Call me nuts, but my favorite time to bass fish is not in the spring when the flowers are blooming; nor is it during the summer when I can wear sandals, shorts, and a t-shirt; and it is not late fall when the leaves are displaying incredible beauty. Nope. My favorite time of year to bass fish is when the trees are void of leaves and required clothing includes boots, bibs, parka, and a stocking cap. Am I nuts? You be the judge.
Before the ice blankets our lakes, bass get amazingly predictable. This normally begins in late November and lasts up until the lake is completely covered with ice. Even when the lake is half froze over, bass are still willing to bite. When the water cools into the 40’s, all game species begin migrating to their winter haunts. Contrary to the idea that these cold blooded creatures rarely eat in the frigid water, I can assure you, these fish eat! Granted, finding them can be a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but when you find them, it can be one of the best days in your life. In 38 degree water, I have caught over 60 smallmouth bass as well as over 40 largemouths in a single outing. These are good numbers any time of year.
Finding these fish can be surprisingly simple if you are familiar with popular ice fishing locations. Bass follow bluegill throughout most of the year, but especially during the winter. If you know where the ice is annually carved in to Swiss cheese by ice anglers, you need to look no further. The bass will be there too.
If you do not know where the ice fishermen congregate on a lake, or perhaps you want to target a river system, the search is more challenging, but feasible. Spend your time on the northern side. The north shoreline protects the water from brisk cold northern winds and is often a degree or two warmer. It also receives more sunlight. Study a map and locate the sharpest breaklines and inside cuts creating a deep pocket. Once on the water look for signs of any green weeds. Bluegill will use these weeds for protection. Finding baitfish on your electronics is confirmation you are in the right area. If this recipe can be located, you are certain to find bass.
Perhaps the best aspect of fishing this time of year is that the fish will return to the same spots every year and remain there all winter. Unlike other seasons when the fish are constantly moving, they will remain in the same area all winter.
Arguably the best bait for cold water fish is a blade bait. Wide varieties are available on the market today, but the ½ ounce gold Lazer Blade is always my first choice. It takes no time to reach bottom and produces an awesome vibration with the slightest rise. Working this bait is easy. Simply cast it as far as possible and let it sink to the bottom. You will know when it hits bottom as your line will have slack. Now place your rod in the 9 o’clock position and raise it to 11 o’clock and drop it back down to 9 o’clock. Once the bait settles, repeat all the way to the boat. Rarely will you feel the fish strike. It will suddenly have some resistance as you lift it, which will feel like weeds. Upon feeling this resistance, do not set the hook; just continue pulling the rod as far back as you can, keeping pressure on the fish.
Swimbaits are growing in popularity in cold water. An endless supply now saturates the market, but not are all created equally. Some are made of a plastic that will not elicit good action in cold water. The cold temperatures actually stiffen them up. I rely on a Speed Shad. I match them up with a ¼ ounce leadhead jig and choose bluegill color schemes.
Retrieving this bait is also easy. Cast as far as possible, let it sink to desired depth, and maintain a slow, constant retrieve all the way back. Keep an eye on your line, a slight bow should be prevalent between your rod tip and the water. Also, be patient when a fish bites. It will feel like a bluegill pecking at your bait and then suddenly you will feel the weight of the fish. Do not set the hook during the pecking, wait until you feel its weight.
Typically you will hear anglers suggest sleeping in all morning because the bite gets better once the sun has the opportunity to warm up the water, but my experience suggests the complete opposite. This may because most winter articles are written from southern anglers where shad is the primary forage, but in Northwest Indiana, the best bite occurs the first three hours after dawn. Yes, it is cold outside, but you will be amazed at how quickly you warm up when the fish are biting.
Am I nuts? Perhaps, but I will not be watching fishing programs on the television this winter; I will be experiencing it live with simple tactics and predictable fish. Plus, I will likely have the entire body of water to myself. Not to mention, my rapid heart rate caused by the fish catching will keep me plenty warm.