Downsize your tackle to catch coldwater bass from the bank.
I sat at home, itching to get out and target some early-season fish on the cold, spring day. Given the frigid, ice-out water, I would have normally targeted trout, but on that particular day, I wanted to catch largemouth bass.
I went on a hunt for open water, which took me to 10 different frozen lakes before reaching Horseshoe Lake. I grew up fishing this lake, but had never fished it in the late winter or early spring.
At first glance, the lake appeared frozen over, but after walking around its entire perimeter, I found a small open section of water near an underwater spring that prevented ice buildup. It was steep, dropping from 2 feet to 15 feet of water fairly quickly. With only about 20 feet of open water extending from the bank, I didn’t expect much, but decided to give it a shot.
My tackle for the day was a 5-foot, 6-inch ultralight spinning rod and small trout reel spooled with 5-pound-test braid and a 4-pound-test fluorocarbon leader that I tied directly to a 1/16-ounce chartreuse ball-head jig and 2-inch fork-tail soft-plastic minnow. I took my first cast across the open section of water and let my little lure sink all the way to the bottom, which took about 20 to 30 seconds. I slowly reeled in my slack and went to lift the lure off the bottom, but it wouldn’t budge. I initially thought the jig had snagged a submerged tree, but as I attempted to free it, the snag started to move. I set the hook and before I knew it, I had a chunky 3½-pound largemouth bass in my hands. Smiling ear to ear, I unhooked the bass and released her to fight another day. Over the next half-hour, with frozen hands and a runny nose, I caught more than 20 largemouth bass from 1 to 4 pounds and knew I was onto something. Since that day, I have used ultra-light tackle to fool fish in cold, open water between December and May.
After I discovered the effectiveness of ultralight fishing for coldwater bass, it became a tool that I brought with me from New Jersey to Massachusetts and everywhere in between. To fish effectively with this technique in unfamiliar waters, I look for the very same attributes as Horseshoe Lake.
When the water is cold, fish want to be able to quickly reach the shallows when the sun is strong, while maintaining easy access to deep water when the temperature drops. For that reason, the main thing I look for is steepness, since such an area allows fish to quickly and easily move from deep to shallow water and vice versa. Steep banks also allow shoreline fishermen to cast to the basin area of a lake or pond.
Other factors that warrant consideration are wind and barometric pressure. I look for days when there is very little wind or it is blowing offshore from where I want to fish. Most of the lures I use are 1/32 to 1/8 ounce, so a flanking wind or headwind makes presenting these small lures very difficult.
You can catch fish during a rising or a falling barometer, but when the water temperature is between 32 and 40 degrees, I prefer to fish the day after a barometric low, when the barometer is rising. My reasoning is that when the water is cold, fish concentrate in the basin area. During a high-pressure system with sunny skies, the water warms slightly, causing the fish to feed. When the water temperature is between 40 and 55 degrees, I prefer to fish when the barometer is falling, stops falling, and just as it starts to rise— basically before, during, and right after a storm. As the water temperature decreases in the fall and when it rises in the spring, fish will concentrate in the basin areas on cooler, low-pressure days, and when the pressure rises they spread out. Therefore, if you fish right before, during, or right after a low pressure system, you will have a great chance of finding fish stacked in one area. Without moving, you can catch fish for hours. I have caught fifty largemouth and smallmouth bass in a single location during a storm.
I prefer a 5- to 6-foot ultra-light rod with a fast action and a lure rating of 1/32 to 1/8 ounce. The rod needs to be light and sensitive enough to stay in touch with the small lures and detect the light bites from fish in cold water. I catch many largemouth bass without ever feeling a hit, just solid weight. A small trout- or ice-fishing spinning reel with around a 5.3:1 gear ratio does the job nicely.
Braided fishing line of 5 to 6 pounds provides the sensitivity to detect light bites, has thinner diameter for better casting distance, and has more strength than fluorocarbon or monofilament. Fluorocarbon does work, but I find that braid gives me better sensitivity, thinner diameter, greater casting distance, and more strength. In clear water, I like to use a 3- to 4-foot section of 4- to 5-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. In stained, muddy or dirty water, where line-shy fish are less of an issue, I use a leader as short as 5 inches.
I always start out fishing with a 1/16-ounce chartreuse ball-head jig. I switch to a lighter jig for a slower presentation in colder water, and tie on a heavier jig for a faster presentation and to fish deeper as the water warms. The color of the jig does not matter in clear water, but in stained or muddy water, a bright chartreuse color stands out, and therefore produces the most bites.
I tie the jighead directly to the fluorocarbon with a clinch or Palomar knot before threading a soft-plastic grub or fork-tail minnow onto the hook. I prefer natural baitfish colors in clear water, and a bright chartreuse in stained or muddy water.
The presentation of these small baits is fairly simple. I cast straight out as far as I can, leaving my bail open after the jig lands, and feeding out extra line to allow the jig to sink to the bottom in a straight line, not at an angle. This allows the lure to settle in deeper water, and also maximizes the distance between the lure and me before I begin my retrieve—and the longer that lure is in the water, the better my chances at finding a fish.
Whether casting into shallow or deep water, I want my lure to be working right on the bottom. When the lure sinks and settles to the bottom, I slightly lift the rod tip and begin slowly retrieving it. I don’t want the lure to rise more than a foot off the bottom during the retrieve, so I pull the jig up a few inches from the bottom and then allow it to fall and flutter down to where I initially lifted. A free-falling lure often triggers reaction strikes, so I always watch my line and stay in touch with my bait during the retrieve.