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Jim Porter fishing articles


LATE FALL/WINTER LOCATIONS AND LURES

by Jim Porter


"The first factor to be considered regarding lure selection, no matter what time of year or body of water, is depth." That statement is one of the gospel truths upon which successful bass fishing is based. And, for the majority of the year, it is the only lure selection criteria which really is of any significant importance. However, the Winter period is an exception, in that a few others play very important roles. Let's quickly look at the basic factors governing proper lure selection and then relate them to the seasons. In order of importance, the following is a list of lure selection criteria applicable to the late Fall and Winter:
  1. DEPTH
  2. ADAPTABILITY
  3. SPEED & SIZE (Tie)
  4. (see #3)
  5. ACTION
  6. OTHER
DEPTH is the obvious key ingredient in selecting a lure, in that if the lure does not get down to the location of the fish, we stand little chance of catching him. This is particularly true with bass, who spend the majority of their time on or near the bottom. Even with live bait, if it is not presented at the proper depth, chances of success are slim. So, this criterion remains constant year-round.

ADAPTABILITY, also remaining constant, simply requires that we select a lure which will operate properly in the environment in which it is presented. Diving crank plugs are not suited for casting into dense grass beds and Rapalas don't produce well over deep, open water. So, we select one which fits the cover or topography being fished.

Nine months out of the year, SPEED is the third most important lure selection element. However, during the Winter, it has to share that position with its neighbor, SIZE. SPEED is usually a very essential ingredient in triggering an instinctive strike from the predator bass. Therefore, it become important that we select a lure which will operate at the proper depth (the most important lure characteristic, we recall), while moving at the necessary retrieve speed. During all but the colder months, a bass is usually best agitated into striking by a fast and/or erratic retrieve. However, as the seasons begin to change and the waters cool, the bodily metabolism of the cold-blooded fish drops significantly and his actions and responses become slow and sluggish. The result is that a much slower lure speed is necessary.

Since a bass will usually try to eat anything which will fit into its cavernous mouth (and, occasionally, some things which won't), lure SIZE would seem to be an issue only related to the size fish we desire to catch. (`Big lures for big fish', the old saying goes.) However, like the speed factor, size becomes a very significant issue during the Winter period. In fact, it possibly should replace even adaptability and be the second criteria. It is that important. Imagine, for a moment, that the brain of a bass has a little computer off in one corner. The program in that computer evaluates a potential morsel of food that the bass is considering and calculates its energy value. Then, the computer considers the water temperature, and the bass's metabolic rate, the degree of difficulty it will take to catch that food item, and comes up with the probable energy that will have to be expended in the capture. The final step then compares the two values and determine if the food is worth the energy it will take to capture it. During the warmer months, when the metabolic rate is high and the demand for food is correspondingly great, the bass usually goes after fairly good-sized food items. However, during the Winter, all this changes. Now, the bass are relatively dormant and the bodily processes very slow. The need for food is such that a three pound bass may only require two or three ounces of food material every five days. So, the larger fish will readily take even the smallest of lures. This, along with the fact that something small is usually easier to capture, is the reason why small lures are always the more productive during the colder months. It is also the answer as to why the bass taken in the Winter always average larger in size.

The next selection element is ACTION and it is very closely related to speed. This is, like size, not really a relative selection criteria except in the Winter. If we are selecting a lure for a slow retrieve application, its action, either inherent or angler-induced, should also appear slow. For example, a crank plug with a tight, rapid wiggle gives the distinct impression of speed, while one with a less erratic, wide oscillation appears to be moving more slowly. The related factors of speed and action are, then, compared to the depth requirement to finally come up with a good selection.

The final lure selection category we designated OTHER and within its boundaries are factors such as brand name and color. No matter what the time of year we are addressing, neither of these plays any significant importance. Brand names are fine, from a quality and durability aspect, but many `store brands' are actually made by the major manufacturers and are fine products. The angler must simply evaluate the item carefully.

Lure color plays no measurable role in fishing success. Common sense tells us that most lure color schemes bear no resemblance to any natural food source and, therefore, must attract by some other medium. However, color can be a major psychological stimuli to an angler, and therein lies value. The color in which an angler has confidence will be fished harder and with more concentration. In effect, it will be kept in the water more. And, dry lures have been known to catch darn few bass.

Now, let us move to bass locations and the lures and presentations most appropriate during the Fall-to-Winter transition.

From earlier studies, we note that Fall bass will position in shallow cover flats near major drops and deep water. Short distances into tributaries, primarily feeder creeks, are prime locations. Usually, the better cover will be somewhat thin, such as brush or sparse grass. Thick grass and weed beds are usually not very productive during the mid-to late Fall and Winter seasons. Also, the bottom area will normally have to be very clean and hard. `Sparse cover and a clean, hard bottom' generally spells `brush', so file that bit of advice away for a rainy day.

