Revo MGX spinning reel. He spools it with 8-pound-test Berkley FireLine Crystal and a 10-foot leader of Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon linked with an Improved Albright knot. He rotates through a variety of baits including a Berkley Havoc Money Maker, Berkley Twitch Tail Minnow, and 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Fry on a VMC Dropshot Hook.
"One key is figuring out how smallmouths have positioned in rough water," Palaniuk adds. "When I find deep fish, I watch on sonar to see how they're holding in relation to the structure. If they're stacked off a break from a big flat, they're likely looking up toward the flat. If they're more on top of the flat, they're likely facing out toward deep water. Bass usually position facing upcurrent, but current is not necessarily moving in the same direction as the wind. In big lakes or large rivers you get cross currents and back currents. It's important to try different presentation angles before giving up on a spot."
Part of the challenge of heavy wind is pushing yourself to get out there. Only occasionally are conditions as bad as they appear from shore. To be sure, proceed with caution and heed small-craft warnings and weather predictions. Every year boats are lost when anglers push the envelope too far. But in normal rough conditions, these pro anglers have delineated good places to start your search.