October 25, 2022
You’ve probably heard about the need to downsize and slow down as waters cool in fall. Hair jigs and small jigs can bring a few big bass as vegetation dwindles on the flats. But what if you learned that once bass stop biting jigs and finesse baits, the best bite of the year lies ahead?—At water temperatures in the low-40°F range or below?
Scoff if you like, but Casey Ehlert and his buddy Lyal Held have discovered a mother lode of big bass that can be caught as lake temperatures fall toward the freezing mark. These anglers approach recreational bass fishing with a passion, trying new methods to catch fish most anglers ignore and taking full advantage of advanced sonar technologies to open new windows on the underwater world.
They’ve chronicled some of these exploits at Bass Brawl Outdoors on YouTube. In 2016, Held set out to break the South Dakota smallmouth bass record. Then he did so on April 23, with a 7-pound 3-ounce fish from Horseshoe Lake. As they say, the proof is in the pudding, so listen up to break some ice and some personal records this fall season.
Setting the Scene
Ehlert, Held, and their bassin’ associates primarily fish lakes in Northcentral Minnesota, a region that boasts dozens of excellent bass lakes, as well as a long and cold winter season. They’re representative of the northern natural lakes found from Maine and New York into North and South Dakota. A long winter approaches, promising as much as five and a half months of ice cover.
“When the jig bite dies, guys start talking about winterizing the boat,” Ehlert says. “Lots of anglers have headed to the woods for deer. We know that now’s the time for what can be the hottest bite of the year for big bass. A lot of times, we’re still fishing for bass when the deer season ends. You face freezing temperatures but the action can make your blood boil!
“In a typical year, this bite might start around the third week of October in our region, maybe up to November 1. And it lasts as long as you can get on the lake. Conditions vary a lot from year to year, so the more you’re on the water, the more you pick up on the subtle shifts that occur as winter approaches.
“During this period, the jig bite dies as big bass switch to feeding on panfish. We’ve learned to rely on crankbaits as bass have gradually evacuated the shallows and begun dumping into the main lake as vegetation thins and baitfish shift deep. We don’t chunk and wind as you might in summer. Instead, it’s almost like the mirror image of the early-spring bite when suspending jerkbaits worked ultra slowly can be deadly for largemouths as well as smallmouths.
“These bass are feeding on panfish and typically hold a couple of feet off bottom. Everything moves in slow motion at this time of year, so lures have to suspend. We’ve spent countless hours graphing with side- and forward-imaging and dropped underwater cameras to see what’s going on in the depths, beyond what was the weedline.
“In our area, this bite typically begins around the third week in October and can extend into mid-November in a milder fall. If the water temperature hovers above 40°F, that’s ideal. Some years, you have a week to 10 days of prime conditions. When this situation develops, bass set up in predictable locations and they’re highly catchable. On the other hand, if we get a blast of Canadian air, lakes can freeze over in just a week or so, as a severe front can drop a lake from the mid-40°F range to ice coated within days.
“We’ve done well at water temperatures down to 37.5°F,” Ehlert says. “I’ve fished at air temperatures as low as 8°F, but all your tackle is freezing up, not to mention your body. The only reason to do it is to catch another 5-pounder. We sometime catch big crappies the same way. They’re out there eating small panfish as well. And big pike sometimes steal your favorite cranks; it’s frustrating when they swim off with a prized lure.
“When panfish shift into deeper water, they often seem to prefer areas with a soft bottom. I know from ice-fishing that they feed on small worms and invertebrates that live in soft mucky bottoms. When scanning with an underwater camera, you sometimes see divots in the bottom. I’m not sure what makes them. They’re several feet in diameter, looking almost like a bed. And I’ve seen on sonar and camera that bass lay in those divots on soft-bottom flats. It’s a curious phenomenon. You sometimes see short grass on the bottom in deep water, as well, just three or four inches tall. Sunfish usually are holding around it, and bass focus there, too.
“I got onto this pattern eight or nine years ago and I’ve been honing the system ever since,” Ehlert says. “The biggest breakthroughs came with advanced electronics. Today’s ultra-sensitive sonar systems reveal more about what’s going on below the surface than we’ve ever encountered. I’m a computer guy and love trying new technology. I’ve been using Humminbird units for years. I’m now running two Solix 15s on the console—one for side-imaging and the other with a map. On the bow, I have two Solix 15s and a 12. One bow unit is my map, another for Mega 360, and the third runs a combination of 2-D sonar, down-imaging, and side-imaging. I know some guys who have used Garmin LiveScope units to find and track bass as well.
