Winter Bass Fishing on Good Panfish Lakes
November 30, 2017
According to angler surveys, the largemouth bass is America's favorite freshwater fish. No other species comes close, unless you lump all panfish species together. So why don't more anglers target bass through the ice? First, like it or not, ice anglers typically chase whatever bite promises a fish fry, typically walleyes and panfish. Bass? Not so much.
But could specific lakes throughout the Ice Belt benefit from more selective harvest of largemouth bass in winter? Considering the bag, possession, and slot limits that are based on fishery research, the answer is yes.
"There's a lot of science behind our bass regulations," says Minnesota DNR fisheries specialist Howard Fullhart, based in Fergus Falls. "The big thing is we're seeing a trend of earlier springs and later falls, which equates to better climate and conditions for centrarchids (bass and panfish), so we're getting more steady recruitment and seeing larger numbers present. Secondly, as catch and release has taken hold, harvesting bass any time of the year has become rare. Gone are the days of resort families keeping their limit of every species. At least in our region, more harvest of 15-inch and smaller bass could have a positive impact."
Another reason largemouths pale in ice popularity is they can be difficult to find. Yet, how many times have you caught largemouths fishing panfish in weeds or dunking shiners for walleyes? Lots, probably. The key is to learn high-probability locations while keeping your head on a swivel when fishing other species. That starts with picking the right lake.
Brainerd, Minnesota-based Mike Hehner is an avid angler with a fishery background. "My experience is that largemouths can be quite active in winter, despite general slowing of their metabolism. The trick isn't getting them to eat, it's finding where they're at. Nine times out of ten, that's with panfish in the vegetation, so I target bass on good panfish lakes," he says.
Vegetation & Snow
So, find a lake with green vegetation and panfish, and chances are good you'll find winter bass fishing. Cabbage and coontail top the list, but bulrushes, pencil reeds, and other vegetation types can hold bass, too.
Former U.S. National Ice Fishing Champion Steve Pennaz says his four favorite winter bass lakes share some similarities. "All have green cabbage and coontail; deeper, 20- to 30-foot water near weedlines; and a combination of hard and soft bottom," he says. "In summer, water visibility might only be 2 feet with lots of pondweed and milfoil, but in winter they clear up with 5 feet of visibility or more. I look for saddles, points, and inside turns with vegetation."
Iowa's Walt Matan chases bass on ice from Illinois farm ponds to Mississippi River backwaters to tannin-stained waters of northern Minnesota. "No matter where I fish, the best ambush points are weededges where you've got a lot of panfish," he says. "Bass cruise the edge and pick off young-of-year sunfish," he says.
Peoria, Illinois-based bass expert Todd Kent has a similar program. "I look for breaklines and bottom transitions in the 15- to 20-foot range that come up to a 10- to 15-foot weedflat," he says. "Bass might be on the break or up on top, but they're around panfish almost 100 percent of the time."
Ice fishing pioneer Dave Genz suggests looking "extremely shallow," focusing on inside rather than outside weededges. "I like inside weededges where you can see bottom, especially areas where there's a little snow on top, especially during early and late ice," he says.
Snow patches function much like a dock platform or weedmat does during open water, providing shade from the winter sun and an ambush location for bass to intercept food. Kent looks for similar areas. "My success is always better with snow coverage, which is rare in Illinois. We might have four inches of snow on the ground but the ice is bare, so I always go where the snow is. On the clear waters of this region's coal strip-pit lakes, snow cover can attract fish."
Some states allow anglers to plant artificial structure like brush, Christmas tree piles, and cribs that can be magnets for minnows, panfish, and bass. Some fishery agencies place artificial structure, making maps available to the public.
"Artificial structure is the key to catching bass on our smaller farm ponds," Matan says. "Find brushpiles and PVC structures located near deeper water and you're in business. These spots set up like bass motels."
Kent concurs. "But once the ice forms, it's tough to find some of these structures. Keeping waypoints helps. But if you drill a bunch of holes, drop your transducer in the 10- to 20-foot zone, and see a solid red line on the flasher that doesn't move after awhile, chances are you've found a tree or brushpile. You can lose a lot of jigs but that's the price of admission."