Lure selections in the shallow feeding areas often depend only on the adaptability element. When a bass is in six, or less, feet of water and related to some cover, he is obviously an active, feeding fish. Accordingly, he will usually strike nearly any moving object. Our experience has shown that a spinner bait and the reliable plastic worm outperform all other lures during this period. And, for approximately two weeks during the mid-point of the Fall feeding spree, top water lures can be excellent. In fact, it is normally the best of that type angling to occur all year. A Devil's Horse, large Bang-O-Lure and RAT-L-TRAP will usually be top choices. Where shallow crank plugs were superior choices in the Spring and early Summer, they do not appear to be as attractive to the bass in the later seasons.

As long as the surface temperature of the waters is above 60 degrees, expect fairly fast retrieves to be the order of the day. Even with the worm, we should use a rapid, erratic retrieve, with a lot of short jerks and hops. If the bass are extremely active and seem anxious to take the worm on the drop of the initial cast, use a ribbon-tail worm. It has a slower sink rate and the action of the fluttering tail is a good attraction. Otherwise, a straight-bodied lure, such as the standby Mann's Jelly Worm is better for working rapidly across the bottom. Another point is that the long, curly tail of a flutter-tail worm is prone to wrapping around limbs and breaking off when fishing in brush. Normally, it is best reserved for use in grass.

The spinner bait selected should be a quarter ounce `safety-pin' type with a single blade, either a #5 Colorado or willow-leaf. The willow-leaf is ideal, since it provides a lot of fish-attracting flash and sound but little drag. If the cover is relatively thin, use a short-arm spinner bait to maximize the hooking percentage. This type and style spinner bait can be fished with a rapid retrieve, while still remaining a couple of feet below the surface.

As the surface water temperature drops past 60 degrees, we can expect to see the bass start to move along the major ledges and drops towards the deeper, open water areas. While they are in this transient state, they will usually have progressed too deep for effective spinner bait presentations. Therefore, the worm will probably be the best bet. If the break-line the bass are using happens to be a channel edge and have any current present, a diving crank plug, such as the Fat Free Shad series is very likely to produce well.

It will be found that the bass will gradually work deeper as the water continues to cool. And, once this migration has begun, the fish will not usually return to the shallow cover areas. They will, however, stop their movements towards the depths if a period of Indian Summer occurs. And, this can spell a period of very productive structure fishing for the angler who has kept up with the earlier movements.

When the surface water temperatures start to pass into the mid- to lower 40 degree ranges, the bass will move very deliberately towards their wintering locations. Although it depends on the actual body of water being addressed, most reservoir bass appear to winter at depths of 25 to 45 feet. (There will ALWAYS be bass shallower than this, but not in schools. The schools of fish will ALWAYS hold deep in Winter.) The guide seems to be related to water clarity and the clearer the water, the deeper the bass should be expected to be.

There are some very key points to help in finding these Winter hot-spots. First, they will be in an open water area that has the deepest water in that vicinity. Second, they will be out of the effect of any current flow. And, finally, the fish will be very tightly schooled on some small, well-defined structure feature. It may be a selected place along a drop line or a solitary hump protruding from the depths. At times, they will even suspend in the open water of a submerged creek channel. When this happens, it will usually be either a small channel where they can use each side as reference structure, or they will be near some predominate feature.

When the bass have reached these deep holding areas, they are very dormant and not prone to feed often. However, they will eat periodically and that makes them cacheable. The secret lies in agitating the fish, while also making it easy for them to take the lure.

This type fishing separates the confident angler from those who are not so positive about their abilities or their chosen fishing locations. Deep Winter bass must first be located and then the lures presented with pinpoint accuracy. Everything seems to be done in slow motion and the angler who is not sure of his location, technique or lure will not stay at it long. (I am sure the biting cold often has something to do with that, as well!)

The absolute best lure for deep schools of Winter bass is the silver or chrome spoon. A one-quarter to one-half ounce size will do fine. The intent is to simulate a dying bait fish which is fluttering gradually towards the bottom. This is a common occurrence in the Winter, in that bait fish, in particular the shad family, is very susceptible to the cold and the lower oxygen content it brings. In the early Winter, we often are able to observe this phenomenon near the surface. Later in the season, it is still occurring, only deeper.

