With the jig working near bottom, a fish suddenly appears on the flasher screen five feet up. Quickly ripping the jig up to that depth, I begin a series of 6- to 8-inch lift-falls. The mark stays put. I know it's a bass, and I know it sees the jig. I just know it.
Six, ten, twelve times the jig rises and spirals slowly to a halt in front of the fish. After each lift-drop, I "pound" the blank with my finger tip, which jiggles the bait and keeps it from spinning. On the fifteenth lift, the rod bends into a quivering arc. The tip dives toward the hole as two-pound line sizzles off my little reel.
In the North Country, where lakes freeze, winter bass are in the northern end of their natural range, which extends to about the 49th parallel, give or take a few casts. Bass feed less often and take smaller meals under the ice. Recent studies on bass in winter indicate that the stomachs of both largemouth and smallmouth bass "shrivel like walnuts." While walleyes and pike may actually gain weight through winter, physiological stress from the cold reduces the weight of the average bass.
Do bass become dormant in winter? No, but they revert to type, recalling their heritage as members of the sunfish family. Insects, larvae, blood worms, small crayfish, and tiny minnows become more appealing than larger fare. A 1960 lab study by M.G. Johnson of the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph concluded that local largemouths stopped feeding on minnows in water temperatures below 41°F. With their metabolisms slowing, perhaps big meals take too long to digest.
If cold fronts are a bummer in summer, they really are in winter. When temperatures suddenly dip below zero, the bite dies. Typically, an occasional bass can be caught when weather stabilizes in that bitter range of temperatures south of zero, and bites improve as temperatures increase. As a result, both smallmouth and largemouth bass under the ice spend even more time in neutral and inactive moods. How they bite or if they bite at all depends on timing. The right times tend to be early-ice and late-ice, with peak bites early and late in the day. During mid-season, meanwhile, the best times are at midday during thaws and long periods of stable weather.
Catching bass through the ice depends on presenting the right stuff. Both largemouths and smallmouths respond to a variety of baits during this period, but the most consistent methods involve panfish tackle. Kevin VanDam, a bass pro from Michigan, knows what it's like to have his favorite fish locked under the ice for a third of the year. "It's possible to catch smallmouths on larger baits, like minnows or Jigging Rapalas at early-ice and late-ice," he says, "but most of the season, teardrop and horizontal jigs baited with little grubs work best."
VanDam at times finds smallmouths shallow under the ice, "literally miles from deeper water and in 6-foot depths," he says. "I find them by looking for panfish." VanDam's ice-fishing experiences for smallmouths predominantly involve the sandy, gradually sloping lakes of northern Michigan. Rockier lakes tend to maintain deeper patterns all winter. Radio telemetry studies and scuba surveys by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources indicate that in winter, smallmouths pack tightly off main-lake structure in depths of 40 to 60 feet.
Largemouths , meanwhile, crowd onto shallower, more-fertile flats during winter. An In-Fisherman staff telemetry project in mid-Minnesota recently followed three largemouths during midwinter and again during late winter. The bass seemed to move little, holding on 15-foot flats just outside the weedline all winter in a lake with a maximum depth of 28 feet.
Similar studies and fishing experiences in deeper lakes nearby indicate that some largemouths continue to use weededges at first-ice, where weededges are at least 12 feet deep and some healthy green weeds remain. Some bass move down the slope just prior to the onset of ice, holding on 20- to 25-foot flats, slipping down to 30- to 35-foot basin areas (sometimes deeper) by midwinter. Early, cold winters seem to accelerate this process, while late, warm winters seem to encourage more shallow activity.
In most cases, largemouth bass use main-lake flats in winter, as opposed to bays, coves, and secondary basins, with the exception being deep lakes with bays that harbor flats in the critical 15- to 40-foot zone. All other factors being equal, the final determining pieces to the puzzle are consistent forage, oxygen, and ph levels. Comfort is critical to bass at this time of year. Already stressed by cold, bass locate the most stable areas and use them every winter. A variety of invertebrate life persists in these areas, especially where different bottom types intersect.
The best overall bass rod in summer might be a 7 1/2-foot flippin' stick, a stiff, heavy rod capable of wielding 2-ounce lures on 25-pound line, while on ice, the optimum rod couldn't be more opposite. It's feather light, 24 to 30 inches long, and capable of protecting 2-pound monofilament. The small spinning reel taped to the cork handle holds about 100 yards of 4-pound test with 120 yards of 2-pound wrapped on top of that. Lures weigh in at 1/100 to 1/32 ounce.
