Let's start by dispelling the widely held and often written myth that bass don't feed when the water temperature is below 50 degrees. Bass - largemouth, smallmouth and spots - continue to feed and can be caught down to 40 degrees, maybe even when surface temperatures are a couple degrees colder.
Yes, the bass' metabolism is slower and they will feed less often. But they will - and they do - feed, and they can be caught.
The reality of slower metabolism reminds me of a second myth about cold-water bass: You need to fish slowly because a bass can't catch a fast-moving bait in cold water. I've caught bass in 45-degree water, and they pulled hard. I've caught smallmouth bass immediately after ice-out; admittedly they didn't have the fight of a fish from warmer water, but they could still zip under the boat in the blink of an eye.
No one, to my knowledge, has ever measured the swimming speed of black bass at different temperatures, but I am confident that a black bass can easily run down a burned lipless crankbait in cold water. Slow presentations can be effective in the winter, but that is to trigger a bite, not so the bass can catch your offering.
The bass feed and can be caught in the winter. The stumbling block for anglers new to the rewards of winter bassin' is finding the fish.
Wintertime bass movement and habitat use has not been rigorously studied in Mississippi or neighboring states that share our climate, but some information can be gleaned from studies both nearby and far away.
Studies in northern waters provide a consistent conclusion: Bass avoid flowing water when it is cold. In rivers with at least intermittent flow, bass move to the backwaters and slack-water areas in winter. The presence of cover in the form of aquatic weeds, brush or rock is a plus. I think this generalization applies to any system where the water drops into the 40s.
Backwaters provide the necessary refuge from the current, and the other fishes that aggregate out of the current provide an abundant food supply. Some backwaters, however, can be a death trap if dissolved oxygen is insufficient. Backwaters tend to be shallow and have soft bottoms, conditions that favor the growth of dense aquatic plants. Decomposing aquatic plants can sap the oxygen and, lacking inflowing oxygen-rich river water, the backwater can quickly become uninhabitable. Look for fish before spending a lot of time fishing a particular backwater. If the habitat is suitable for other fish, it's probably suitable for bass.
Productive patterns vary seasonally, and local knowledge of where the bite is likely to be best in different seasons on a particular lake or reservoir is invaluable. However, studies of bass movement in southern waters indicates the bass use the same habitats and have similar movements in all seasons.
For example, largemouth bass in two Central-Florida lakes primarily occupied home ranges in the nearshore vegetation year round. Maidencane, spatterdock and cattails were heavily used. No habitat shift was evident in the winter. Movement tended to decline in the winter when water temperature dropped to 58 to 62 degrees, but movement was also low in late summer when water temperature peaked at 86 to 88 degrees.
In Lake Seminole on the Florida-Georgia border, largemouth bass moved back and forth between nearshore weed beds and offshore areas with standing timber. Winter location and movement of largemouth bass differed little from other seasons. The fish were less likely to be shallow in the winter, but they still moved to shallow weeds at times.
Farther to the north in Jordan Reservoir, North Carolina, where winter water temperatures dip to the mid 40s, largemouth bass tended to be farther offshore and moved less during the winter than during fall or spring. Although the researchers found that average distance offshore was greater in the winter, the offshore distance was still only 30 to 70 yards. Of interest was the onshore movements, regardless of water temperature, into flooded shoreline vegetation when the lake level rose. There was no evidence of the bass congregating in preferred winter habitat, but Jordan has little cover.
Tying this all together, lacking lake-specific knowledge of good winter fishing spots, fish the same types of habitat you would fish in the pre-spawn or in the fall. I would avoid shallow, isolated backwaters where a serious cold snap can lower the water temperature below 40 degrees.
I've been fortunate to personally witness the big fish that can be caught. Cold temperatures can be a spoiler - pick sunny, calm days.
To those of you who would rather be in the woods looking for a trophy whitetail, I thank you for the solitude.