“We’re crazy, we’re crazy, we’re crazy,” I kept thinking silently. A mixture of sleet and rain nearly as cold made a hissing sound as it hit the surface of the lake. White patches of barely-melting snow littered the shoreline hills. Still, my companion at the helm kept his hood-covered face locked in the direction of the depth finder atop the console. I tried to crawl deeper into my insulated parka, which for once felt inadequate.
“Bingo!” Terry said. “Now we’re gonna have some fun.” With speed that belied his 300-plus pounds he vaulted from the driver’s seat to the front platform, grabbed a 7-foot worm rod, and tossed a spinnerbait as far as his substantial arms could send it.
Most anglers associate jigs and jigging spoons with winter bassin', but big spinnerbaits are often the best thing going. (Photo by Stan Warren)
Wishing that I were still at home or at least in my heated deer stand I adjusted my gloves one more time and slid into the back seat. “Okay bwana, where are they?”
“Suspended between 18 and 22 feet. Cast toward that summer house over there.”
Having done a substantial amount of winter bassing, I had come with three rods, all with jigs. Unless one is fishing vertically on suspended fish, jigs are not the greatest choice since the sluggish fish often refuse to chase a swimming bait, but I decided to make an effort. After all, if neither of us caught anything we could be put out of my misery sooner.
I was still trying to think warm thoughts when Terry slammed his spinnerbait into something that put a substantial bow in the heavy graphite stick. Then came his patented, “Heh, heh, heh” chuckle.
“Thought there ought to be one right about there. He’s got some friends hanging around if you’d cut that leadhead off and get busy.”
When I netted the fish, a scrappy 4-pounder that had obviously never heard that largemouth are supposed to be sluggish in cold water, I got a better look at Terry’s lure. Not only was it a spinnerbait, it was a veritable giant that dwarfed the 3/8-ounce jobs that I generally used.
“There’s some more in that little box under the console,” he said. “Half ounce on the left, three-quarters in the middle and one ounce on the right. I’m using the one-ounce size.”
Great garden peas! Splitting the difference I pulled a white/chrome blade lure from the middle compartment and tied it onto the line of the lone rod that I had brought heavy enough to reliably carry such a load.
“There’s a school of suspended shad between those markers that I dropped. The bass are holding just below and to the sides of the school. Keep a tight line and let your spinnerbait flutter down to them before starting your retrieve. Then keep it just fast enough to keep the blade turning.”
Big blades, either alone or in tandem, are the ticket to triggering strikes on a slow or falling retrieve. (Photo by Stan Warren)
With the sensitive rod I could feel the throb made by the willowleaf blade that was big enough to make a fair-sized machete. Counting it down to what seemed like the proper depth I kicked the reel in gear and started crawling it back. The first several casts found me concentrating on the technique, so when the first strike came it was a surprise. Had reflexes not taken over I would have missed itcleanly, but the stinger hook (present on all Terry's baits) saved the day.
When the fish bored for deep water and all I could do was hold on, it became apparent that this was no runt. Indeed, when it wound up lying in the mesh of Terry’s net we guessed it at a tad over 6 pounds before releasing it.
We did not make a limit catch that day, but in all fairness I must admit that the ones that were caught made up the heaviest per-fish string ever to come my way here in this country. The average was close to 6 pounds with Terry notching one that went better than eight. Since that day I have used the technique on a variety of lakes of different types and one fact has become crystal clear: if you can find schools of suspended baitfish in cold weather, you can find bass. Whether you can make them bite or not is up to you and them.
Shad Have It Bad
Although it makes sense that bass, being predatory, will hang out next to schools of shad, their primary prey species in many lakes, there is another factor that is even more important than general proximity. Duck hunters may be more aware of it than anglers but shad, especially the smaller ones, do not handle cold water well at all. A sudden frigid snap is often all it takes for the weaker members of the school to begin to die off. This is not a sudden thing like a heart attack. Instead it is a lingering process where the steadily weakening minnow begins to lose depth and equilibrium. In other words it starts to wobble and slowly sink. Guess what happens when it either gets outside the school or sinks below it? Yep, you got it: lunch for a largemouth.
