Leaning forward I opened the bail of the spinning reel and watched as line slowly slipped off the spool. Ten seconds later I set the hook on what would potentially be the largest bass of my life!
Unfortunately, just as my partner, fishing guide Bill Mathias, was about to slip the net under the leg-long fish, the hook pulled free!
We were stunned, speechless and depressed. The fish wallowing was right on the surface when it pulled free, so we got a good look at it. Both of us estimated the Lake Anna, Virginia, bass would have weighed 12 pounds!
Exaggeration? Not likely. Mathias had just landed a fish earlier that morning just shy of 11 pounds on the scales. He knows what big bass look like.
Even though we were crestfallen, that incident shows the effectiveness of live bait for winter bass action. The fish had inhaled a shiner purchased at the marina just a few hours earlier.
In winter a bass’ metabolism slows down and sometimes he’s just not eager to aggressively chase down a moving lure pulled past him. But a lively, real natural food dangled temptingly in front of him is often too hard to resist.
Best of all, live bait is particularly effective for enticing especially large fish, as my “almost” catch showed. Many state record bass have succumbed to live bait offerings. In California and Texas, where some of the biggest bass are caught, local experts often rely on live offerings to tempt them.
The key ingredient for catching cold water bass on bait is a slow presentation that allows the bait’s wriggling, “hapless prey” vibrations to do the real fish-calling. This also allows the bait’s scent to emanate and offer a double appeal to the quarry. Presented properly, live bait gives winter’s lethargic bass plenty of time to decide whether they really want to eat the offering undulating in front of them. No lure can quite duplicate that tantalizing effect.
Here are some of the best methods you can use for presenting bait to winter bass.
Live minnows are the No. 1 food for bass and best choice for most lakes and rivers. Shiners work well, but if a particular forage species is known to produce better on your local lakes, by all means use it, even if you have to catch your own. Waterdogs are another top choice. These are hardy and work well right into spawning time in spring. Crayfish are the final of the “big three” baits to consider for cold water bass.
One of the simplest systems of all involves using just a minnow on a hook. Impale the bait on a size 2/0-2 hook through the tail for shallow water, through the lips in deeper water. When I’m fishing deep water or in a current, I like to crimp on a split-shot or two. Otherwise, the unfettered minnow presents the most life-like and natural appearance possible. If underwater snags are a problem, you can add a float (bobber) to suspend the offering at a particular depth.
For crayfish use a size 1-2 hook in shallow water with no weight. In deeper water, add split-shot 12- to 18 inches up the line. Most anglers hook crayfish through the tail. Another method many guides like is to hook them through the crown that extends down between the eyes. Waterdogs should be hooked through a rear leg and can be fished with a single split-shot or unweighted.
A final rigging to consider is the slip-sinker system. Attach a barrel swivel and an 18- to 36-inch leader with a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce egg sinker threaded on the main line above it. Then tie in the hook to that leader. The barrel weight takes the offering deep, but line slips through it without pressure when a fish strikes.
Anchor near the area you want to fish and cast back towards it. This could be a point, channel drop-off, creek mouth, bar, sunken brush, bridge pilings, riprap, or submerged island.
If the law allows, you can double your bite potential by casting out two live baits and placing one in a rod-holder. Check the baits occasionally to make sure they’re lively and haven’t snagged on weeds or brush.
When using this approach I like to keep one of the offerings moving constantly with a slow, steady retrieve while the other swims freely. When I get the minnow in, I cast it back out, put the rod in the holder and then retrieve the other one.
Drifting is another excellent way to present baits to winter bass. This works best with a light to moderate wind. Use the slip-sinker rigging or attach a couple of split-shot for weight based on the speed of your drift and how deep the water is.
If the wind is calm, try slow trolling with an electric motor. Pause occasionally to allow the bait to drop back deep and regain bottom contact. That’s generally where most bass will be in winter.
Besides bass, don’t be surprised if you reel in a few stripers, pickerel, white bass, walleyes, and crappies with these live bait tactics. There’s nothing that tempts winter gamefish better than a natural, wriggling prey dangled in front of them!
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