When the temperatures drop in late fall, many people hang up their waders, park the boats in the shed, and put fishing on hold until Spring. They seem to be of the opinion that fish stop eating in winter. This couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, for some species, winter can be some of the best fishing of the year. Black bass are a case in point. Sure, in spring and summer, they can be easily found in shallow to mid-depth waters pretty much anywhere there is structure and food. And in the Fall, they go on a veritable feeding frenzy stoking up in preparation for winter. However, when the cold winds begin to blow, they still feed enthusiastically. They just get a little pickier about What and Where… mostly the Where, and How.
It’s All In The Biology
Bass, like all other freshwater fish, are ectothermic, meaning that their body temperature is roughly the same as the surrounding water. It is often referred to as being “cold-blooded”, although that term is very inaccurate and misleading. Their blood is as warm or cool as the surrounding conditions. This is great proof that for a physical attribute to be a permanent feature in evolution, it doesn’t have to be the best solution to a problem, just good enough to work long enough for the organism to reproduce successfully…once. Ectothermic systems absolutely do that.
In fact, there are a few advantages to being ectothermic. An ectotherm’s metabolism adjusts to the current conditions. All vertebrates (meaning things with spinal cords) have systems that are designed to operate best within a certain temperature range. When temperatures fall outside of endotherms, or “warm-blooded” organisms, best operating range, they either start generating more heat, seek a warmer place, cover up to concentrate body heat, or cuddle up with each other to share body heat. Their metabolisms remain the same, unless their internal temperature falls low enough to be life-threatening, then systems begin to shut down. The exception to this are animals that can put themselves into a coma, called hibernation, where only the most critical systems remain active. Everything else goes on StandBy.
Ectotherms, on the other hand, deal with less than ideal temperature ranges by slowing down their metabolisms, and restricting activities such as looking for food. They will find a place that offers the best protection from predators, and the best access to food sources, preferring food to come to them rather than looking for it. They will not move any more than necessary to grab prey. And they can calculate whether the food item has enough nutritional value to be worth spending the energy it takes to get it.
For Black Bass, this means they will look for more open water where they can see, hear and smell predators and food coming from a good distance. Staying in cover may hide the bass, but it also restricts its vision and other senses. They will also move to deeper water, where they will be more protected from surface predators such as ducks, diving birds, otters, etc… A 5-lb bass really has little to fear as far as predators. Most things that could be a danger to it are not active in winter, such as alligators, snakes, otters, and few birds can dive deeper than a few feet below the surface. The only real danger they face may be from anglers, and they are much fewer in winter. Black Bass also tend to ‘school’ in large groups in winter. Another thing to consider is that they will place their bellies right on the bottom, so as not to have to use any energy to maintain depth and position. The depth will depend on the surrounding topography. They can be anywhere from 15 to 90+ feet deep. They will seldom go deeper than light can penetrate, because bass are primarily sight-feeders.
Winter Bass Tactics: 4 Places To Find Bass
When the water temperatures drop to below 55⁰F, you’ll find black bass in one of four places:
- On a rocky bottom in water deeper than 15 feet. Bass will congregate in large schools and settle on rocky bottoms, with their bellies right on the bottom. When you catch one, you’ll catch several more. The best places to look are bowls with rocky bottoms, off of rip-raps, or along channels and old river beds. Here, they have a good view of everything that goes above them, and nothing can get under them. They will suspend until a suitable food source moves above them, and they may move as much a 10 feet to get it if it is big enough to be worth it (more on this later…).
- Up against hard structures. Preferably ones that extend above the surface. These types of structures, like dock and bridge pilings, fallen timber, partially submerged timber, etc…, conduct heat into the water. They are also places where baitfish congregate in winter. You’ll find the bigger bass at the deepest end of a hard structure, right up against it, and the bottom. Winter is prime time to fish docks and bridges.
- Up the center of coves and inlets. In winter, bass will congregate along the channel in coves. Just look for the deepest part down the path of the coves, and more than likely, you will find bass, right on the bottom.
- When the water level is falling, like when the floodgates are open, bass will tend to move up and away from the aforementioned spots, and will suspend in mid-water. They get difficult to catch during this period, but not impossible. A good depth-finder helps. When the water level rises, like after rains, the bass will move into shallow water, sometimes only a few inches deep, when water is cascading into the lake or river, and they will gobble anything that comes down. Look for inlets, river mouths, or anywhere water comes into the main lake, river, pond, etc…
The Right Baits For Winter Bass
Now that you have an idea of where to look for winter bass, what do you use to catch them? In winter, lures work better than live bait. To really get a winter basses attention, you may want to scale your bait up a bit, say one size up. In winter, bass love a good mouthful, which for Ole Bucketmouth, is considerable. You also want to slow down the action. They won’t streak in to attack like in the summer. They are more deliberate and need time to build up some motivation.
This time of year is when I break out the 8 inch purple worms. I prefer Culprit worms, but I have had good luck with Creme, Zoom, and even Berkley Gulp worms. They have the advantage of being able to fished as slow as you can stand it. Jigs are also great in winter. I have had good luck with Senko lures in winter, and Drop Shot rigs are deadly when used in the right spots.
Sinking crank baits work well when fished very slow, with just small twitches every so often. The long thin ones work better than the fat “pregnant minnow” style. Rapalas are great and Heddon makes several outstanding models, now dubiously referred to as “ jerk baits”. I don’t know when the terminology changed, but previously, a true jerk bait was one that had no lip, or any action of its own. You had to impart the action with your rod tip in a technique called, “Walking The Dog”. Now it seems that the long thin crank baits are now called “jerk baits”. Whatever you call them, these are what you need.
One last lure to consider is the underspin. When you reel them slowly, where the blade bangs the bottom, it will drive winter bass insane. They will move a few feet to strike one of these.
Inline and spinner baits don’t work very well for bass in winter because they can’t be fished slow enough. They have to move at a certain speed for the blades to spin, and that is too fast. Likewise with spoons. They just won’t move enough at the slow speeds needed to fish.
As far as colors, use dark colors in clear water, and brighter colors in darker water. Bass are sight feeders, and they need to be able to see the lure against the background. Since they will be deeper, remember the colors will be different. You lose red at around 15-20 feet deep. Yellow disappears at around 30 feet. Beyond this depth, all the bass will see is blues and greens. Past 60 feet, there are only shades of blue.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Every body of water is different, and so are its fish.