Though we admittedly don't often target largemouth ice bass, they provide many of the most memorable catches of the winter. And with a little planning, numbers of largemouth bass can be caught through the ice.
While largemouth and smallmouth bass can be caught all winter, the early and later periods stand out for predictable bites. During the month after ice-up, light continues to pass through the ice and snow cover, and it nourishes weedbeds. Largemouth bass continue to cruise the outer edges of weedlines under the ice, occasionally burying deeper into thick fronds of coontail or milfoil.
The best areas feature thick vegetation that lasts into late fall. Look for inside turns on shoreline structure that drop quickly into the 20-foot range with edges in about 8 to 14 feet of water. You can prospect for spots blindly or use an underwater camera that quickly reveals the status of the weedbed and if bass are occupying it.
Just as bass need a lot of coaxing to strike in late fall, so do fish under the ice. A three-fish day is good, though occasionally the fish really turn on. I catch several big ones early each winter on tip-ups baited with live shiners or suckers in the 4- to 5-inch range. Last winter, one tried to make a jump through the glassy 4-inch coating on its lake -- just as I set the hook.
Jigging small crappie-size jigs tipped with plastics or larvae like maggots, mousies, or waxworms will take bass during the late-ice period, as will live minnows, swimming baits like a Jigging Rapala, and perch-style jigging spoons. The last weeks of ice cover also seem to trigger a relative feeding spree by bass. It's hard to know if they normally feed under the ice, or if their opportunistic nature simply won't let them pass a fine, easy-to-catch morsel.
At late-ice, small offerings are the choice for icing bass. Lures weighing from 1/32 ounce down to 1/100 ounce are ideal, with active plastic tails like the Custom Jigs and Spins Ratso and Shrimpo, Tad's Lure Puddle Jumpers, and HT Enterprises Softies.
Like bluegills, largemouth bass move onto shallow flats with some remaining weedgrowth in the weeks before ice-out. That's when you can watch fish as they bite, or else refuse your offerings or lure motions. During midwinter, largemouth bass tend to wander deep flats in the 18- to 30-foot range, or lake basins in shallower systems.
ABOUT BROWN BASS
According to research studies, smallmouths roam far less than their largemouth cousins in winter. They often form large winter aggregations, holding along vertical cover. Such schools have been noted in water from 25 to 60 feet deep, situated along deep rock ledges that provide a cavelike habitat.
During certain conditions they will bite jigs and small spoons jigged vertically in their midst. Though inactive, a small percent will engulf the lure, which can bring a large catch of fish, given the number in some winter sanctuaries.
Because of this vulnerability, some northern states and Canadian provinces have been restricting winter bass fishing, fearing overharvest if wintering areas are heavily targeted. If you do locate such a spot, catch a couple fish and quickly release them; avoid pounding the school for fear of causing delayed mortality by forcing undue activity in lethargic fish.