Biting north winds whipped the surface of Toledo Bend after a cold front passed through the area. Under brilliant blue skies and high pressure, we waited for the ice to melt before heading out in mid-morning. Idling a few hundred yards down Indian Creek, we stopped at a sunny spot in the channel bend. About 37 feet below us, several old stumps and fallen trees lined the channel drop, providing excellent bass cover.
When temperatures drop, bass often do the same. In the winter, the depths may hold slightly warmer water than near the surface. Not as subject to daily weather fluctuations, deep water remains relatively stable all year long so anglers who find bass in holes today can usually land a bunch of fish from the same spot for weeks. The challenge comes in finding bass in deep, open water, but modern electronics can greatly help pinpoint honey holes.
"With structure scanning technology, I can pick out humps, sunken objects, rock piles, all kinds of stuff, even while running," said Shaw Grigsby, a professional bass angler and long-time host of the long-running One More Cast television show. "With the sonar unit I use, I can see cracks in rocks, not just rock piles. I can pick out underwater grass beds. In some places, grass comes up just a few inches off the bottom. Bass love it and I can see it on the sonar."
Pro angler Debra Hengst caught this cold water bass on a spinnerbait. Photos: John N. Felsher
Spotting baitfish hovering just off the bottom with the sonar unit, we vertically jigged 1/2-ounce chrome spoons. Small, heavy and compact, a jigging spoon sinks quickly and flutters down like a dying shad. After the spoons hit bottom, we cranked them up a few feet because even deep bass frequently look up to spot baitfish silhouetted by surface glare. Without moving from this spot, we caught bass until we couldnt stand the cold any longer and headed back to the camp for lunch and hot coffee.
On the coldest days, anglers often find the hottest fishing of the year and may enjoy solitude at their favorite spots while so many other sportsmen pursue deer, ducks and other game. Between November and March, anglers caught 36 of the top 50 and seven of the top 10 Texas bass. Fishing Lake Fork on Jan. 24, 1992, Barry St. Clair set the Lone Star standard with an 18.18-pounder.
Pro Mike Iaconneli used a plastic worm on this chilly Texas lunker.
"Winter is one of my favorite times to fish," said Randall Tharp, a professional bass angler. "No matter how cold it gets, bass still need to feed. I like the fact that so many people are hunting because I get the bass lakes to myself when its really cold."
In cold water, anglers can usually catch bass if they can find them. Cold water slows a fishs metabolism. It doesnt want to expend too much energy hunting. Non-aggressive bass might not chase lures very far, but they may slurp temptations passing within easy striking range. Fish lowly and methodically, probing every piece of cover.
"Winter is perhaps the easiest time to search for bass," said Mark Menendez, a professional bass angler. "The primary search is limited to the main lake. Riprap, natural rock points and ends of bluffs are likely areas to find wintertime bass."
Besides dangling a jigging spoon in a fishs face, dragging Texas-rigged worms or jigs slowly along the bottom could produce results. Working swimbaits just off the bottom could also entice strikes. Another vertical presentation, rig a drop shot with a small grub and shake the line so that the offering vibrates in the strike zone.
Kevin VanDam put a swimbait to work on this South Texas catch.
In cold water, the challenge comes in locating bass. Bass stay where they can find suitable temperatures and food. Working deep-running crankbaits parallel to drop-off edges or other structure can cover considerable tracts of water. Level on both sides with thin profiles, flat-sided crankbaits look more like baitfish than rounded crankbaits. In addition, a flat-sided crankbait mimics the movement of a threadfin shad with a very tight wobbling action, making an excellent presentation for cold-water bassing.
"A flat-sided crankbait works in a number of different situations, but I especially like to use them when the bite gets tough," said Alton Jones, a former Bassmaster Classic champion from Waco, Texas. "In the winter, shad begin to die in many lakes. Bass take advantage of that. A shad has nothing rounded on it. Its a flat fish."
Not all bass go deep when temperatures drop. Hard objects sitting in the sun can create pockets of slightly warmer water by absorbing solar energy and radiating it into the adjacent water column. Just a one- or two-degree temperature change could concentrate fish tight on structure. Rocks, metal and concrete retain more heat than soggy wood, making steep riprap shorelines great places to fish on cold days.
"In winter, I look for riprap with access to both shallow and deep water," Jones said. "I put my boat right up against the rocks and make long casts parallel to the rocks. I run a flat crankbait as close to the rocks as I can."
Combining the motion of a deep-running crankbait with the snagless attributes of a Texas-rigged worm, a football head jig can also work great when fished along a riprap shoreline. Instead of a sliding sinker, it incorporates a weight attached directly to the hook. Anglers can rig it with the hook exposed or weedless with the hook inserted into a soft-plastic trailer.
In weedy lakes like Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn, matted grass can also retain heat on a sunny winter day. With the sun beating down on grass all day, bass often suspend just beneath the vegetation. To get at these fish, punch through the mats with heavy jigs tipped with craw worms. If that doesnt work, try banging the jig against the underside of the mat to dislodge any minnows, crawfish or other morsels hiding there.
On cold days, solitary anglers can frequently fish in peace with little interference from other boaters. If they bundle up, they just might land the lunker of the year - or a lifetime!