December is the month for celebrating Christmas, football bowl games, fireplaces, deer hunting and bass fishing.
Yes, you read that right, bass fishing.
If your end-of-the-year plans do not include a bass outing, tournament angler Shannon Denson of Brandon said you should consider rescheduling. You could miss out on some great action.
“Despite the cold, bass are still looking for all those things that bass need — comfortable water temperature, ample dissolved oxygen, and a good food source,” Denson said. “This pre-spawn period sees bass starting to move based on those things that trigger the spawn. All bass like to spawn on a flat surface, the flatter the better, and they will be near those areas in winter.
“It’s in the deep water near these sometimes generations-old bedding areas where the bass will stage, waiting on just the right conditions to start the spawn. Prior to the start of spawning activity, bass are cold and sluggish, but they can be caught.”
Winter typically sees a marked increase in fish movement and fishing activity, especially so on a warm winter day. Florida strain largemouths, especially those in lakes in the southern half of the state, become more active than their native northern cousins. Remember, Mississippi’s largemouth bass record, an 18.15-pound Florida bass from Natchez State Park Lake, was caught on Dec. 31.
Some anglers believe Florida bass feed more aggressively during winter than northern black bass, but biologists say there is no evidence to support that as fact. They say Floridas grow larger simply because they grow fast early and then they live longer lives.
For the purposes of this story and winter ways to catch largemouths, we’re talking about all bass, northerns and Floirdas.
Bass and shad have a special relationship in December. When bass get hungry, they eat shad. To expend the least amount of energy necessary to get their nourishment bass may pick on injured or dying shad. With a gullet full, they may not feed again for up to two weeks. The remainder of the time they hang motionless like a cluster of couch potatoes watching back-to-back bowl games. The good news for the angler is that not every bass eats at the same time, so some members of the school are always ready for a snack.
“The bass, being cold-bloodied creatures, are the same temperature as the water. Cold water slows a bass’s metabolism,” said Tom Holman, fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. “Studies have shown a bass may require several days for a meal, such as a shad, to digest.
“Water temperature will pretty much be the same from top to bottom in the winter. Several days of warm weather will heat the surface and a wind might pile it up, so to speak, but as soon as conditions calm the water evens out.”
According to Holman, gizzard shad tolerate cooler water better than threadfin shad. When shad die, they sink to the bottom. Catfish caught in winter are often gorged with shad, according to the biologist. Holman believes lures made to look or act like wounded or dying shad may work best for lethargic winter bass.
Start with suspending lures
High on Denson’s list of winter go-to baits is the suspended jerk bait, such as a Smithwick Super Rouge. Allowing the bait time to suspend, Denson works the rod tip up and down to make the bait swim toward the surface for a foot or so, then fall and re-suspend. The motion is that of an injured minnow.
“There are quite a few baits that suspend now,” Denson said. “I don’t think one is really better than another, as much as presentation is a key for success. Bomber, Bandit and others have made divers that have limited depth, but if they dive deep enough to reach the suspended fish, then they can be successful.”
Denson also touts fast-diving, big-lipped crank baits that can work like suspended baits.
“Crank big-lip baits down to the depth you want, then allow it to start to float just a little, then pull it again.” Denson said. “The lure will then have an up-down motion, such as an injured baitfish might have thus sparking a strike from a hungry bass.”
Larry Grant, an avid fisherman and amateur wooden lure maker, experiments with crank baits and suspending baits — both his and commercial offerings — in the family swimming pool. He notices how quickly baits sink, how much they wobble, and how fast they rise after a stopped retrieve.
“Working bait in a pool will help anglers know what the bait is doing when they can’t see it,” Grant said. “All artificial baits are trying to mimic the real deal.
“Minnows, shad, frogs, crawfish, and worms, every artificial bait is made to fool the fish into thinking it is something it is not. The more the angler can manipulate the bait to that end, the more successful he will be.”
Slow, slow slow
One of the iconic scenes from the television show Taxi was Jim, the stoner, taking a driver’s test and asking his friends, “what does a yellow light mean.” Jim misunderstood the answer, which was “slow down.” The punch line came when Jim repeated the question much slower.
Winter bass anglers would be well served to watch that scene on YouTube and remember it. They should approach most winter days on the water as if there is a yellow light flashing and fish slow.
Slowing down the retrieval of a crankbait or a jerkbait can be a matter of using a lower ratio casting reel such as a 6:1, or practicing self-discipline in slowing down a faster reel.
Getting the lure to the depth fish are holding, and then keeping it in the strike zone are two requirements the angler must satisfy to entice a strike. Since lures are yet to be produced with a built in transmitters to track depth, fishermen can use electronics to see structure or drop-offs on the sonar, and develop an ability to feel them with a rod and line to track their lure depth.
Electronics can also help find the depth where the fish are holding, and more times than not in the winter they will be suspended. Having an accurate sonar unit certainly helps find them, and then it becomes a matter of keeping your lure in their strike zone.
Donnie Stuart of Pelahatchie developed a technique that works for him.
“I have never had a good feel for just how deep my baits were, or if I was fishing at the right depth,” Stuart said. “So I tied a bead-stop at the depth I see fish holding and use a slip cork to keep the bait where I want it to suspend. Then I use a spoon with a trailer or plastic bait such as a shimmy-shad.”
Stuart uses the plastic on a 1/8 ounce weighted hook so it will sink slowly. Instead of jerking the bait he just raises the rod tip to raise the bait under the cork. It slowly sinks then, mimicking the actions of a dying shad. Most strikes come when the bait starts to fall. By keeping the bait suspended under the cork, Stuart can fish it as slowly as he likes.
“When using the jig with the trailer, sort of a traditional jig-and-pig, I stick to crawfish colors with blue accents,” Stuart said. “This works well where structure allows the bait to crawl on the bottom. I squirt a little fish attractant to get the bass to hold the bait a little longer.”
Stuart said it takes an attentive eye and/or sensitive fingers to detect many bites.
“It has been my experience that bass will take the bait, but will not run with it,” he said. “Seeing a slight twitch in the line or feeling the resistance is sometimes the only way I know I have a fish.”
Stuart favors a 17-pound braided line with a fluorocarbon leader as long as the rod he is using, when he’s not using a slip-cork. For the rod with the slip cork he uses 10- to 12-pound monofilament. For rods he prefers a medium heavy action to horse bass out of structure.