"New School" Sight-Fishing
One of the most effective ways to catch winter bass is by sight-fishing, either with an underwater camera or by darkening the inside of a shelter. A videographer, Hehner is a fan of the portable Aqua-Vu Micro underwater camera. "It's my number-one tool for finding bass. It's surprising how fast I can scout 400 yards of a weedflat for bass."
He's made interesting findings over countless hours watching winter fish behavior on an LCD screen, like how bass approach, inspect, and strike a bait. "I've put the camera down and it's insane. Bass sit on a bait forever. They literally come up and bump the jig with their lower jaw, then inch away, and all of a sudden open up and vacuum it in. For that reason, I hardly move the lure when I see a bass on the camera or my electronics. I hold it still and do nothing."
Genz, on the other hand, keeps whatever jig cadence going that drew the bass to investigate. "Keep that action going and they suck it in and you catch them in the center of the lip, right on top. Their first run will be pretty long, so you'd better have a spinning reel with a good drag, the most important component of the reel because bass take a lot of line. Some guys back-reel, too."
Over the years, Genz has used his extensive underwater viewing to refine jigging cadences and piece together data that's upped his catch rates. "When I started using my Vexilar camera, which has a temperature sensor, I started noticing water temperature differences. I learned that bass move to the warmest water in a lake, which is typically around 39°F. A lot of times, that means shallow water."
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw has written extensively on water temperature as it relates to ice fishingâ€”what he calls "The Ghost Factor"â€”but to quickly re-cap, the warmest, heaviest and most dense water reaches about 39.2°F and is typically found near bottom during winter. Water cools toward the surface; 32°F near the surface.
Savvy anglers have begun using temperature gauges on underwater cameras and temperature/depth probes like the FishHawk to monitor temperature as it relates to fish behavior. Shared experience points to fish seeking out the most stable, warm water, where the entire food web is typically most active. Bass are no exception. But where the warmest water was last week might not be the same today. Seasonality, air temperature, ice thickness, snow cover, and currents all affect thermal stratification.
"On aerated lakes, you'd think fish would hold tight to the aerator because that area's the most oxygenated," Genz says. "But those areas are also the coldest, so they produce the fewest bites. In terms of the warmest water, don't be afraid to move shallow or into dead vegetation and dark, soft-bottom areas, especially toward the end of the ice season. That's where life kicks off first and you find roaming bass in these areas well ahead of ice-out.
"old school" Sight-Fishing
Similar in principle to a spearing darkhouse, many bass anglers sight-fish from a portable shelter. "In shallow, clear waters, I close window coverings in my Frabill Citadel SideStep to darken it, which combined with the interior black fabric, gives me a good view down the hole," Pennaz says. "But in this case of sight-fishing, the hole is actually a series of augured holes trimmed with an ice saw or chisel into a cloverleaf pattern or long rectangle for more viewing area."
Presentations: North to South
Panfish jigs are standard fare for winter bass fishing, although there are exceptions like early and late ice when upsizing can produce fish, or the tried-and-true shiner or sucker dangled under a tip-up or deadstick.
When jigging bass in Minnesota, Hehner turns to a various panfish-size tungstens: the Fiskas N31 Balance, Custom Jigs & Spins Chekai, and Northland Fire Eye. "Mostly, horizontal jigs have worked best for me, typically fished with one or two maggots, a single waxy, or Wedgee plastic. I stick with black, brown, and reds to emulate bloodworms. But the smallest Demon spoon with a waxy can work well, too." His jig rods include 28- to 32-inch medium-light St. Croix Mojo Ice and Legends with straight-line reels that prevent jig twist, which is a turn-off to bass." His go-to line is 4-pound mono.
Like Hehner, Genz matches the hatch. But instead of bloodworms, he mimics tiny panfish (or "flats"). "Fillet small bass and sometimes you find their stomachs packed with 'flats,' those dime- to quarter-size sunfish," Genz says. "The roundish Clam Caviar Drop rigged sideways with a Jamei XL plastic has just the right profile to mimic them. It's been effective for bass and walleyes in shallow water."
Genz' other go-to bait is a #10 Clam Dropkick in red glow with 5 or 6 Eurolarvae threaded like a "waving hand." He says the trick is rotating the knot around the front of the eyelet to provide a subtle rocking of the bait's back end. "Don't over jig. You don't want any horizontal or vertical movement, just the jig rocking in place, the larvae waving at the bass."
