The best tactics for largemouths under the ice.
By Matt Straw
A green flicker appears on the flasher, about 5
feet off bottom. It slowly intensifies to red, and the red line
is getting bigger. Get the jig down quick. Level it off right
at eye level. Lift it, let it fall, pause. Repeat. The fish hovers
under the hole, suspended. About the tenth time the jig is lifted,
it won't lift. The rod is doubled. The spool starts to turn, and
suddenly it's a blur as a pig largemouth makes for another time
zone, dragging a taught 2-pound line behind.
Ice-bound lakes tend to experience little pressure
for largemouth bass. When the occassional fish is caught, people
think it's a fluke because, "Largemouths don't bite in winter."
Or the opposite occurs, when a few are caught by accident then
the fisherman switches to larger, more aggressive presentations,
figuring bass want a big plastic grub, larger spoon, or a blade
Largemouths slow down under the ice, but they don't
come to a stop. Their metabolisms can't handle big meals efficiently
when it's cold. A large chub or panfish takes a long time to digest,
and it's probably not a pleasant experience. So they revert to
their panfish roots. Largemouths are closely related to bluegills
and sunfish, and their diet becomes almost identical in winter.
Bass scale back on prey size dramatically under the ice.
The best tactics for largemouths under the ice are
similar to what you use for panfish right now. Every winter, some
largemouths fall prey to 4-inch twistertails and worms on 1/8-ounce
jigs and 8-pound line, small minnows on tip-ups, large Jigging
Rapalas, and such. But to consistently catch largemouths under
the ice in most lakes, smaller baits rule. When you're catching
bass by accident, don't stop what you're doing. Just fish a little
more aggressively when jigging. But certain adjustments can be
made to the basic panfish approach to up your odds for catching
more and larger bass through the ice.
To have any chance at catching real numbers, like releasing more
than 20 bass back down the hole in a day, requires a system. The
first component of the system is timing. The best bass fishing
tends to occur at first-ice and late-ice, though there are definite
windows of opportunity all through winter.
Bass are just as sensitive to weather changes under
the ice as in open water. Cold fronts put them down. When temperatures
dip below 0F, target other species. The best fishing days for
largemouths occur during warming trends and stable weather. Unseasonably
warm days over 40F are the best times to target largemouths during
winter, whether you're fishing open water or through the ice.
Location is the next key. Tracking studies during
winter reveal that largemouths tend to stay near thick green weeds
when available. In the absence of healthy green weeds, largemouths
tend to move to mid-depth flats and basins. Depths of 15 to 25
feet are the norm. Some largemouths always can be found in the
same kind of basin areas used by panfish during winter. But to
better locate most bass in the system, pay attention to weedline
During harsh winters with thick ice and heavy snow
cover, aquatic weeds die back quicker due to lack of nourishment
from reduced sunlight penetration. During mild winters with thinner
ice and less snow cover, some spots on the weedline stay thick
and green all winter. The best spots tend to be inside turns in
the weedline facing south. These areas catch more sunlight than
straight sections of weedline and far more sunlight than weedlines
facing north. Cups create all kinds of natural ambush areas for
bass, too. "The best way to find these spots is with a boat
during late fall, when bass are still biting jig-and-pork combos,
hair jigs, and plastic craws. Follow the weedline, find those
cups facing south that hold bass, and mark them with GPS coordinates.
In years when all the weeds die under the ice, follow the slope
down from those same spots to transition areas between hard and
soft bottom, where the break hits the basin. Gradual slopes hold
more largemouth bass in most lakes. Simply comb the 12- to 17-foot
areas beyond the weedline. If bass were on those weeds in November,
they probably won't be far away in January.
Modified tactics are the final key. While bass will
bite a 1/100-ounce jig tipped with a couple maggots, they tend
to go a little better on slightly larger jig, like a 1/80- to
1/32-ounce model, tipped with three or four maggots or a tiny
plastic worm. I still like to fish these jigs on 2-pound line
because it's so much fun, but best to use a tough 4- to 6-pound
line anywhere near thick weeds.
A flat-sided, minnow-imitating jig like the Comet
Tackle Shiner or the old Lindy-Little Joe Flat are among my favorite
jig styles because they spiral on the drop. Something about a
spiraling jig mesmerizes winter bass. The plastics I like for
largmouths are very small, often less than an inch long. Tails
that taper to a thin, quivering tip are my favorites, baits like
the ISG Leechette or the Custom Jigs & Spins Wedgie. Run these
onto a Lindy-Little Joe Fat Boy, Custom Jigs & Spins Rat Finkee
or ISG Plankton-Series Jig so they lay straight, perpendicular
to bottom. In the right colors, these plastics look for all the
world like tiny crappie minnows, leeches, aquatic worms and other
things that bass are keying on in this slower metabolic state.
Highly active bass tend to cruise around about 4
or 5 feet off bottom in basin areas. They often appear as a green
flicker that slowly solidifies into a big red mark on a color
flasher. Then the mark steadily fades back to a green flicker
and disappears, because these fish are constantly on the move.
Quickly raise or drop the jig to that level and
start jigging. If the red mark stays on the screen and doesn't
fade away, it's probably staring at your jig. (A camera could
verify this, of course, but you really don't need an underwater
video camera to catch largemouths. In fact, I think cameras spook
bass in clear water, but check it for yourself.) Lift the jig
about 8 inches and let it fall. Then pause, let the jig settle
for 10 to 20 seconds, and repeat. Over and over again. I've had
largemouths stare at this presentation for several long minutes
before they finally inhaled the tiny jig.
Some days, you seldom feel them take it. The next
time you try to lift the jig it feels like it snagged a log. Other
days bass just blast it and keep going. Either way, the drag starts
to scream and before you know it there's 60 or 70 feet of line
to retrieve with a rogue bucketmouth cavorting around on the other
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