STORIES OUT THERE FISHING By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton Bundle Up for Bass: 5 Tips for Landing Late-Winter Lunkers Understanding bass behavior in the late winter months is key to reeling in trophy-sized largemouth bass Targeting largemouths during the late-winter prespawn period requires specialized tactics for success. (Keith Sutton photo) Some of the year’s best angling for largemouth bass occurs during late winter. For those hardy souls who can tolerate the cold, wind, rain and snow that are part of bassing this time of year, January and February provide excellent opportunities for hooking trophy-class largemouths. Very early in the year, we often experience a false spring with several days of warm, sunny weather that hint at spring’s arrival and the days of fast-paced, spawning-time bass fishing just ahead. These spells of unseasonal warmth and sunshine ignite angler passions calmed briefly by winter’s bitter cold, and during each of those bluebird days, an epidemic of spring fever runs rampant through the angling fraternity. Unfortunately, many outings this time of year end in failure. Why? Mainly because winter anglers insist on using spawning-season bass tactics, and spawning-season tactics rarely entice prespawn bass. To enjoy successful, we must learn tactics that score big on largemouths still haunting deep waters, tactics like those in outlined in the paragraphs that follow. Bass Behavior and Late-Winter Weather The most successful early-season bass anglers know how bass are likely to react to changing weather patterns. During this season, there are lots of bumps, starts and backups. Warming trends are interrupted by sudden cold fronts coming down from the North. With alternating periods of warm weather and cold fronts, bass migrate from deep water to shallow and back again several times before settling into later spawning patterns. An angler must know where bass are likely to be during a specific weather pattern to be successful. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but knowing how largemouths are likely to react to certain weather conditions can improve your catch. The best fishing periods are usually toward the end of warm spells. Your first clue will be weather forecasts that indicate a cold front approaching after several warm days. During this time, it’s not unusual to see male largemouths fanning in the shallows. Larger females will also be triggered by temperature to move to the shallows and ease their hunger. Therefore, focus your fishing efforts on fairly shallow waters where spawning is likely to occur later in the year. When a cold front hits, bass will return to deeper waters, usually holding near distinct forms of bottom structure – humps, drop-offs, etc. – where light penetration is minimal and winter cover – stumps, brush piles, treetops, etc. – is abundant. Days are usually sunny and windy when a cold front arrives, and because wave action cuts light penetration somewhat, bass may remain near mid-depth structure during this time. Three to five days after the leading edge of a cold front, winds are usually low to moderate, allowing greater light penetration and driving light-sensitive bass to deeper structure and cover. If weather remains sunny and begins to warm again before the passage of another cold front, bass begin a gradual migration back to shallow waters. Rainy weather, especially a warm rain, may send them scurrying quickly to shallow reaches. Consider all these factors when selecting areas in which to focus your fishing efforts. Clear-Water Considerations Early in the year, summer’s lush green beds of aquatic vegetation are gone. In fact, all vegetative growth, including the countless micro-organisms that cause water to be dingy during warm months, is at a minimum. Lake and river waters are clearer during late winter and early spring than any other time because vegetation – both macro and micro – has not yet started its seasonal growth. Furthermore, the tannins, those dark-colored natural plant products from decaying leaves, are in short supply, clearing most fishing waters even more. Many anglers are not prepared to cope with the prespawn period’s clear-water fishing conditions. Consequently, their bassing efforts may prove virtually fruitless. But you can overcome problems associated with clear-water fishing if you remember these tips: 1) Bass in clear water can see you and your tackle more clearly. Wear shades of blue or gray to help you blend with the sky and remain less noticeable. You also should use lighter line (six-pound instead of 12, for instance) that’s harder for bass to detect. Make long casts, remaining some distance from the cover you’re fishing, so you’re not as likely to frighten fish. 2) When possible, fish during low-light periods. Bass move deep when the sun is high to avoid bright light. But in early morning and late afternoon, light penetration is minimal, and bass move to shallows to feed where they are more easily found. Cloudy and windy days are good, too. 3) Live baits like crayfish or minnows may outproduce artificials in clear water because there’s nothing phony for bass to observe. When using artificials, use smaller versions and don’t give bass too much time to inspect them. Lure Selection No matter what the season, the savvy fisherman knows he must match his lures to the available food sources for bass. During late winter, that often means selecting lures that resemble crayfish or flashing, silver-sided baitfish darting about in clear waters. Crayfish are a favored bass forage year-round in waters where they are available, and baitfish like shad, minnows and silversides are major prespawn prey items in many waters. Crayfish imitations like the jig-and-pig are extremely effective early-season bass catchers. Work them across the bottom with a jerk-stop action that mimics a crayfish’s natural pattern of locomotion. Good baitfish imitations include spinnerbaits, spoons, silver crankbaits and large grubs. Vertical Jigging One excellent late-winter tactic is vertical jigging using grubs, spoons and vibrating plugs such as the Rat-L-Trap. This is especially effective for fishing channel drops and deep structure. The lure is fished beside the boat using a soft lift-drop motion. Don’t fish with a 2-foot jigging action like you would in summer. Use a shorter drop, twitching the rod tip vertically and letting the lure flutter back, always on a tight line so bites won’t be missed. Usually the lure is taken on the fall, and the first indication that a fish is on may well be initially mistaken for a hang or snag. Constantly watch your line to see if it jumps or twitches. Line movement is an indication a bass has grabbed the lure on the fall. Be Thorough Early-season bass are usually in loose schools. When you find one, others could be nearby. It may take a lot of looking to find them, but an outstanding catch awaits when you do. Work your lure in, around, over, under and through each piece of cover where you think bass might be hiding. Your retrieve should be slow yet erratic to entice fish to strike. Early-season bass still move at a slow pace due to the cold. I know a fisherman who once caught 10 bass from a single treetop on an overcast, breezy February day. All weighed more than 5 pounds. Early-season bass tend to run larger on average than bass caught during other periods. In fact, some of the biggest bass of the year are caught just prior to spawning season. To catch these big bruisers, you must know how bass behave and where they are likely to be when weather patterns and water quality change. You must employ the proper lures, tackle and fishing techniques. Most importantly, though, you must get out on the water and fish. Having the tenacity to grin and bear it when weather conditions are less than comfortable is the most important key to successful late-winter bass fishing.