Mega-spinnerbaits are not "numbers" lures, but they will find some of the best fish in the lake. (Photo by David Streiler)
It is the behavior of the dying shad that dictates the type of lure used. Sure, you can pick up an occasional fish on a deep-running crankbait if it will get to the desired depth. A stop-and-go retrieve will provoke a strike for the more aggressive bass if there are any around.
Likewise I have taken more than a few on soft plastic jerkbaits by fishing them on a dead fall. For some reason that I cannot fully explain my number of strikes generally goes up while the quality of the fish drops off. Rarely has anything in the 6-pound class shown up on the Super Flukes, Bass Assassins or Sluggos although I stand ready to grab one if the lunkers do not show up and there is danger of getting bored.
Think about it for a minute and you will see why the spinnerbait is such a good choice. Those big blades act like a helicopter rotor so even a heavy lure falls slower than one might think. There is plenty of flash, wobble and vibration so a suspended bass beside or below the shad knows that something is coming so he has his fins in the starting blocks, so to speak, and if the bait comes close enough he is apt to suck it in.
Whether to use a singlespin or tandem outfit is another train of thought. I usually prefer the latter because of the extra flash and vibration, plus it should (or so it seems) sink just a tad slower. However, a trip to Bull Shoals Lake, that clear and bright jewel on the Arkansas/Missouri border, put some doubt in my mind.
My host was Bob Pingel who, at the time, was owner of Bumble Bee Bait Company. Although the sun was shining and cheerful, the mercury was not going to push above the 30 mark that day. Had Bob not wanted to show off his brand-new bass rig I would have continued on to the deer camp that was my ultimate destination.
Big spinners for winter bass is a pattern that's been around for years, but its lunker-producing potential is still a relative secret. (Photo by Stan Warren)
Bob is a true maestro of the spinnerbait, something you would expect from a guy who had made and sold thousands of the things. He is also a first class bass angler, so when he opined that the shad should be schooled up adjacent to some standing timber in deep water, it was not worth the effort to doubt him.
Because it was a sunny day and he was so optimistic I suggested that he put me on the bank with my camera and I would try and record a catch or two. Brother, did I ever. Within 20 minutes he had collected largemouth of 8 and 10 pounds from a lake not really known for lunker bass. After substantial begging I finally managed to get him to let me back aboard.
If memory serves we caught 20 bass or slightly over that finger-freezing afternoon with Bob, of course, taking well over half. I caught nothing at all before giving in and switching to a singlespin identical to the 1-ounce lure that he was lobbing. The point here being, as is common in fishing, is not to continue to use what you think that the fish want: keep looking until they make the decision for you.
Strong, But Sensitive
Obviously tackle is a serious consideration since not every rod will handle a 1-ounce spinnerbait, and the continual vibration and heavy resistance of a mega-sized blade are hard on cheap reels. A heavy-action 7-foot rod is pretty much standard equipment but make sure that it is built on a quality blank delivering good sensitivity. Most hits are very light and it is easy to miss one even when you are paying attention to something other than the fingers that you expect to drop off any minute.
Reels should have plenty of guts for the reason already cited, plus capable of delivering lengthy casts. Ideally you want to cast across a school of shad so that as it falls on a tight line it passes through them before dropping into the strike zone.
The guys that I have known who are best at this kind of fishing swear by line in the 20-pound test class. It may not be necessary for wrestling fish to the boat, but lighter stuff does not take the abuse well and it is all too possible that a strong cast will send your big, expensive spinnerbait whistling across the water on its own.
Obviously this is not the kind of fishing that everyone is going to enjoy, but if you are consumed by the love of chasing whoppers no matter what the season, give it a try. It works.