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If you’re going to attempt bass fishing in cold weather, here’s what you need to know.
1. Difficult conditions aren’t impossible conditions.
Once the water gets below 50 degrees, bass fishing can become a real challenge. Just because it isn’t easy, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Bass change their patterns in cold weather and so should you. Having the motivation to get outside, rain or shine, and wet a line is the only way you’re going to be able to catch anything. There is no such thing as failing at fishing. You either catch something or you learn from the experience. I’ve often mocked the guys who say “I didn’t catch anything, but sometimes it’s just nice to be on the water.” At some point, all of us are due for those times.
2. Bass hold tighter to cover.
Bass tend to hold tighter to cover in cold weather. For them, flooded timber, ledges, and weedlines are like a warm blanket. They hold to cover like they’re on the couch sipping hot cocoa. There are a few reasons for this, but it’s most certainly true when there’s high pressure on the barometer. Fish normally stick cover as a point to ambush their prey, but in high pressure conditions, they’re actually holding to cover because they are more sensitive to the rising barometer. As the barometer drops, the low pressure gives more buoyancy to plankton, which draws out the baitfish, and then the bass.
3. If it’s cold, Bass will look for warmer water
Following precipitation in the fall and early spring, smallmouth bass will hold in channels where tributaries meet the main-stem. Runoff from warmwater lakes that flow into the river provide a buffer zone of warmer water where fish tend to be more active.
If there is sunlight throughout the day, most of it will fall on the northern side of a lake. Water temperatures fluctuate much slower than the temperature of the air, so pay attention to long-term weather trends.
Forage fish will also follow patterns of warmer water that activate the movement of their food sources. Bass that get hungry enough will follow suit.
4. Bass don’t always stay at the deepest points.
Sometimes the warmest water is not always the deepest. Shallow coves that receive enough hours of sunlight will warm faster and retain the heat better than deeper water, where the temperatures are more consistent. Bass may even move back and fourth during the course of the day from deeper water to shallow areas. Boulders or a dark colored bottom in clear, shallow water can absorb heat from the sun, and much like a pet snake holds to a heat rock, bass will stick tightly to that cover to stay warmer.
5. Bass slow down in winter, and so should you.
Bass aren’t the only fish that slow down in winter. Forage fish also change their movement and behaviors. Presentations should mimic lethargic baitfish if you want to draw strikes from lethargic bass. Think of your retrieves in the context of minutes rather than seconds. Suspending jerkbaits, drop shot rigs and heavy football jigs are great presentations for staying in the strike zone.
Make long casts with the jerkbait, and rip it the first few feet to give it some depth. Then let it sit. Twitch it, then let it sit a little longer. When you think it’s time to twitch it again, wait twice as long to do it. Keep multiplying that time frame between twitches until you start getting bites, even if you have to let the bait suspend for well over a minute or two between moving it at all. The “Mad Clown” pattern works particularly well during winter because the red-head imitates a baitfish stressed by high pressure. The yellow/chartreuse back imitates the fish turning pale as it’s on the verge of death. This is the kind of easy meal that bass will make an effort for when they’re not willing to chase bait that is a little more lively.
Fish your dropshot in a similar manner. Allow the weight to sit stationary on the bottom. Control the movement of your bait by drawing enough tension in the line to draw the bait upward, then give it just enough slack to allow the bait to fall a few inches, then draw it tight again in the same spot without dragging the weight or pulling it off the bottom. Continue doing this with the same long pauses between movements.
A heavy football jig will also stay in place better than other jighead styles that serve different purposes. The added weight will allow you to tap the bottom, rather than jigging it vertically to grab attention. The vibration of the jighead tapping the bottom is picked up in their lateral line and drives bass nuts. This slow presentation is like tapping your finger on a counter until someone snaps and loses their patience. When you pull it off the bottom, this is when the bait will move the greatest distance. Try to keep the jig close to the bottom so it stays in the strike zone and taps the bottom without moving too far from the fish. Continue doing this with the same long pauses between movements.
6. Change your colors to contrast water clarity.
White and chartreuse spinnerbaits with copper or brass blades contrast dingy, tanin-stained water from fallen leaves in the late fall and early winter. Using a single Colorado blade will “thump” harder than willow blades, allowing for a much slower retrieve. As water levels rise, shallow flats that were exposed to air during the summer create a submerged weedline. On warmer days when the fish are more active, bass will follow baitfish into these flats that are following plankton. The edge of that weedline, and the area of water between it and the bank gives baitfish nowhere to hide. Cast beyond that weedline in the deeper water, and slow roll it over the edge of the weeds and into the open.
Muddy murky water makes it a little more difficult for bass to hone in on their targets. Using darker colors like black, blue, or purple will give the bass a silhouette to focus on. Darker-colored jigs worked around rocks, drug over weed-beds or pitched into cover can be effective when there’s less visibility. Adding sound to your bait will also help the fish locate it.
7. Be prepared for the conditions that day.
Humans are affected by the weather far more than the fish. Make sure you have enough layers that you can adjust to changing weather. If you’ve got too much on and the sun decides to pop out from behind the clouds, you don’t want to be cumbersome and sweaty wearing puffy jackets or skiing gear. The temperature will fluctuate during the course of the day, make sure you can take those layers on and off accordingly.
Have rain-gear on-board. If a sudden storm brews and you’ve managed to use this information to become successful that day, you don’t want to get rained out. If you decide to stay, you don’t want to come home soaking wet. Have a good rain jacket and slickers. Wear materials that repel water or dry quickly. Choose synthetic fabrics, fleece, or wool over cotton shirts and denim jeans. Avoid lightning at all costs. Being the tallest point on the water with a graphite rod in the air is asking for it.
Get there early and make the most of out of your day. As the amount of available daylight dwindles, so does your fishing time.