As winter contracts bass activity and their ranges, fewer places will offer consistent opportunity. Putting yourself in the best position possible can be a hard task — well, actually, that’s more of a pun intended to guide your site selection.
Truth be told, you really can’t go wrong with hard structure for wintertime fishing. From natural rock, to riprap, stumps, bluff walls and bridges, the solid stuff tends to concentrate fish for a couple of highly motivational reasons.
“Any kind of hard structure absorbs heat, so your baitfish and crustaceans are attracted to that surface,” said Todd Witt, a tournament angler from Corinth. “The bass are also attracted to the heat, as well as the food sources.”
Also important, Witt said, is a semi-vertical profile. Bridge pilings, concrete seawalls and docks offer the pure up-and-down deal, but even your riprap and rocky banks provide a similar scenario in which fish can ascend or descend as needed while relating to hard structure.
“That vertical presence allows fish to move up and down in the water column throughout the day, so they can find the most comfortable water temperature,” Witt explained.
Stay close to deep water
When sizing up your winter targets consider that the most important element is proximity to deep water. That’s why bridges, bluff walls, and marina riprap can be so productive this time of year.
As Witt notes, each of these scenarios inherently includes a nearby channel where bass can go if a cold front tanks the water temperature.
Another key point involves geography. Hard structures facing east will get the earliest sun exposure, so they’re the first to start warming. On the flip side, west-facing structure gets the strength of afternoon sun, so these spots will hold more residual warmth through the night and into the morning.
Consider also an area’s proximity to spawning bays or creeks. Depending on weather patterns, the year’s first couple of months may see pre-spawn staging, or at least the intermediate moves from zipped-up winter refuges.
In any case, hard structures in line with the fish’s spring travel plans are likely to hold the crowds.
Another example: FLW pro Pete Ponds of Madison knows that big cypress stumps in deeper water adjacent to shallower spawning areas can be late winter bass magnets, as the fish start transitioning to prespawn staging areas. Along those lines, the deeper ends of big laydowns can hold big fish in relatively small water bodies. Just like a bluff wall or a bridge piling, look for the fish to rise and sun their backs in the afternoon and then hug the lower sections during the evening through morning hours.
From bridges to marinas, Witt knows that fish could be present anywhere along riprap banks, but it’s the oddities that tend to offer the greatest opportunity. It could be a random pile of rocks jutting a few feet from the main stretch, a flow-through or culvert or a paved boat ramp flanked by riprap.
Bassmaster Elite Series pro Keith Combs employs a particular strategy when working bridge riprap. He’ll give the causeway stretches a good look, but Combs expects his best opportunities on the corners.
“I’m looking at two key spots, the area where the water meets the land and the spot where the riprap meets the natural bottom substrate,” Combs said. “Those are the high-percentage areas. If I don’t get bit, I’ll keep moving, but I’ll come back later.”
Combs prefers cranking those riprap points and he’ll base his choice on depth. For the upper edges, a Strike King 1.5 squarebill does the job. On the deeper corners, he throws a Strike King 5XD or 6XD.
On bridges and most other hard spots, Witt also likes a crankbait for probing the area to determine the fish’s mood. His go-to for colder days is a KVD 1.5 Flat, which delivers a tight shimmy that tends to be more attractive to chilly fish. He’ll also mix in a KVD 1.5 squarebill when warmer periods are likely to have the fish in a more active mood. Deflecting off rocks, stumps and any other hard spot can trigger those bites.
For working bluffs, deeper docks or bridge pilings, Witt likes a Strike King KVD jerkbait. He’ll use the shallow version for fish in 8 feet or less, but the KVD Deep gets the call for spots over 8 feet.
“Slow is better,” Witt said of his jerkbait presentation. “Fish are often super lethargic in the cold water. So you need a slow cadence. During these really cold months, a good starting point is a minimum of 10 secodss between any type of movement. I know guys that will let that thing sit there up to a minute — I do it, too. That gives the fish time to ease up to the bait and get it. They don’t make decisions or reactions as quickly.”
Witt notes an important seasonal consideration: “This time of year, you usually have shad kills and it’s a prolonged death. It’ll just lie there in the water column and kick every once in a while. A lot of times, their head is down and that’s what a jerkbait profile does.”
Once he dials in a promising area, and if the fish aren’t responding to the reaction baits, Witt pulls out one of his bottom-oriented baits. His two-pronged approach involves a jig and a shaky head worm. With the latter, Witt wants to use the lightest head he can use and still feel the bottom. Depending on depth, he’ll keep 1/8-, 3/16- and ¼-ounce shaky heads handy.
For pitching jigs to riprap jut-outs, stumps or bridge pilings, Witt favors a 3/8- or ½-ounce Strike King Denny Brauer Structure Jig with a Rage Craw trailer. Because winter’s all about minimizing profiles, he trims his jig skirt to 1/8-inch below the hook bend. He’ll also bite off about ½-inch of the trailer, so the shortened skirt prevents the craw from getting lost in the strands.
Another helpful winter modification is something Witt calls an “Elvis Collar.” Essentially, he’ll gather all the jig skirt strands hanging below the band, turn the jig upside down and trim all strands above the skirt band to about ½ inch. This further minimizes the jig’s overall size, but creates a bristly profile that can create the different look that may trigger reticent fish.
“Sometimes when I’m not getting bit, I’ll switch to the Elvis Collar look and end up getting a couple to bite,” Witt said.
Lastly, don’t overlook the Alabama rig. It might seem counter intuitive to heave such a large profile offering, but along bluff walls and deep riprap points, bass often sit and wait for a pod of lethargic shad to amble by their ambush points. Alabama rigs mimic a cluster of forage, but Witt suggests running a larger swimbait of a different color in the center target position. That’s going to grab more attention and potentially result in more bites.
Certainly, a mix of baits merit their spot in the winter lineup, but Witt is quick to offer some advice on pacing.
“My bait order depends on what mood I think the fish are in, but most of the time, I’ll start out with a faster presentation to cover some water and let the fish tell me what they want,” he said. “If I’m not getting bit, I’ll slow down and fish more methodically. Typically, the biggest mistake people make this time of year is fishing too fast.”