“I move along at 5 to 6.5 miles per hour to scan large areas quickly. Most often, fish are highly packed, so they’re easy to spot. Most of our lakes don’t have many walleyes. Groups of walleyes might be confusing on side-imaging. But at that time of year, they’ve generally moved into deeper water, over 20 feet.
“I use a Humminbird 360 Mega Imaging unit on the bow to keep track of them as I’m casting. I can’t wait to use the new Mega Live Imaging that will be available this fall. If it has a similar clarity and detail as the other Mega units, it will be amazing. Without excellent graphs, you’d have a hard time targeting bass in these conditions.
”When we get to a lake, we scan for groups of sunfish and crappies on deeper flats. We look along the outside of 10- to 14-foot stretches since bass move into basin areas for the winter. You have to scan and scan before you start fishing. Sometimes, they’re compressed into just a 200-yard stretch, typically a few feet above bottom. When you know what you’re looking for, you can’t miss them. On some lakes, the areas you find them are the same areas where the jig bite was good before the water got too cold. They move onto connected flats to feed.”
“We fish standard floating crankbaits, but the key is to make them suspend,” Ehlert says. “Their prey is up off the bottom, so your lure has to be in that zone. That’s why jigs stop working at a certain point in fall. Storm SuspenStrips and SuspenDots, which are made of lead, stick firmly to the lure and you can adjust the amount and position to alter the way a lure suspends. You find that even two lures of the same model may have minute differences in their buoyancy. It’s not easy to get them right. SuspenDots can be applied to fine-tune a lure. I’ve seen bass merely look at a lure that rises gradually, but won’t bite it. If it sinks slowly, they sometimes strike, but it’s not ideal. You want it to perfectly suspend right in their face.
“You can make a lure suspend in the sink, but that’s just the start. Tied to a line and maybe on a clip, suspension changes. Using braided line or fluorocarbon or mono makes a difference. You can think a lure is suspending when it doesn’t rise to the surface, but it really isn’t. It’s easiest to place a SuspenStrip under the tail on a lure like a DT14, but that can make it run a bit tail-down, which cuts its diving ability. Placing a strip under the head makes it run nose-down, but it may suspend that way, which generally isn’t ideal.
“Sometimes bass are real picky and want a bait to hang perfectly horizontal. You’ve got to experiment a lot to get it right. At times, they merely follow the lure, like with a jerkbait in spring. But if the lure looks just right or twitches at the right moment, they bite. You may even have two big bass coming in behind it at once.”
Ehlert emphasizes that bass in this situation are feeding on small panfish. “In clear lakes, colors can be important,” he notes. “Perch patterns are our overall favorites; some bluegill-based colors as well. We rely on a set of doctored crankbaits, including Rapala DT10s and 14s, LiveTarget Perch cranks, and MegaBass Deep-X 200 and 300, and the Deep-X 200 LBO, which has a smaller profile. The heavier Deep-X 300 is easier to cast when ice is forming on the line and guides. The color on LiveTarget’s Perch is spectacular and it works well when we get it to suspend. They’re more buoyant and take more weighting, however. The MegaBass GLX Gill color is deadly, too.
“As for line, we use both fluorocarbon and braid. When it’s super cold, the line freezes fast and fluorocarbon sheds ice a lot more easily. On the other hand, braid helps you detect the very slight tick when a bass hits. And if your guides have ice on them, the braid fires through them more easily. But when the braid starts freezing on the spool, we switch to fluoro. As evening approaches, the temperature can drop fast and tackle considerations come into play.
“On the retrieve, we pause often to allow the crankbait to suspend and hover. Start with a 5-second pause and increase it if bass don’t respond. You may detect a subtle bump in the line as it pauses, or when you go to move it again. We switch baits a lot when the bite is slow. Snaps make it a lot easier to quickly change lures.
“My favorite rod is a 7-foot 11-inch MegaBass Destroyer, which is rated extra heavy. When I detect a bite, I don’t jerk to set the hook; I just slowly start pulling and the bass is hooked. The length lets you control the fish well as you wind them in. I’ve not really studied the best rod for this, but I like that one for its large guides, which don’t freeze up readily, and its length. You can bomb those weighted cranks out there. One evening I set the hook on 35 bites and landed all 35 bass.
“This system is deadly and you catch the biggest bass in the lake—lots of 4-pounders,” Ehlert says,” plus plenty of 5s and the occasional 6-pounder. That’s the reason we deal with all the hassles that cold weather brings.” After talking to him, I know I’ll be tuning up a selection of crankbaits to be ready for when the snow starts to fly, in preparation for pre-ice trophy bass bite.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Quinn is an accomplished bass angler and decades-long writer on bass topics for In-Fisherman publications.