December 18, 2017
By Dr. Hal Schramm
Ironically, deer season is my favorite season for bass fishing. Lakes are empty and that's when I usually catch my biggest fish. The water is cold, their metabolism slows, and they feed less often. They react and swim more slowly, but they still react, and they can catch any lure you care to throw. They're cold but not catatonic.
Catching often starts with knowing where to fish, and bass' cold-water whereabouts seem a mystery to many bass anglers. In this article, I've tapped into current biological research, as well as the minds of some highly experienced winter anglers from around the country.
In rivers, bass go to backwaters. Radio-tracking studies in several systems indicate bass move into backwaters during fall and remain there throughout winter, often in a rather sedentary state. Current and cold are a bad combination for largemouths, and can be lethal. Backwaters provide a refuge from current and often are warmer than the main river, but these spots must contain sufficient oxygen for bass to survive. Backwaters shallowed by years of sediment accumulation often become choked with vegetation in summer.
Decomposing plant material can rob a backwater of essential oxygen, so avoid those that were densely vegetated in summer and early fall. How can you tell if the water has oxygen without an expensive meter? The simplest way is to look for fish—not just bass, any kind of fish.
River levels fluctuate, and winter is often a period of low water. Bass may try to leave backwaters when their depth threatens to trap the them. When water levels in the Pend Oreille River downstream of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho, were lowered in winter for flood control and hydroelectric generation, largemouth bass abandoned backwaters and moved to areas of still water with dense aquatic vegetation in the river. Eighteen of 19 radio-tagged bass were located in two of these preferred wintering areas, and they traveled up to 10 miles to get to them. Bass returned to the backwaters in spring when water temperatures there exceeded those in the river.
Farther south, bass in lakes Eustis and Yale in central Florida primarily occupied linear home ranges near shore where most aquatic vegetation was located. Researchers noted no seasonal habitat shift as bass occupied maidencane, lily pads, and cattails year-round. Bass there moved less in winter when water temperature dropped to 58°F to 62°F, but movements also were reduced in late summer.
In Lake Seminole on the Florida-Georgia border, bass moved back and forth between thick nearshore vegetation and offshore areas with standing timber. Winter location and movement of bass differed little from other seasons except during the spawn, when the bass stayed shallow and moved little. They were less likely to be shallow in winter there, though they did move shallow at times.
Farther north in B.E. Jordan Reservoir, North Carolina, where winter water temperatures dip into the mid-40°F range, largemouths tended to be farther offshore and moved less during winter than during fall or spring, but distance offshore was only 30 to 70 yards. This study uncovered an interesting phenomenon: When lake levels rose, bass moved into flooded vegetation, regardless of water temperature.
Although these studies were conducted in geographically different bodies of water, I see common behaviors. Winter behavior is little different from other seasons except bass move less. Cover, if available, is just as important in winter as in other seasons. One study suggests that bass may move offshore when temperature dips below 50°F.
Let's test the limited biological information, comparing it to how six accomplished anglers put winter bass in the boat. I asked each to provide the "how-to" for their favorite winter waters.
Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, Florida
Florida is home to Bassmaster Elite pro Bernie Schultz, and he's spent years fishing Florida bass in their native waters. The Kissimmee Chain typifies Florida bass habitat, with broad expanses of shallow water containing a diverse assemblage of aquatic plants. In addition to being well adapted to life in shallow heavily vegetated lakes, Florida bass also are accustomed to water that rarely drops below 60°F. "I've caught Florida bass in water down to 55°F, but colder water, which usually coincides with cold fronts, shuts down the bite," Schultz reports.
He relies on two patterns to catch Florida bass in winter during post-cold-front conditions. The first of his two primary patterns involves fishing hydrilla in 4 to 8 feet of water. The other is flipping heavy, matted vegetation. "I'd rank these two patterns equally productive, and both can be valid at the same time," he says. A lipless crankbait in a reflective baitfish pattern or red crawfish is his first choice over deeper vegetation, but lipped crankbaits, jerkbaits like a Rapala Shadow Rap or Husky Jerk, and swimbaits also can be productive. Matted vegetation calls for flipping a jig or a softbait under a punch weight of at least an ounce. Water temperature can change quickly in shallow lakes, even hour to hour, so Schultz encourages continually rotating through potentially productive presentations.
"A third pattern that always warrants checking is bedding bass in shallow spawning areas, especially during or following a warm spell," he says. "Florida bass can start spawning in December, and once they set up to spawn, they usually stay with the process, even when a cold front drops water temperatures. Twitchbaits, like a Rapala Original Floating Minnow, or a Yamamoto Senko are favorites for spawners."
Many Arizona impoundments contain both Florida bass and largemouth bass, so the effects of water temperature are not as easily defined. Also,— according to Bassmaster Elite pro Cliff Pirch of Arizona, "The mid-50°F degree range is about as cold as it gets here, and bass are less affected by cold snaps in these deeper lakes with more thermal refuges than in Florida." Pirch concentrates on rockson shorelines, points, ledges, and humps. His go-to presentation is crawling a football jig through the rocks. Follow-up options include an umbrella rig retrieved slowly and occasionally bumping rocks and a drop-shot rigged Robo Worm.
