From watching tapes to Google searches to live event attendance, scouting the other team or individual athlete is a strategy deeply woven into the fabric of most sports.
The same’s true of bass fishing: We learn by doing, and years of watching and analyzing will hopefully aid us in the timeless objective of knowing our opponents.
When it comes to winter bass, success depends on understanding the fish’s disposition. The prudent angler thoroughly considers all the variables in a given day, but for illustrative purposes, we can break down three distinct moods — each with its own considerations and opportunities.
“Gimme” — Noticeably active, perhaps following a warming spell, fish are highly receptive to feeding opportunities. And the best part is that they’re not averse to chasing baits.
“Most of the time, when they’re active, I’m going to use a moving bait like a Strike King Red Eyed Shad,” said Bassmaster Elite Series pro Dennis Tietje of Roanoke. “I’m going to be throwing bright colors like chrome/blue because that’s what the shad look like.”
Tietje said there are predictable areas in which these feeding bass can be expected.
“When the fish are active, they’ll be pushing that bait up into corners,” he said. “That’s where the bait will get hemmed up, and that’s where the bigger schools of fish will be when they’re active.”
FLW Tour pro Jonathan Newton, who locates big schools of shad on his depth finder and knows the bass wont’ be far from the groceries, rigs a Zoom Swimming Fluke on a swimbait head and runs it through the bait balls.
Newton varies his retrieve speed based on the level of feeding activity. Continuous winding works, but so can dead sticking.
“You reel it really fast, kill it; reel it really fast, kill it and let it go to the bottom,” he said. “A lot of times, that’s the trick to catching them.”
When bass are in that “gimme” mood, Newton uses a ½-ounce swimbait head to keep his lure under the baitfish. But if the shad are really high in the water column, he might go with a ¼-ounce head so the lure remains closer to the surface.
“Whatever” — Don’t expect a lot of aggression here, but the fish are certainly not in shutdown mode. These neutral moods often come during the passage of a cold front, when meteorological factors are changing.
“Immediately following a front is not like the day or two after, when they really get tough,” Tietje said. “When the front is passing, the fish tend to position themselves in baitfish travel areas like cuts, bridges or pinch points where two points (of land) come together.
“Anywhere the bait has to travel, they’re just sitting back and letting the (food) come by them.”
In this situation, Tietje tries to present an easy feeding opportunity — essentially mimicking a dying shad moving through one of these funnel areas.
This he does by twitching an unweighted Strike King Caffeine Shad or a Strike King Ocho through the water column.
“It’s not that the fish won’t be active; they’ll just be a little hesitant to feed,” Tietje said.
As he explained it, the fish are on the bubble, in terms of feeding: They’re not terribly motivated, but they will eat if food’s available and easy to catch.
To this point, Bassmaster Elite Series pro Hank Cherry likes seeing bluegill — especially the ones that attack his jerkbaits — in the areas in which he searches for winter bass. He doesn’t want to waste a lot of time on these little guys, but he knows that this ready-made food source won’t go unnoticed by winter largemouths.
Remember: Fish in this lackadaisical mood need their meals heavy on convenience.
This is where a rattling bait can help your cause. For example, Rat-L-Trap’s new Echo features a squarebill design with the traditional Rat-L-Trap high-pitched sound, complemented by a single knocker for slower speeds.
“Forget it” — The conditions that overtake an area the first day or two after a cold front present the most-challenging scenario in bass fishing. Cloud cover vanishes and the notorious bluebird skies send hopes plummeting with the falling temperatures.
“In (post-frontal conditions), your worst enemy is the high pressure,” Tietje said. “It’s not that the fish don’t want to eat — the high pressure just makes it uncomfortable for them.
“They’ll sink down into these creeks or they’ll pull really tight to wood or other cover.”
While recognizing the significant challenges of fishing post-frontal conditions, Tietje has a two-step plan for earning those tough bites.
First, he’ll burn a crankbait by some hard structure, doing his best to bump it and trigger a reaction bite.
“If you just work the bait by, you won’t get many bites; but if you burn it by, they have to make a decision immediately or let it get away,” Tietje said. “A lot of times fish are triggered by that kind of movement.
“The key is that you make contact. Distance does not work in your favor. If you run your bait 3 feet away (from the structure) you won’t get many bites.”
Bassmaster Elite Series pro Greg Hackney of Gonzales knows stump fields, particularly those with deeper water nearby, can be gold mines.
So he’ll send a Strike King KVD 1.5 square-bill into duty and make as much contact with the wood as possible.
Tietje’s second strategy is to get down and dirty, and flip cover.
The bright sunlight will have the fish holding close to structure such as laydowns, logs and docks, so don’t be bashful, Tietje advised. Get all up in that hard stuff and flip to those sweet spots.
For his winter flipping, FLW Tour’s Jonathan Newton employs a ½-ounce black-and-blue bullet-style jig with a Zoom Super Chunk trailer.
Fish might want different looks, so Newton varies his presentation speed until he determines what triggers the bites.
“A lot of times, it’s a slow grind,’ Newton said. “Some days they want it hopped; some days they want it crawled.
“You just have to figure out what they want that day.”
If post cold-front bass won’t bite a jig — or if the jig bite runs its course — Newton turns to a Texas-rigged Zoom Ultra Vibe Speed Craw with a ½-ounce weight to get it down quickly.
His other choice is a Zoom Swamp Crawler on a ½-ounce shaky head.
Exactly how long bass maintain each winter mood is something only the fish know.
Severity and duration of a cold front have a lot to do with it — but stay alert, equip yourself with the right baits and pay attention to how the day develops.