Bass are cold-blooded creatures, meaning their body temperature is the same as that of their surroundings. As the water temperature drops, their digestive process slows dramatically – according to “Bass Professor” Doug Hannon, it takes a bass about four hours to digest a meal in 80-degree water, four days in 50-degree water! As the water temperature plummets, the need for frequent feeding diminishes, and bass become exponentially less active. But then, if you’ve ever gone strikeless on a chilly early spring bass outing, you already knew that!
Bass pros and guides are on the water constantly, and must identify productive methods for catching bass when the lake water is frigid. Choosing the right lure is a huge part of this equation. If you’re having trouble scoring strikes when the water temp drops below 50 degrees, study what follows carefully…and heat up your next bass outing!
Arkansas pro Kevin Short swears by these minnow mimics in water as cold as 37 degrees. “Suspending jerkbaits, unlike most other bass lures, draw strikes when they’re sitting still,” Short explained. “They match the lethargic mood of cold-water bass and work best in clear to moderately stained lakes.” Kevin fishes jerkbaits around deep points, channel banks and the edges of main lake flats – staging areas where bass often suspend, waiting for the water to warm before moving shallower. “These fish won’t chase down a fast-moving lure, but they’re suckers for a jerkbait!”
When fishing jerkbaits, remember that less is more, Short emphasized. “Most anglers fish ‘em too aggressively, with too many jerks. Just cast the lure past your target, reel it down a few turns to its maximum depth, give one or two quick snaps of the rod tip, then let it sit motionless – sometimes for 10 seconds, sometimes for nearly a minute. The colder the water, the longer the pause.” Short fishes jerkbaits on a 7-foot light-action crankbait rod. “Many bass will be foul-hooked on this lure, and the hooks may rip out when a stiff-action rod is used. Fairly light line, 10 to 12 pound, will handle a big fish in open water while allowing the lure to achieve its maximum depth.”
Legendary Arkansas pro Bobby Murray, who won the first Bassmaster Classic, is a jig junkie. “When the water is stained to muddy and below 50 degrees, I feel more confident fishing a jig than any other lure,” he testified. “When rigged with a split-tail pork or plastic trailer, it’s a perfect crawfish mimic. The heavy jighead bumps through submerged brushpiles and over logs with ease, and the tails of the trailer flare out like the pinchers of a live craw. This is the ultimate early spring big-bass lure. I caught a 10 1/2-pounder on a jig ‘n pig at a Tennessee lake last March.”
Murray targets submerged wood cover lining reservoir creek channels and ditches in the dead of winter. “This pattern holds true everywhere I’ve fished for bass. Just run up a tributary arm and work your way back out following the old creek channel, pitching a jig to every stump, log and stickup you encounter. If you can find an underwater ditch, even better, because these subtle structures receive very little fishing pressure and can hold monster bass.”
Bobby fishes jigs on a 7-foot heavy-action baitcasting rod or flipping stick with 20 pound fluorocarbon line: “Jig fishing is not an ultralight game; you’ve got to hammer the fish and winch it out of thick cover!”
“The grub is the deadliest bass lure you’re not fishing!” joked North Carolina pro Dustin Wilks. “It’ll catch bass both shallow and deep, in clear to murky water, yet for some reason, most bass anglers never use it. It’s a great lure in cold water: compact to match the suppressed appetite of bass, yet highly realistic in appearance, like a small shad. I’ve caught largemouth over 9 pounds and smallmouth over 7 pounds on grubs.”
For winter bass, Wilks favors a 4- or 5-inch twist-tail grub rigged on a quarter-ounce jighead. He fishes it on a heavy-action 6 1/2-foot spinning rod with 8 pound fluorocarbon. Sloping chunk-rock banks are his favorite targets: “Bass gravitate to banks with a 45-degree slope in early spring because here, they can make a significant depth change without swimming a long distance and exerting a lot of energy. Position your boat so you’re facing the bank, cast the grub shallow, allow it to sink, then raise the rod tip sharply to 11 o’clock to snatch the lure off the rocks. Repeat this until the grub is directly under you. Bass will strike it as it’s falling, so if you see the line hop, set the hook.”
Like grubs, relatively few bass anglers fish blade baits. These thin slabs of metal drop into the strike zone like a rock, deliver vibrations frantic enough to jar your fillings loose, and flash like a strobe light to attract bass from their canyon-deep lairs in clear, cold lakes and icy rivers. They’re highly versatile — you can fish ‘em like a drop bait, jig ‘em vertically or reel ‘em straight in like a crankbait.
Massachusetts guide Dave Roberts relies on homemade blade baits to catch largemouth and smallmouth in water just a degree or two above freezing. “I fish a half-ounce blade when I see bass or baitfish down to 30 feet on my graph; a 3/4-ounce blade when they’re deeper.” Roberts’ favorite way to fish this lure in deep New England rivers is by dropping it to the bottom of a hole and jigging it repeatedly, but he says blades can be tight-lined down deep reservoir ledges as well. “Position your boat in deep water, cast the blade to the bank, and let it fall with a slight bow in your line – this is accomplished by slowly lowering your rod while the lure drops. When it hits bottom, stroke the rod upward — the blade will jump off the bottom, vibrating and flashing like a fleeing shad.”
What?? Lipless Crankbaits in Frigid Water??
Most experienced bass anglers use slow-moving lures like jigs and suspending jerkbaits in frigid water. But Michigan pro Kevin VanDam often reaches for a lipless crankbait instead. “This is a surprisingly good lure choice when the water temp is in the mid to upper 40s,” he said. “It gives off tremendous vibrations and can trigger a reaction strike from a big, sluggish fish.”
In late winter/early spring, lunker bass often move onto shallow flats; here, they’re suckers for a lipless crankbait, VanDam explained. “I’ll ease onto the flat and fan-cast a Strike King Red Eye Shad, combing every inch of the structure for bass that have moved up from deep water to sun themselves. In cold water, a strike on this lure from a hawg bass often feels like you’ve hooked a sack of potatoes – they just suck it in. This is one of my prime prespawn tournament patterns, a good one to keep in mind when your competition is fishing slow.”