Not far from FLW Tour pro Mark Rose's West Memphis, Arkansas, home is Horseshoe Lake, an old Mississippi River oxbow now isolated from the river by a levee. These waters are challenging to fish in any season because sedimentation has smoothed all bottom structure and vegetation is scarce. Years of experience have taught Rose that bass in Horseshoe shut down at 45°F to 48°F. "When the water is that cold, pick a warm day or a warming trend," he advises. "Bass move shallow then, where the best cover is located."
Rose slowly drags a bluegill- or crawfish-color jig around "dark structure"—riprap, cypress trees, or docks—but he also fishes a lipless crankbait like a Strike King Red Eyed Shad with a moderate retrieve speed to cover water. Rose also checks the oxbow's many man-made canals. "They may not be deep, but they offer chilled bass the sharp drop-offs they prefer in winter."
Rose reluctantly shared a third pattern. "Think like a crappie angler," he says. "Check the deepest holes with electronics. These places are loaded with fish—shad, crappies, and sometimes bass." When he marks bass, often suspended, he swims a small hair jig with a good dose of Craw-Cane fish attractant squeezed into the hair. He swims the jig on a slack line with occasional small hops; in the coldest water he simply shakes the line to subtlely move the lure.
Lake Champlain, New York/Vermont
Bass in Lake Champlain, lying on the New York-Vermont border, are accustomed to frigid temperatures, so I expected to learn how to catch them in—icy water from Ontario-based FLW Tour pro Jeff Gustafson. So I was surprised when he said, "The largemouth bite here dwindles below about 45°F." Experience has taught him to rely on a simple pattern: Look for green vegetationprimarily coontail in Champlain, on primary and secondary points and shoals in 3 to 10 feet of water. He pitches 1/2-ounce jigs with a chunk to the edges and holes in the vegetation. If the jig bite fails, he swims a Ned rig or hula grub around the edges.
"Bass are typically concentrated," he says. "Move along until you get bit, then enter a waypoint and try to find the sweet spot. It's not uncommon to catch 10 or 12 bass from an area the size of your boat."
In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn doesn't hunt deer, but instead fishes for bass until the ice is too thick to launch a boat. His insights on what he calls "prewinter" largemouths: "In two of the last falls, most small lakes in central Minnesota iced up during the second week of November. But companions and I have been able to get out and catch largemouths in water several degrees below 39°F, sometimes within a day or two of ice-up," says Quinn who keeps a diary of information on his trips.
"These fish seem to have moved from shallower sections of the lakes to areas with a deep basin close to vegetated flats. Largemouths also evacuate offshore humps when water gets into the low-40°F range. They set up in mid-depth spots (usually 6 to 12 feet) with the thickest available vegetation, typically a mix of coontail and northern milfoil here. It's difficult to detect the light bites at this time of year, so it pays to focus on calmer areas, where you can feel and see the line better.
"Hair jigs (1/4-ounce) backed by a 2-inch crayfish are my favorite, but Ned rigs, open-hook jigworms, and small tubes also work. Pick a spot and fish it slowly, deadsticking the lure, then barely moving or shaking it. But when bass bite, they've often completely inhaled the lure. Curiously, they often fight frantically with violent head shakes and short dives, but battles don't last long."
The Shiner Solution
Captain Jamie Jackson makes his living fishing live shiners to put his clients on giant bass in Lake Toho on the Kissimmee Chain. "Shiners catch bass year-round," Jackson says.
"Cold water, which follows cold fronts, slows the shiner bite, too, but not as much as for anglers fishing artificials." Jackson has found that preyfish and bass seek thick cover during cold conditions. He adjusts by patiently soaking shiners in areas he knows concentrate baitfish and bass, focusing on the early-morning hours. "Even in cold water, they need to eat. Baitfish come out of the thick grass during the low light of morning, and bass follow." A parting thought from Jackson: "For anglers on multi-day trips, fish artificials on warm and pre-front conditions, fish shiners on post-frontal days."
These angling experts generally agreed with available biological information.
- Florida bass feed down to about 60°F. The northern largemouth bite can remain good down to 45°F or even lower, regardless of the local climate. Warming trends are a plus everywhere.
- Winter bass will be in the best or thickest cover available, whether it's vegetation or wood, or in areas with quick access to deeper water where they may move offshore if pelagic preyfish are present.
- Winter bass in milder climates reposition quickly in response to warming or rising water. Expect afternoons and sunny days to be more productive, except in Florida where shad and shiners roam from grassbeds early in the morning.
- Small and slow is the way to go, but search-baits retrieved at medium speed can work in milder conditions. And big slow-moving lures catch big bass. Mix it up, as moods shift during the day.
- Winter bass bunch up in deep holes, marinas, rocks, or stands of healthy vegetation where effects of temperature fluctuations are minimized and water quality is good.
- Winter is a great time to catch a heavy bass. Females have built up egg masses in preparation for the spawn and are near their peak weight. My observations over the years indicate that Florida bass tend to develop their ovaries shortly before the spawn (which can start in December), but northern bass usually start to develop theirs in fall.
There's mounting evidence, both from angler observations and biological studies, that fish species, including largemouth bass, learn to avoid lures and/or anglers. While the exact mechanisms in this process await determination, and may vary from situation to situation, fishing nearly empty lakes in winter is certainly a good way to fool "educated bass."
*Hal Schramm, Counce, Tennessee, is an avid angler, fishery biologist, and freelance writer. He frequently contributes to In-Fisherman publications on various topics. Contact Capt. Jackson at 800/738-8144, orlandobass.com.