Ever iced 80 or more bass in a day? Four of us accomplished this with tiny lures and light line one day several winters ago during a warming trend. If you doubt how well bass might see a 1/80-ounce jig baited with two tiny maggots, listen up.
Under the ice, active bass (like so many of the sunfishes) seem to cruise from 1 to 5 feet off bottom, slowly milling around. On sonar, bass appear as a thin, weak signal entering the edge of the cone. If they pass through the center of the cone, the signal brightens, then thickens, then dulls, then flickers, and finally disappears. Get a jig to that level at any point in this process, and bass tend to waddle right up and stare, indicating that they can see these jigs from a fair distance and also are interested in foraging on items in that size range. During summer, when bass key on larger forage, they might ignore such a tiny jig 99 out of 100 times.
The key is being able to watch the jig with a good depthfinder in order to quickly place the bait at the right depth. I prefer a flasher, such as the Vexilar FL-8, or the Zercom Clearwater Classic, or the Humminbird Jimmy Houston model. I use a self-centering transducer (the Vexilar Ice 'Ducer), which aligns automatically when placed in the hole, allowing a constant view of the jig.
Horizontal-style jigs (as opposed to teardrop shapes) work best. These fall into three arbitrary categories: swimmers, heavies, and flats. Swimming lures like the 1-inch W2 Jigging Rapala are for active fish and tend to work best early and late in the season. The tiny treble on this lure should be replaced with a larger #12 and tipped with the head of a tiny crappie minnow, a waxworm, or a couple maggots.
Since active bass tend to cruise off bottom, start two or three feet off bottom. To attract, start with a sharp upward snap of 2 feet, then push the rod tip down and let the lure swim down in a spiral to a foot off bottom. When a fish appears on sonar, get the lure in front of it and "waggle" by nodding or moving the rod tip up and down softly an inch or so. (Practice this move in the hole. The idea is to make the lure wobble side to side.) Continue moving the jig, and intersperse these motions with an occasional short 8-inch lift-fall. Lure action is best on 4-pound line.
Heavies are small jigs that drop fast, such as System Tackle's Fat Boy or any horizontal jig in the 1/80- to 1/64-ounce range. Heavies work best on deeper 20- to 35-foot flats. Flat-sided jigs, like the Comet Shiner, work well along weedlines or on 12- to 18-foot flats.
These jigs spiral when falling on a slack line. Attract with heavies and flats by lifting three to four feet from two feet off bottom, then let the jig fall on a slack or semi-slack line. When a fish appears, get the jig in front of it and "pound" the jig by tapping the blank with a finger. Alternate with an occasional 8-inch lift-fall. After each lift-fall, tap the blank to jiggle the bait and keep the jig from spinning.
Experiment with tiny versions of finesse plastics, such as Turner Jones' Micro Tubes, the new Softies from HT Enterprises, or the new PinPoint Plastix Ice-Tails. Thin, tapering tails that vibrate gently when the jig is at rest seem to work best. Marabou and hackle jigs operate on the same principle and can be deadly.
Dead sticking with a small split shot, a tiny treble hook, and a crappie minnow hooked under the skin along the dorsal fin works, too—especially early and late in the season. Use a rod with a soft tip and a solid butt. Keep it in a rod holder on a bucket with the tip hanging over a nearby hole. Use a soft gray 4-pound line with a #12 Bad Dog Jeweled Treble or #10 Custom Jigs-N-Spins Demon Tear. Set the drag light and hang the bait between 1 and 5 feet off bottom—wherever most of the fish are passing through, according to the flasher.
The fun is in developing your own tricks. Find the right areas and attract a fish under the hole that's 2 to 5 feet off bottom, and if it just sits there like a lump staring at the jig, chances are it's a bass and it's interested. Sometimes bass crowd right up to within a few inches and watch the jig fall four, five, eight times, then inhale it. But keep working the jig through as many as 40 or 50 lift-falls. Interested bass eventually strike about 80 percent of the time.
And set the drag light, because after that long awaited strike, bass make for the hills, taking 50 or 60 feet of line at times. Keep a bend in the rod. The mouth of a bass is so tough, these little jigs don't always penetrate. With the bass firmly in hand, and tension finally off the line, the tiny jig sometimes tumbles humbly unattached out of that gaping maw. Whew. Might be micro gear, but it's mega fun.