November 02, 2012
When most people go hunting, I go fishing. I figure it's safer, for one thing. In the woods of Michigan, where I grew up and learned how to fish for bass, I always felt challenged by cold-water periods. Most magazines and outdoor columnists, in those days, abandoned fishing in October to run stories about pheasants, hunting dogs, guns, and the behavior patterns of big bucks.
Cold water bass fishing always felt like a frontier—a place seldom explored or, at least, seldom described in print. In subsequent years, occasional pieces on late-fall and early-winter bass fishing appeared in Fishing Facts or In-Fisherman magazines. Before that, we were largely on our own.
One of the first things I learned, or thought I learned, about cold-water bass is that their world condenses into a smaller place in cold water. Venturing close to the ice in winter means enduring 33°F water, and bass typically choose not to do that. Temperature bands in the 37°F to 39°F range—the warmest generally available—are more to their liking and they don't want to chase those bands around. They want to stay in one place. That narrows the search a little further, but how big that place is becomes relative to the size and nature of the environment.
To really track down those smaller, encapsulated environments, you have to literally track them down. If you can't stay on them every day or every few days, it's easy to lose track. Early in fall, bass tend to use a much larger area than they do during the ensuing cold-water period.
One of the things it took years to understand was how areas that provide the environmental stability bass require in winter can be vast in one lake and tiny in another. Stability can begin at 12 feet deep in one lake but occur nowhere above 18 feet in a similar lake right down the road. In some of the lakes we ice fish for bass, the big ones come into 12 feet of water when active. In other lakes nearby, the active fish are always found five feet above bottom in depths of 22 to 24-feet. In other lakes, active bass might be found anywhere from 8 feet down to 28 feet. Anything that deep or deeper, I ignore, as bass begin showing signs of barotrauma.
Right now, I'm tracking cold-water bass in open water later than ever, thanks to water temperatures cooling at much slower-than-normal rates. The fact that the ramps have no ice on them helps, but the warming trend has even more interesting effects on the behavior of bass. As the same species demonstrate in more southerly climes, they can be more tolerant of current in winter where cold water isn't driven deep into the water column by algid cold spells with temperatures dipping to -20°F or -40°F.
Suddenly, smallmouths around here seem to be more tolerant of current in 40°F water temperatures than I've ever experienced.
Things that make you say hmmm.