Icing Bass

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 bait.

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 dynamics.

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 end.

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