STORIES OUT THERE FISHING By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton Tips for Catching Spotted Bass in Deep, Cold Water When largemouth and smallmouth bass aren't biting due to cold water, fish deeper and follow these tips to catch your share of spots Spotted bass closely resemble their largemouth cousins, but you need to go deeper and adjust your tactics to catch them consistently in winter. (Keith Sutton photo) When cold water puts largemouth and smallmouth bass in a sulky mood, anglers in the know often ply deeper waters for spotted, or Kentucky bass. Late fall and winter serve up some of the year’s best action for these high-spirited scrappers, with hard strikes, powerful runs and rod-bending fights almost guaranteed for those savvy to the ways of Micropterus punctatus. Spots love cold, clear water and usually occupy the deepest niche – up to 100 feet down – below the relatively shallow haunts of largemouths and the mid-depth hangouts preferred by smallmouths. As a result, spotted bass are less affected by passing fronts and other weather changes common this time of year, and more likely to be found in a feeding mood than their cousins. Another plus is the fact that spotted bass tend to form large winter schools that won’t stop biting after you’ve caught a few fish. In fact, the more you catch, the greater the aggression exhibited by other schoolies, which usually results in more fish hooked. Of course, spotted bass aren’t pushovers any more than other black bass. To take advantage of their positive attributes, and avoid the challenges and vexations that are often a part of winter fishing regardless of the species, it’s helpful to know a few tips for nailing these down-deep, cold-water denizens. Here are some you should consider. Fish the Right Spots Spotted bass swim in rivers and reservoirs. When fishing flowing waters, concentrate your efforts around rock ledges, gravel bars, boulders and other current breaks, away from the current-heavy habitat of smallmouths and still backwaters favored by largemouths. When fishing reservoirs, you’ll usually find spots near deep, relatively open structure such as rocky points, ledges, humps and edges of creek and river channels. Whether spotted bass will be in these locales or not depends on forage availability. In most waters in their range, these bass follow schools of shad and other baitfish in winter, so watching your fish-finder for the dark narrow bands of pixels indicating baitfish schools helps in finding your quarry. Spotted bass also relish crawfish, so thoroughly work any rocky, cover-strewn habitat where these crustaceans are likely to be found. Lures Knowing that spotted bass love shad, it makes sense to fish with lures resembling these forage fish. Fortunately, this includes a wide variety of artificial enticements, everything from crankbaits and spoons to bladebaits, spinners and soft plastics. Most savvy spotted bass anglers agree that it pays big dividends to use slightly smaller lures than you typically do when fishing for largemouths or smallmouths. For example, a 1/8-ounce jig is just about right for spots, and a 1/16-ounce version is not too small. When fishing plastic craws, try a 2- or 3-inch version instead of the larger models you usually toss for other black bass. If spotted bass seem persnickety, try adding a spritz of crawfish attractant such as Berkley’s Gulp! Alive! to your lure. That could be the boost you need to catch tight-lipped fish. If it’s trophy-class spots you’re targeting, you might want to try some of the lures used by western anglers in waters where spots commonly reach 5 to 7 pounds. Many toss swimbaits as big as eight inches when looking for big bites, and keep two other rods at the ready for backup – one with a heavy football jig with a twin-tailed trailer, and another with a shaky head or darter head rigged with a 6- to 7-inch worm. A lot of times, the swimbait will call fish, but bass don’t connect. That’s when you can pick up the jig and quickly work it through the area. If those fish don’t respond to the jig, then go to the worm, and work it more slowly. Live Bait Lures probably produce most spots caught by anglers, but if you can obtain some, live crawfish tend to work even better. In the crystal-clear water spotted bass prefer, the natural sight and smell of a “mudbug” is hard to beat. A good rig to use is one popular on lakes in my home state of Arkansas. Tie a 2/0, blue Tru-Turn Aberdeen panfish hook at line’s end, then crimp two No. 5 split shot on the line above the hook. One split shot is 12 inches above the hook and the other 12 inches above that. Using two weights configured this way lessens the likelihood of getting hung in rocks and other bottom cover. The best crawfish are 2 to 3 inches long. Anything larger is hard for most spotted bass to swallow. Break off the large pinchers before you cast. Clawless craws go down a bass’s gullet more easily and hang up less often. When ready to fish, run the hook upward through the last third of the crawfish’s tail, so the bait can be retrieved in a natural, backward manner. Let the crawfish fall to the bottom, allow it to sit a few seconds and then reel the bait up about a foot. Now drop the bait back to the bottom and lift it again. Move the bait slowly, and when you feel a tap or movement of the line, count to 10 and set the hook. A few seconds usually pass before the bass swallows the crawfish. If you set the hook too soon, you’ll probably miss the fish. Use Light Line Frequent hang-ups in the rocky habitat where spotted bass are usually found may tempt you to use a baitcasting reel spooled with line that’s 10-pound test or higher ... don’t. Unless you’re targeting trophy fish exclusively, lighter lines work better, although you’ll probably want to use a spinning reel to achieve adequate casting distance. Basic equipment for many anglers who specialize in spotted bass is a 5 ½- to 6 ½-foot, light or ultralight rod matched with a spinning reel spooled with 4- to 6-pound test line. This line is heavy enough to land most fish you hook, and allows you to get your bait or lure into the depths where spotted bass lurk much quicker. Lighter lines also are less visible in the clear water you’ll be fishing, and they allow you to make longer casts so you can keep your distance and avoid spooking bass. Work the Schools Finally, keep in mind the fact that spotted bass often gather in big schools of hungry fish in winter. Pay attention to each cast, noting the exact spot where a fish is caught. Then cast repeatedly to the same spot until no more strikes are forthcoming. When you catch one spotted bass, you can probably catch several more to make the most out of a fun fishing day.