In the southern part of the Ice Belt, Matan uses a bigger jig. "We did testing last winter with the 7-mm Magnum Chekai and results were good. We caught a lot of bass on that jig tipped with a Wedgee or a bunch of waxworms. At nearly 1/8-ounce, it fishes deep and penetrates dense vegetation, sort of a hardwater punchbait. It gets right into the channels of the root systems where we see a lot of bass on the camera. On weededges and bottom transitions, I pound bottom with a Custom Jigs & Spins Rattlin' RPM, which has a rattle chamber in the tail section. That draws fish when jigs don't. Sometimes they hammer it, other times I have to grab a rod rigged with a Demon with a Ratso, a one-two punch," Matan says.
Near Peoria, Illinois, "Chef" Kent relies on aggressive tactics whether he's fishing the Herman Brothers' Giant Goose Ranch, a 1,000-acre facility with 52 lakes or Mississippi River backwaters. "Down here it's a plastics game," he says. "Put a plastic on the back of a jig and you increase your bass capabilities by 100 percent. I fish Chekai Tungsten jigs, Diamond Jigs, and Gill Pills with Wedgee or Nuclear Ant microplastics. The most recent Pro Grade tungsten jigs from Acme look interesting for this season, too. Black, gold, firetiger, and red jigs and black and red plastics. I try to imitate bloodworms, a staple in much of our region. I pound the bottom, then slowly lift and micro-jiggle."
He fishes an assortment of 28-inch Adam Bricker and ACE Custom Rods split-grips and 500 Series Shimano Sahara reels he says "are tough to beat."
And when he's fishing the Mississippi River backwaters in the Fort Byron-Savanna-Galena, Illinois, region, Kent goes "old school." "I started fishing shallow river backwaters with Skoolie reels and rods. I still use the longer 28-inch rod with a good spring tip with a Custom Jigs & Spins Lil' Cecil and waxworm or Wedgee. I let my body movement just slightly move the jig, while I try to keep it still."
Now combine jigging with a tip-up and your odds go through the roof. "Especially for groups of kids, putting out tip-ups in combination with jig rods can be effective," Pennaz says. "Twenty to 30 flags a day on good bass lakes is not uncommon. Ideally, you have 3 to 4 people and spread out the tip-ups shallow to deep over vegetation. When a bass hits a tip-up you realize how aggressive they can be in winter. They can spool you before you get to the hole."
Hehner's another tip-up advocate. "They're a no-brainer," he says. "Put a 3- to 4-inch shiner under a flag and bass can't resist." But because livebait attracts large bass, there are some tweaks required to prevent gut-hooking. To that end, he fishes 1/0 to 2/0 Kahle-style hooks, which rotate upon hook-sets to penetrate the roof or side of the mouth. For the same reason, he recommends setting the hook immediately after the flag goes up, contrary to the "let 'em take it" tip-up playbook for walleyes. "Whether the bass has taken a foot of line or 20, it has the minnow in its mouth."
His standard tip-rig consists of a Frabill Pro Thermal tip-up to prevent hole freeze, 30-pound Dacron tip-up line, a 2-foot section of 15-pound Seaguar AbrazX fluoro attached with a barrel swivel, and a big split-shot 6 to 8 inches above the hook to keep the minnow pinned in a narrow strike window. In pike waters, consider stepping up to 25-pound fluorocarbon.
Genz adds that tip-ups are especially effective in shallow water. "When I'm fishing shallow spots in 3 to 5 feet, it's hard to beat a tip-up with a live shiner or sucker. But you've got to be quietâ€”bass are spooky," he says.
Whether you're jigging, setting tip-ups, or a running a combo, have fun expanding your on-ice options this winter with bass. Fullhart sums it up. "Bass don't eat as much in winter as they do the rest of the year, but set the dinner table right in front of them and they're going to eat."
Back to the taboo of eating bass, you might be surprised by the amount of meat you get from small bass and just how good they taste pulled from chilly watersâ€¦and you can pat yourself on the back for releasing those bigger 'gills and crappies.
*Jim Edlund, Becker, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler and hardwater junkie. He contributes to many In-Fisherman publications.