One of my fondest bass fishing memories was actually created during a late season duck hunting trip in the upper mid-west when I was a teenager. My brother, cousin and myself had decided to hunt a small "borrow pit" off a major interstate. The pit had only a few acres of mostly shallow water but we had seen many ducks and a few snow geese using the area over several weeks. The water around the edge where we planned to build our blind was to deep to wade in and, without a boat we had to come up with a plan to retrieve our decoys once we were finished hunting. I had carefully cleaned all my rods, reels and tackle late that September and put them away till spring. After all, as far as I knew then, the bass just quit biting once pheasant and duck season arrived! I figured however that I could break out one casting rod and grab a couple of rattle traps to snag the anchor lines of the decoys and retrieve them after our hunt.
The first day on that borrow pit we managed shoot our limit by 1:00pm. We were thrilled and could not wait to retrieve our decoys and get home for some hot food. I grabbed the casting rod which I had loaded with a 1/2oz rattle trap. I threw the trap into the spread of decoys and cranked for all it was worth. I snagged a decoy anchor line and gave it a pull. To my surprise it pulled back! After a few seconds of "tug-of-war" that decoy line jumped and looked a lot like a five pound bass! I landed the fish and we were in shock! Needless to say I was then forced to take turns with my brother and my cousin trying to retrieve those decoys. We managed to land our 18 decoys along with 6 more bass in the process. Eating lunch and cleaning ducks would have to wait. We spent the rest of the afternoon catching more bass ripping a rattle trap from the bank in water under forty degrees. There was ice around the edge of much of the lake and patches of ice floating in the middle. I knew this was not a "fluke" and it was the beginning of an entire new frontier of bass angling for me.
Cold water is by no means "dead" water. Over the years since that first experience I have learned that water under fifty five degrees can be as productive as warmer water. Bass are still active even under ice covered water. They slow down but they can be patterned and they can be caught. It is easy to make catching bass in cold water harder than it really is. It is important to remember that bass continue to relate to things such as cover, baitfish and barometric pressure in winter just as they do in the summer. The activity level of bass is simply slowed in the cold season and because bass will have a lower metabolic rate they will not need to feed as often however, they will feed. I do however like to target certain areas and conditions when looking for a bite in cold weather. I like smaller lakes or ponds, shallow backwaters where water running in to the area is present or areas below dams and hydroplants where water is being discharged by turbines or spillways. I like cloudy conditions coupled with lower barometric pressure and the early or late periods in the day. I have done very well in late afternoon and evening periods in cold water.
One big myth in bass fishing is that when the water is cold a person must use nothing but light line and spinning gear coupled with "itty bitty" baits. If the water is open and surface temps are between thirty five and fifty degrees bass can still be caught on regular bass gear. Under these conditions I have three favorite baits. A spinnerbait is probably my most favorite cold water bait. In cold water I prefer a 3/4oz spinnerbait with a light or natural colored skirt and a colorado in front of a big willow leaf blade. I generally use braided line fishing spinnerbaits in order to detect the most subtle of strikes. If the water is stained or muddy I start looking for largemouth along shallow shoreline cover that has quick access to deep water. Steep shorelines with wood cover are great places to fish when the water is cold and stained. Deep docks and rip-rap banks have also been good areas for me. I retrieve the spinnerbait just fast enough to keep the blades turning. "Rolling" the bait over cover and letting it fall through the cover is a good technique for cold water bass. Slow rolling spinnerbaits over main lake points and especially standing timber near creek channels can produce great winter action. Lilly pad stubble and other dead vegetation is another favorite place for me to throw a spinnerbait when the water is cold. If the water is clear I will fish a spinnerbait deeper. In clear water I look for bass near the end of main lake points and in deeper, permanent cover such as rocks, stumps or timber.
Clear, cold water will usually have me bringing out my next favorite cold water bait, the crankbait. Again I like light or natural colors when it comes to cranking in cold water. I like 1/4 to 1/2oz crankbaits in clear, cold water and usually use the deep running varieties. I certainly like to slow the crankbait retrieve down from my summer cadence and try to make long casts. Steep rip-rap and rock bluffs are my favorite areas to crank. A parallel presentation along the face of man made dams or causeways can produce big fish in cold water on crankbaits worked slow. Moving water such as water below a hydroelectric dam or spillway has always been another favorite area of mine to crank in winter months. In moving water below dams there are usually plenty of baitfish and a crankbait readily represents what the bass will be feeding on. I use twelve to fourteen pound test mono and crank just fast enough to feel the "wobble" of the bait. I have caught bass with fast presentations in very cold water but the slow approach seems to be much more consistent. I love to crank farm ponds even if they are still 1/2 covered with ice! As the ice begins to melt in the spring the bass are beginning to get active and a lot earlier than most people think they are.
My last but not least favorite cold water bait is of course, the "jig-n-pig". The ol' "hog on a bullet" is probably the most versatile bait in my arsenal. Again, if the water is stained or muddy I will fish the jig shallower than I would in clear water. I like to use the jig especially near permanent cover such as fixed docks, big laydowns, stumps or rocks. I've had great luck using a jig on steep rock bluffs in cold water. At the same time I have taken some big fish in grass beds that have not yet died off. In clear water I will target deep banks with thick cover or deep brushpiles. I like the "shake and drag" method best when fishing a jig in cold water keeping close contact with the cover or bottom. I'll pull the jig along a little, let is set for a couple of seconds and then shake it a few times then repeat. Again, slow is the key and letting a jig sit for a few agonizing seconds can produce some good fish. I usually use a 3/8oz hand poured jig and I like the standard black and blue or green pumpkin. I seem to do just as well with plastic chunk as I do with cut pork trailers so I am beginning to use more plastic. Presentation is much more important than bait selection.
When I first started ice fishing I figured that you had to fish the deepest water in the lake. After gaining some experience however I began to catch bass in water eight to fifteen feet deep instead of twenty or thirty. I caught many bass when I lived in the mid-west in farmponds and smaller lakes fishing through the ice in the same areas I caught fish in the summer. However, ice fishing is where I do "downsize" my bait selection. Small jigs spoons and finesse worms will catch bass well through the ice. I like to target ponds or lakes that have standing timber near the creek channels. There were no shortage of these ponds in the area I lived and they were full of bass. I also learned that ice fishing is a great way to study a lake or pond. Since sonar works through the ice I would spend hours walking around looking at drop-offs, channels, points and so on especially when the fishing action was slow. I carried a bucket of water and had my transducer on a long stick while looking at the portable sonar unit which I had hanging on a strap around my neck. If there was standing water on the ice I could just walk around and map the whole lake! I found it to be a great way to find areas to fish when the ice melted off and located many good staging areas prior to the spring spawn. My favorite ice fishing times are early or late in the day and periods of low pressure. Approaching cold fronts and days with snow precipitation were also good ice fishing days.
Fishing in cold water requires adjustments. Mental adjustments may be the most important. Recognize that when the water temps begin to fall that bass do not move to deep "unproductive" haunts. Prepare yourself mentally so that you are confident that there are fish to be caught and, be prepared to have extra patience. Be slow and precise in your lure presentation. Develop a plan for your fishing day and include several areas and techniques to try. You may catch a lot of bass, you may catch only a few bass or you may catch no bass. Either way, it is better than not bass fishing at all!
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