The older I get the colder I get.
So in recent years I have become more of a fair-weather fisherman and my winter fishing trips have been cut drastically. However when the weather is tolerable for my old bones I will get out on the water and throw my favorite wintertime lure — a suspending stickbait.
The suspending stickbait has always been special to me ever since the first time I tried it with Bruce Gier, a renowned stickbait specialist at Lake of the Ozarks. Gier introduced me to the suspending stickbait on March 9, 1989 when the water temperature at Lake of the Ozarks ranged from 37 to 43 degrees that day. We caught 14 keepers that day sweeping a Spoonbill Rattlin’ Rogue weighted down with lead wire. The bass were suspended 4 to 6 feet deep along docks and edges of milfoil beds on secondary points. That memorable day and the cold-water tactic Gier showed me was recorded in my first article ever published in Bassmaster Magazine.
Lure manufacturers have eliminated the need to wrap wire or glue lead tape on stickbaits by making suspending versions of the original floating models. Most of today’s suspending stickbaits are neutrally buoyant when they hit the water, but there are times when I still have to add a SuspenDot or SuspenStrip to make the lure suspend properly. Before we moved to our house on the lake, I used to test the neutral buoyancy of my lure by dropping it into a bucket of water chilled down to the same temperature as the lake water. However now I just walk down to the dock and drop my stickbait into the water to see if it suspends.
Lure sizes, colors and styles have changed dramatically since those early days of suspending stickbait fishing, but the logic behind this tactic has remained the same throughout the years. Get the lure down to a certain depth (usually 4 to 8 feet deep) and let it linger in that strike zone with an occasional series of soft twitches or a short sweep of the rod. The technique works best in clear water, although I have had some success with bone- or purple-and-chartreuse stickbaits in stained water.
The style and size of stickbait I use in the wintertime depends on the water temperature. Most of the time I use a 4- or 5-inch medium-diver stickbait, but when the water temperature drops below 40 degrees I will also throw a stickbait with a spoonbill to probe deeper water. In the late winter and early spring as the water temperature climbs above 45 degrees I will switch to a 5 1/2-inch Rattlin’ Rogue to tempt the larger prespawn females looking for a magnum-sized meal.
Color choices on my home waters of Lake of the Ozarks seem to vary from year to year. One year a brown-and-white Rapala Husky Jerk worked best for us, but the next year a ghost shad Bass Pro Shops XPS Suspending Minnow seemed to be the hot lure. The last couple of years I’ve had success on a brown-gold Ima Flit and purple/chartreuse Spro Lures McStick. Following a basic formula usually helps me decide which color to start with on any given day. If the water is clear and it’s a sunny day, I opt for chrome, clown or translucent hues, but if the weather is cloudy or if the water is off-color I prefer stickbaits in bone, purple-and-chartreuse, brown-and-white or fire tiger.
The weather also dictates the gear I use for my stickbait tactics. On extremely windy days or if the air temperature is below freezing I opt for spinning tackle because I can throw the lightweight stickbait into the wind without backlashing and the larger guides on the spinning rod and the open spool of the spinning reel prevents the guides and reel from icing up — a common occurrence with baitcasting equipment. In most situations, I work the stickbait with a 5 1/2-foot medium-action Berkley Lightning Rod (with pistol grip) and a Shimano Curado baitcast reel. I like the shorter rod because it allows me to point the rod downward and twitch the lure without the rod tip hitting the water. I also prefer this rod because its light weight reduces fatigue in my wrists after hours of jerking the stickbait.
Since I normally fish stickbaits in clear water, I scale down to 8-pound test monofilament, but I also try 10-pound test if I want my stickbait to stay higher in the water column. If I want the stickbait to dive deeper I tie it on fluorocarbon since this line tends to sink. I have occasionally caught bass on a stickbait that slowly sinks, but most of the bites I trigger with a stickbait come when the lure has neutral buoyancy or barely rises. I also like to make sure my stickbait sits level horizontally or with its nose slightly pointed downward, which I achieve by placing weight near the bill of the lure or putting a larger hook on the front hook hanger.
I usually vary my retrieve depending on the weather and water temperature. When I use the deep-diving stickbait in extremely cold water and bright sunshine, I crank the lure down with about five or six turns of the reel handle and then employ a series of rod sweeps (moving the rod about 1 foot at a time) and pauses of about 10 to 15 seconds. Anytime there is a chop on the water, I opt for the medium-diver, which I also crank down to where it reaches its maximum depth and then I give the lure two to three slight twitches of the rod tip before letting it sit for five to 10 seconds. A trick I have learned from stickbait specialists at Table Rock Lake is to pull the lure a couple of inches after a long pause to imitate the struggles of a dying shad.
The biggest bass I ever caught on the Lake of the Ozarks was an 8-pound, 1-ounce largemouth that fell for a suspending stickbait. That’s probably why the suspense of watching my line as I pause my stickbait warms me up on a cold winter day because I know that next bite could be from a trophy fish.