Winter is a time a lot of anglers hang it up for the year. The cold water temperatures have the metabolism of the fish at the lowest it will be all year, and they can be quite hard to catch. It’s far from impossible though, and if you can figure out how it works on your body of water, you can have some memorable days of fishing with most of the lake to yourself.
Wintertime bass still eat, they just don’t eat as much. Depending on the body of water, though, they can still be opportunistic. Catching them comes down to being patient, understanding that you are fishing for fewer bites, and remaining methodical. Allowing yourself to get sped up will only leave you empty handed.
Wintertime fish are inactive a lot of the time, and inactive fish in deep water often suspend . You can find a lot of bait in the main channel this time of year, and Bass will be in the same areas just hanging out and doing a lot of nothing. Structure that intercepts that main channel or is immediately adjacent to it represents desirable feeding areas for when these fish do get active. Sometimes these areas are points or flats that can be quite deep. Other times, they’re just channel swing banks in seven feet of water.
Note the main river channel on the topo map screenshots above. In the left photo, it runs right up next to the bank, giving deep, suspended fish easy access to shallower water that’s being warmed up by the sun. On the right, you’ll note the channel runs right up against that point, which can be a feeding station for bass.
There is a timing component to winter fishing for sure, and being able to hit these areas at the right time is key. The feeding window concept is more prominent on some lakes than others and typically dictated by the proportion of bass to bait and the water color. Less bait means more opportunistic fish, and clearer water means fish can find your bait from farther away. The jerkbait bite can prove really effective at wrangling some of these suspended bass this time of year on clear lakes with smaller forage populations, and bass will come from surprisingly far away to eat it, even in the cold water. On the contrary, when you have less visibility and more bait, you have to hit these windows or you have very little chance, because catching those suspended fish is magnitudes more difficult.
The effect of sunlight
Sunshine is a good thing this time of year. Bass are uncomfortable when the water temperature is 40 degrees, and they’ll seek any extra bit of warmth. Sunlight helps warm the water, and it’s not uncommon in the winter to have the last few hours of sunlight be the best fishing of the day. That’s when the sun has warmed the water the most.
On these sunny days, you can often find bass a lot shallower than you might think. Rock and clay substrates absorb heat and, as a result, heat the water around them more rapidly than the sun does on its own. Areas with these types of banks that drop directly into the main river channel provide bass a shallow area to feed that is a short distance from where they’re wintering and will have more heat. These types of areas can really be hot spots when they get enough sunlight, and you can find fish quite shallow on these banks if the conditions are right.
Smaller, compact football jigs with chunk trailers or flat-sided crankbaits like a Rapala Shad Rap are effective ways to target these banks. Don’t think you can’t catch a fish on a crankbait. They will eat it if you time it right.
This is a seven-pounder I caught dragging a football jig in about 7 feet of water in early February.
Brush is your friend
Deep brush can be a big deal this time of year as well. Bass suspend because they find the deep water protective, and brush can provide them the same thing while also giving you a target to cast at. These fish are not often active, but you can confidently keep a bait in front of them by getting inside the brush pile with a jig or small plastic.
Brush that sits out on the edge of structure near deeper water is often a good place to start. You have to slow way down here, and your bait should stay inside of the brush pile for at least a minute if not more. You’re basically just dangling the bait in front of any fish inside of that brush pile.
Don’t let the cold weather scare you away. Dress warm, leave when you get too cold, and understand how the fish move throughout the day when it’s cold, and you can get some big fish and have them to all to yourself.