The warm breezes and long sunny days of summer are a distant memory, replaced by the short days and cold nights of winter. For me, cabin fever sets in firmly by January, leaving me torn between spending another day organizing my tackle or pulling the cover off my boat and squaring off against the cold winter winds. Many fishermen in the Northeast face the same dilemma, and in the face of notoriously tough fishing conditions, hang up their rods and reels, winterize their boats, and resign themselves to the fact that bass fishing is over until spring—but it doesn’t have to be. If your local honey hole isn’t covered in ice and you are prepared to face the cold, wintertime in the Northeast can still provide exciting bass fishing. The key is knowing where to look, what to use, and how to use it.
The biggest challenge for many anglers is changing their summer fishing tactics to winter tactics. When water temperatures dip into the 30s, slowing down your approach and downsizing your baits are the keys to catching bass. Bass are cold-blooded, meaning their body temperature is the same as the surrounding water. As the water temperature drops, their metabolism slows dramatically and their energy level is greatly reduced. The bass’ need for food decreases, and though they feed less, they will still feed.
When looking for winter bass, I focus on finding cover or structure in deeper water. Electronics will allow you to cover more water and search for these fish-holding structures as well as locate schools of fish. If you don’t have electronics, basic pond maps and cell phone apps like Navionics can be very helpful.
Largemouth will seek the warmest, most stable water they can find, and that usually means deeper water, so for many anglers this is the first daunting challenge of winter fishing. Many of us are used to beating the banks and fishing shallow cover and structure for bass in the warmer months, but we have lees experience searching open water and probing the depths with deep-diving baits or vertical-jigging presentations. On deeper lakes or ponds (which take longer to freeze), largemouth as well as their prey bunch up tightly around vertical structure and offshore structure like humps, and rock piles. The commonly accepted theory is that bass tend to key in on these areas in the coldwater months because they can move greater distances more easily and expend less energy to change their depth. Any remaining weeds can also be a great area to target. Small baitfish and panfish will concentrate in these areas, and the bass will follow. If the weeds are near deep water, then you’ve found a winter hotspot.
Once I’ve located good structure or schools of bass or baitfish, the next thing to do is tie on my favorite coldwater baits. Below are my go-to presentations for when the water temperature drops below 40 degrees. Give them a try this winter, and you just might heat things up.
A curly-tail grub can be one of the most effective bass lures for warm or cold water, yet for some reason many bass anglers never use them. Grubs can catch bass both shallow and deep, and in clear or murky water. When the water is very cold, a 3- to 4-inch curly-tail grub on a ¼-ounce jighead is one of the simplest and most effective presentations for large and smallmouth bass. Cast to the shallow edge of a drop-off and let the grub sink alongside it, raising the rod tip as the bait reaches the bottom. Many of the strikes will come as the grub is falling, so be ready.
I like fishing suspending jerkbaits in the winter because they allow you to cover a lot of water and they draw strikes even when they’re not moving. Jerkbaits can match the lethargy of coldwater bass while keeping your bait in the strike zone. Fishing this bait is largely the same as during other times of year, but the biggest difference is the length of the pause between snaps of the rod. I see many anglers fishing these baits too aggressively throughout the winter. Cast your bait beyond your target, crank it down to the depth you are targeting and then give a snap of your rod tip on slack line. A good rule of thumb is the colder the water, the longer the pause. You will have to experiment with the length, but I have paused a jerkbait for as long as 60 seconds in order to draw strikes.
A soft-plastic worm worked very slowly can be one of the most effective winter bass-fishing techniques. These baits allow for a very slow, finesse presentation. When there are windy conditions, they can be matched with a variety of weights to create some very effective finesse presentations. It also makes it easier to stay connected to your bait, which can be very tough in windy conditions. Wacky rigging, Carolina rigging or drop-shotting the worm can very effective techniques as well.
It took me a while to get comfortable with this bait, but I have come to count on the blade bait for bites from largemouths and smallmouths in extreme coldwater conditions. Similar to the grub, the blade bait is an often overlooked option for anglers.
Many anglers overlook blade baits because of their weight and aggressive vibration, yet these lures are so effective for the very reasons many overlook them. They are versatile because they can be fished like a crankbait or dropped into a deep hole and jigged vertically. You can keep them in the strike zone, lift and drop your rod tip, and they will flutter as they fall.
The “jig and pig” can provide some big bites in winter. A light jig with a trailer is a good choice in cold water because you can fish it on lighter line. Hop or swim it slowly around the rocks and along drops to probe for bites. The lighter weight of the jig should keep it from falling between cracks in the rocks and getting hung up.