The spoon should be attached to the line using a good ball-bearing swivel to prevent line twist and to allow the spoon some `play' around the snap. A 6-10 inch wire leader helps keep the line and lure from hanging up. The rod should be short and very stiff. This is necessary for lure control and maximum feel. Since we will not be casting the spoon, that feature of the rod is not a factor. The line should be heavy, usually 17-20 pound test in mono. The new no-stretch lines (Gorilla Braid/Fireline) make feeling the strikes much easier. We can use them up to 40 and 50 pound test. This heavy test line will also allow us to manhandle most snagged lures free. If there appear to be numerous snags on the bottom, switch the treble hook for a single weedless one. You will not notice an appreciable difference in your hooking percentage.

The boat should be positioned directly over the suspected location of the bass school. This necessitates the use of a good depth sounder for accuracy and to maintain positioning. Do not use an anchor, for obvious reasons.

If you are in the more northern states and your waters have iced over, be advised that a depth sounder will read very well through the ice. Carry a small propane torch or thermos of warm water, along with your portable sonar. Melt just enough of the surface of the ice to allow the transducer face to be in full contact with the resulting water. This forms the contact to and through the ice. It is all right if the water freezes the transducer in place, in that it will continue to read just fine.

One we have found potentially good structure and hopefully a school of bass, the rest is fairly easy. We just lower the spoon to the bottom, raise it up about three feet, and start to jig it slowly up and down. Normally, an upwards lift of three to four feet is fine, with the lure being allowed to flutter back down to its original position on a tight line. The strike will ALWAYS come on the drop and will usually be noted by either a slight `bump' or the line just suddenly goes slack. Occasionally, when starting to raise the rod tip, the spoon may feel as though it has a wet dishrag on it. This indicates that you did not detect the originally strike and that the bass is holding the lure. Set the hook sharply.

A second lure for deep Winter bass is the jig and eel. It can be cast to the located structure or worked from a vertical position, as with the spoon. Control and on-target presentation is better from directly overhead, but the winds associated with the Winter season may require anchoring the boat. If that occurs, the anchor will necessarily be placed off the structure and the lures cast to the fish holding location. The key is to work the jig very slowly, but steadily. If the winds allow, use a light jig (one-eighth to one-fourth ounce) and swim it along just off the bottom. The strike will be noted only as a gradual tightening of the line or a swim-off to one side or the other.

Usually, the better Winter jigs have rubber strand bodies and are dark in color. Black and very dark blue have always been successful. Because the water will be cold and pork rind will stiffen significantly, it is best to use plastic trailers with the jig during the Winter months. Use only narrow trailers which give good action. Split the plastic trailer with a razor blade or knife if its thickness interferes with it action. Also, keep the trailer short, possibly three inches, to preclude adding too much bulk/size to the lure. Remember, small lures are best this time of year.

Summary

In the Fall, all wildlife feeds heavily in preparation for the coming Winter. Fish and other aquatic creatures are no exception. Bait fish and other forage of the bass gather in the cooling shallows for one big feast. The predator bass follows and the excellent fishing of the Fall season begins. There are a number of successful bassin' patterns which may be found, each dependent somewhat on the changing weather and water conditions. The following are some of the ones to look for.
  1. Large, shallow cover areas will hold large numbers of Fall bass when conditions are reasonably stable. These will be very active fish, prone to readily take a lure. Spinner baits and free-running, vibrating crank plugs (Spot, Rat-L-Trap) produce excellent results. Fast retrieves are usually the ticket.
  2. The outer edges of weed beds and stump fields may produce the most bass, if they are not found directly in the cover areas. This is always true for the larger fish. Lures here should be kept near the bottom. Experiment with retrieve speeds until the best is found. Lipped crank plugs and worms are recommended.
  3. The first well-defined drop-off out past the shallow cover may be best if recent water levels or weather conditions have been unstable. Bass in these positions will be relatively inactive. Keep the lure on the bottom and the retrieve slow. A Plastic worm or jig is the first choice, followed by a slow crank plug.
  4. There is always a period of good top water schooling activity in the middle of the Fall. Use top water and shallow crank plugs when casting to the breaks. When the bass go down, try to find their holding area and go with a plastic worm.
  5. Early Fall bass are in a period of migration towards the shallows. Look for them along the edges of feeder tributary channels, usually near the bottom. Depending on the depth of the channel edge, use lipped crank plugs and worms.
  6. Late Fall/early Winter bass will be schooling tightly on major structure breaks near deep water. Use a plastic worm or jig and pig and keep the retrieve very slow.
  7. Winter schools of bass will be relating to deeper structure. A slow lure or a vertical presentation with a spoon is in order. A 3 inch smoke grub fished like the spoon may prove excellent. Just be slow and pay attention for the light strikes!!
The transition of Fall into Winter, and the following cold season, provide some of the better bass angling opportunities of the year for the dedicated fisherman. In some respects, it become a matter of `mind over weather.'


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