Winter is the toughest time to catch bass. Full stop.
Many weekend anglers just put their boats away this time of year and opt for the vest and rifle, but if you’re as committed to catching bass as we are, you see winter less as a cold, dreary time where the fish don’t bite, and more as an opportunity to learn something, and do so without much competition.
While it’s always going to be tough, understanding how bass operate in frigid temps can lead you to fish a lot quicker.
1. Bass metabolism is slow in the winter
Bass are inactive in the winter. They’re cold-blooded creatures, so they naturally do less and eat less when the cold temperatures slow their metabolism. Inactive fish are less aggressive, and when deep, tend to suspend more, which is what drives some of the main challenges of fishing in the winter.
Feeding windows this time of year are smaller and less frequent, and success can often be dependent on fishing painfully slowly and trying to entice inactive bass. It is not possible to fish too slow this time of year, and part of the process of slowing down is accepting that you’re not fishing for twenty bites.
2. Clear Water is Your Friend
Dirty, cold water is the worst set of conditions in fishing. It’s generally a good idea to target the clearest water available to you in the winter. During the coldest months when the bass’ metabolism is the lowest, you have to get your bait in front of them and keep it there as long as possible, portraying the easiest meal you possibly can. In most cases, bass, especially largemouth bass, won’t chase long distances for a meal in cold water.
Obviously, bass cannot see as well in dirty water, so keeping a bait in their line of sight for a long time is harder. Put simpler, the strike zone in those conditions is even smaller than it already is in cold water. One exception here is if muddy water is the result of a heavy, warm rain that spiked the temperature of the water. You should definitely fish there, but on a normal winter day, target clear water.
3. Don’t Fear Depth
Summer comes with a cap on how deep bass can get, as a thermocline typically forms somewhere between 15 and 30 feet on most lakes. Winter has no such limitation, so the bass can get south of 50 feet on some clear water lakes. Fish will still relate to structure, but you have to expand your search vertically as opposed to the warmer months.
Kevin Vandam has caught Smallmouth on northern lakes as deep at 85 feet. Jacob Wheeler scored a win on Cherokee Lake in Tennessee fishing in 55 feet of water. These depths would certainly be extreme on a lot of lakes, but they’ll get as deep as they need to be comfortable.
4. Brush is Big
Inactive bass seek out deep water for protection reasons. While it’s not physical shelter, The dark depths serve as such, and bass want to be protected. Fortunately, there are other ways they can accomplish this, such as brush and rock piles.
Deep cover like that provides sufficient shelter to the fish while also providing a real target for you to cast at. It’s just easier to fish for bass relating to brush or rock than it is to fish for suspended fish, so locating these places can be the key to success in winter.
5. Heat is Gold
Bass are generally uncomfortable in the winter. They don’t like being in 38 degree water anymore than they like being in 92 degree water. They prefer the middle of that range, so they’ll seek out the warmest water they can find in the coldest months. Even a fraction of a degree here can make a difference. It doesn’t have to be a major 3-4 degree difference from other parts of the water body.
Sunlight can have a lot to do with small temperature changes, and places that absorb and radiate heat can be magnets if that reaction changes the temperature even a little bit. Rip rap is a great example of this, and you know fish are around these areas all year anyway. Rocks being hit by sunlight heat up the area around them. The same is true for some man-made structures such as dock buoys. Black dock buoys and metal docks can get hot in the sunlight, and these places can hold fish for the same reason.