Author: Brady Harp
The crisp fall air of 2023 has given way to the blistering cold that has labeled 2024. Save for the deep south and the state of Florida, most lakes across the country have experienced some degree of ice on their waters. While the north is no stranger to these conditions, this is uncharted territory for much of life below the Mason Dixon Line. Forecasts for the rest of the winter season appear less daunting, so we’ll operate as if the remaining wintertime months will yield open water for the non-northern states. Anytime the water is below 52 degrees, I’m treating it as a wintertime pattern. Unfortunately, anytime the water gets that cold, it means the air is a lot colder. At least you’ll have more of the lake to yourself!
Fish this time of year shouldn’t be all that hard to find, so long as you have a topographical map and 2D sonar at your disposal. I look for two things this time of year: deep, vertical structure and bait. That’s it, really.
Using my mapping system or a standard paper topographical map, I look for sharp drops, usually close to the main lake, that allow fish to travel up-and-down the water column to easily adjust to any change in the weather. Look for something with a sharp drop. The edges of a roadbed, a steep point, or an offshore hump are your best friend. Add in a hard bottom or some rock, and you’re in business. If chasing fish in the middle of the lake isn’t for you, no worries! Those who prefer casting at a specific target are in luck, as there’s a variation of this pattern that works for even the shallowest of fishermen: channel swing banks and bluff walls. You may not be able to deploy your shallow water anchors here, but you’ll still be able to target bass relating to the shoreline. Bass utilize these deeper banks just like they would a sharp drop offshore. Now, a three mile stretch of bluff walls may be daunting, so start by looking for any deviation or change within the walls as a hotspot for bass to live. Channel swings are a bank fisherman’s best friend. These areas where the creek or river channel run up against the shore offer a confined area for fish to live that are easier for fishermen to pick apart. Regardless of what vertical structure you prefer to fish, you’ll need one key ingredient: bait.
Bass are, in one word, lazy. Why travel miles and miles for food when you can live right next to it? Well, luckily for bass, baitfish tend to group up in giant schools this time of year and suspend over, you guessed it, vertical structure. Using standard 2D sonar, you’ll know when you’ve found the kind of schools I am speaking of. Giant “clouds” cover your screen and can span hundreds of yards at a time. Those clouds are giant schools of baitfish! No matter how juicy or good-looking your favorite roadbed or channel swing bank is (or usually is), if there isn’t any food for our lazy fish, it’s not going to harbor many, if any, bass.
Now for the fun part: you’ve finally found some vertical structure with a population of bait on it. So, how do you catch our lazy fish? Unfortunately for most of us, we’ve got to slow down. Everything under the water is moving slowly because of the cold, so we’ve got to tailor our approach the same way. Simply put, I’m breaking out the “fairy wand.” Yes, I mean a spinning reel. She gets a bad rap, but man is she effective at getting lethargic wintertime fish into the boat. I like to simplify things this time of year, and I have two techniques I rely on to get the job done: a damiki rig and some form of bottom-contact bait (dropshot, shakey head, or ned rig). I prefer the damiki rig for suspended fish actively feeding on bait. Use 2D sonar (or live imaging if you have it) to locate the bait and try to keep your rig right above the
bass that are below them. Ideally, your lure should dive into the middle of the baitfish and cause them to dart away, leaving only your bait in the void for the bass to easily pick off! Remember, bass feed on baitfish by looking upward, so be sure to keep your lure above the bass at all times. I utilize the other three baits for more dormant fish relating closer to the bottom or around cover, with my personal preference being a dropshot. These techniques can be worked as slowly and subtly as you need them to be and remain in the strike zone for an extended amount of time to help lure in the most reluctant of fish. The colder it is, the slower you should move your bait along the bottom. As always, the equipment you use is essential to ensure more success on the water. Your favorite lure companies make different color variations and weights for the lures themselves, while I prefer 12-16 lb. braided line to an 8-10 lb fluorocarbon leader on my spinning reels. Straight fluorocarbon will absolutely work, but I find braid to be easier to cast. The most important piece of the puzzle is the rod and reel setup you use. The best reels are the lightest with the most line capacity on them. Rod wise, you want a rod that is limber! Luckily, CastAway has designed the perfect wintertime rod. The CastAway Skeleton Nano “Drop Shot Special” (SKNDSM7) rod is my go-to rod this time of year. CastAway constructed this rod to be versatile so that you get the most bang for your buck, and you get just that. I use this rod exclusively for both of the techniques I outlined earlier. I love the medium-light design of this rod, as you need a limber rod for the lighter hooks and tackle you’ll be using on these finesse techniques. Don’t be worried, though. Measuring 7 feet long and being built Texas-tough, she’s designed to be sturdy enough to hold up against the size fish you only find in Texas. Fish in the winter can be a fickle bunch, and I need to make sure I can rely on my equipment to get the job done. There’s no question the line, equipment, and techniques listed above have my full vote of confidence when the water’s at its coldest.
Stay warm and good luck using these tips and tricks to catch more fish this winter!