February 19, 2022
If you want to ride in the passenger seat of Keith Combs’ Ranger in the colder months, prepare to wait a while to start casting. It’s not because the Texas pro is late to the ramp, or can’t find the boat keys, or won’t let you fish until he’s caught a few. Rather, it’s because he typically won’t start to unstrap the rods from the deck until he’s located a school of bass. In some cases, it may even take several schools. That means ample seat time staring attentively at his Humminbird electronics. In a best-case scenario, he finds them quickly, but he’s a disciplined man and he’ll keep after it as you run out of snacks and patience.
Actually, technically speaking Combs, isn’t looking specifically for bass. He’s looking for the prey that they live to eat.
“In the winter, shad should be on everyone’s mind, more than any other time of the year,” he said. “The first question you should ask yourself is, ‘In this section of the lake, what are the shad doing?’”
He tries to cut down the search process by taking a quick scan of key areas with the boat on pad. He’ll put the boat on plane and run over likely spots – creek channels, main lake points, and the like – using traditional 2D sonar (with an in-hull transducer) to take a quick look. When he starts to get some clues, then he’ll slow down and split his electronics between down-imaging and side-imaging to dial things in further. He keeps the Side Imaging in the 90- to 100-foot range, which he feels provides optimal mix of clarity and coverage.
What are the clues he’s looking for? Not just the types of cover that the baitfish are relating to, but also where they are in the water column – up high, suspended midway or down closer to the bottom. Once he’s figure out that combination, it cuts down the search process significantly. One caveat, however, is that baitfish and bass activity often change throughout the day, so while they’re patternable in tandem, it pays to keep an open mind.
“I always try to stay in the section of the lake with the most shad,” he said. “The bass may leave those big groups after feeding, but it pays to keep returning to check on them. If you see a ton of shad, even if the bass are not there, you have to keep them honest.”
His lure selections depend on how deep he needs them to run. If the bass are in less than 15 feet of water, on top of the shad, he prefers a suspending jerkbait. If they’re holding beneath upper-column shad, he may sling a crankbait at them or crawl an appropriately sized Strike King Rage Swimmer on a lead head. When the shad and bass get below 25 feet or so, he prefers a jigging spoon or a Strike King Z-Too, again on a jighead. When and if it’s allowed, an Alabama Rig is also a prime way to load the boat in a hurry during this phenomenon.
“I stick mostly with shad colors, white and chartreuse,” he explained. “Don’t worry, it’s going to stand out. When there are a million shad and one lure, it’ll still get attention. Also, you don’t want to overwork the bait, especially if it’s cold. The shad won’t be moving too much.”
While matching the hatch carefully by color may not be ultra-critical, he said that mimicking the size of the forage often proves essential.
“Around here at home, they’re mostly 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches, so I try to keep my lures in that size range.”
There are times when Combs locates active fish feeding on shad but can’t initially get them to bite his preferred offerings. Rather than leave and hunt for greener pastures, he’ll cycle systematically through lures until he finds the one that grabs their attention.
“If they’re feeding subsurface, keep trying. There’s always a way to catch them. When they’re hitting on the surface it can get a little trickier. I think sometimes they can see you.
One other key pattern this time of year is to key in on shad die-offs. They don’t happen that often on the East Texas and South Texas lakes that Combs frequents – although last winter brought some when the state iced over—but even in the northern part of the state and throughout the South and Midwest they’re common.
The bass focus on the easy pickings and in addition to his electronics, Combs will use his eyes to find the evidence. The shad may be floating, and birds may be working them. He’s found that it’s usually an early morning bite, and it will peter out if the air and surface temperatures climb during the day.