Living in Minnesota, cold water can be an understatement when almost half the year our lakes turn into frozen prairies and small little communities begin to form on the frozen surface in search of the fish that lay beneath the frozen surface. Although ice fishing is a great sport and can provide lots of action it is not what we are going to be focusing on today. Since our bass fishing season is greatly shortened in our region by winter we need to take advantage of every chance we can get to hit the water. I do a lot of fishing in water that is from the mid 30’s to low 50’s in the spring and fall. Many of my co-anglers resort to hunting or other forms of recreation during this period just before ice forms or just after ice out when fish can be a little harder to catch. The truth is the fish tend to bunch up and are a little harder to locate but with a little effort and knowledge you can locate them and catch some trophy largemouth bass.
The number one thing people ask me when it comes to catching fish in cold water is where to fish. The traditional areas you would typically fish in the summer will rarely produce fish in the cold months. If you take a few minutes to look at a good topography map for the lake you plan on fishing it will greatly reduce your time locating the fish. First the fish will usually be near their winter hang outs in feeding areas such as rock flats in 10-20 feet of water and steep banks. One of the first place’s I look on lakes and rivers is steep drop offs or bluffs with a 40-degree or more drop off that has access to deep water. I also take note on how fast that area may warm over the day from the sun. Bass will migrate to these warmer areas later in the day looking for a quick serving from and area of bunched up baitfish. Another place I will look are at the deepest part of points. Transition areas are also another great place to locate winter bass. Transition areas can be defined as an area where the bottom structure changes from soft to hard or maybe a rock flat to a steep drop off. If I am not finding bass deep in a natural lake I will try and locate some oxygen producing green vegetation in somewhat shallower water that may be holding fish. For river fishing I tend to gravitate to some of the same type of areas I look for on the lakes but also focus on eddies, break damns and large wood lay downs and boulders. On occasion you may find a warm area around a damn or hydroelectric power plant that has water flowing into it. Just remember to slow down your search and use your electronics to locate the fish. Typically the bass will be very bunched up and somewhat more difficult to locate than summer bass but with a little persistence you can catch a few.
In the early spring the best time to fish seems to be during warm fronts when the air and water temperature has been rising over a number of days and the sun is shining. The bass will usually move up a little and get more active. The baitfish they may have been feeding on all winter have been somewhat depleted and they need to start looking for other sources of food. In the very late fall or winter months I tend to favor cloudy days with a lower barometric pressure. Try and fish different times of the day but I can tell you from experience the later part of the day will be most productive followed closely by early mornings.
Once I have determined the spots I want to try I usually rig my poles with the same 4 types of proven lures. My number one lure of choice for largemouth bass when water is stained or muddy is a rubber skirted jig and trailer. My personal favorite is the new the Strike King Hack Attack Jig in 3/8 oz size and a baby craw trailer. I tend to scale down the weed guard and make the bait a little more compact by trimming the skirt. We fish this set up with Vicious fluorocarbon line in a medium or heavy weight on a bait casting reel and med to med heavy rod. My preferred colors are black blue, green pumpkin craw and texas craw. When fishing this bait it is so important to fish it very slow bouncing it off the bottom occasionally or giving it a little twitch when encountering cover. The next weapon in our arsenal is the hair jig or bucktail jig in an ¼ oz or 3/8 oz sizes. If smallmouth bass are at all present in the waters you will be fishing you cannot leave home without this bait. The bait is extremely effective to turn on smallmouth bass due to its compact size matching the bass’s lowered metabolism. We base our color choice on the forage for the lake and typically try and mimic a crawfish or minnow. Generally we will fish this bait in waters 10-15 feet deep in water around 50 degrees and even deeper in 40-45 degrees, sometimes up to 30 feet deep. I like a stiff 6′-6″ spinning rod with 6-8 lb test monofilament line for the smaller jigs and may go to a small bait cast reel with a medium to medium heavy rod with 12 lb test line for the heaver jigs in stained water. If I find the fish to be holding in a more suspended pattern and the lake is clear or slightly stained I resort to using a suspending jerkbait. I generally like to use a Kevin VanDam Wild Shinner in a chrome sexy shad pattern or chrome and black. This bait is ideal for catching those slow moving winter bass. The properties of this bait allow it to sit motionless in the water column right in front of that fish resulting in a strike out of instinct. We use a medium spinning rod and med size spinning reel rigged with 8lb test line to fish these jerk baits. Fish this bait slow and pause for 5-6 seconds in between short 3 to 4 foot slow retrieves. Sounds like a long pause but it gives the fish time to react to the bait. Last of all I never leave home without a large grub style bait on a ¼ oz jig head for both smallmouth and largemouth bass. This bait will sometimes produce when no other bait will work. Its simple design replicates a minnow and can be slow bounced off the bottom or cover. Always use your rod tip to slowly move the bait instead of a reeling action. We will use a color that resembles the baitfish the bass tend to be feeding on in that particular body of water. If the water is stained we sometimes go to pumpkin colors. We tend to fish this lure on med spinning gear with 6-8 lb test monofilament line.
Using these tips and a little patient’s and you will soon become an expert coldwater fisherman. Don’t forget the cold weather gear and always think safety. Whenever fishing in coldwater conditions wear your life jackets. Today’s compact inflatable automatic life vests like the ones we use from Mustang are very comfortable and do not impair your ability to effectively fish. Be sure to dress warm and dry and you will begin to enjoy these days and extend your fishing season by a few extra weeks or even months.