Fishing for largemouth bass can be a year-round pleasure for the skilled angler. Armed with the right knowledge and equipment you can be catching these notoriously feisty fish in almost any weather. The spring and summer bring with them their own challenges but the real test of skill comes in the winter. For some, winter fishing seems to yield no results. Others know the tricks and find success time and time again. Understanding largemouth bass and how they respond to temperature changes makes the difference.
An Overview of Largemouth Bass
Angling for largemouth bass is not for the faint of heart. Although smallmouth might give you a more aggressive fight and a better dinner, if you decide to keep the catch, they don’t match up in overall size or availability. The ubiquity and popularity of largemouth bass are actually pretty impressive. Wherever you are in the world you just need to find a freshwater lake or river and then you have probably also found a nice little population of largemouth bass. The species is invasive in several regions of the world and, due to their adaptability and feeding habits, they have put a real dent on the stability of some ecosystems.
In these areas, you are the James Bond of fishing with a license to kill. Still, in others, there is a widely recognized catch and release policy to maintain the aggressiveness of the sport. Make sure you know your region.
Largemouth bass can range from 13 to 20 inches on average and typically weigh in around 1 to 5 pounds with the females typically being on the larger side. Records have been set though at a length of 29.5 in and a weight of 25 pounds 1 ounce respectively. With life spans around 10-17 years and sometimes longer a healthy population of the fish can be plentiful. These freshwater fish usually like things dark and cool. A shaded pond with clear cool still water is ideal for feeding so this would be the kind of place to look for when fishing. Anything that creates shade and interrupts current makes for a nice spot to find largemouth. This means you should look for weeds, overhanging trees, fallen trees, brush, levees, dams or even lily pads and docks.
These fish are also going to go low in the water, especially if there is a nice soft sandy or muddy bottom. They will feed where they have to but the adult bass like deep waters. During Spring spawning the bass might be closer to the shore and during cold winters they might bask in sunnier spots near the surface. Feeding needs and body temperature regulation determine where the fish want to go and the local topography and water features determine where they can go.
It really helps to know the spot you are fishing and, when going for largemouth, it pays to be familiar with their behavior. Adult largemouth bass, as their name implies, have a mouth big enough to accommodate many types of prey and their aggression leads them to be very predatory. The younger largemouth typically goes for baitfish, insects, shrimp, and other smaller prey while the adults step it up a little and eat the smaller fish, frogs, baby alligators, and anything else they can fit in their mouths.
Temperature and Behavior Go Hand-in-Hand
Like with other fish the big determinants of largemouth bass behavior are centered around the time of year. Seasonal changes impact overall water temperature and this, in turn, determines how the largemouth are spawning, feeding, and generally behaving. In relatively warmer Spring waters when the temperatures begin to rise above 60 degrees Fahrenheit males begin to create nests and search for mates. When successful the male and female will engage in spawning behavior and then the male will stay with the nest for a few days to guard the fertilized eggs.
If water temperatures don’t fluctuate too wildly then the male will continue to watch over the nest until the baby bass can swim on their own. This typically takes a couple of weeks. Overall this spawning period in Spring creates a sprier bass population. As the waters warm even more and the seasons turn to Summer the bass, along with all the newly hatched infants, go on a feeding frenzy.
Fish are cold-blooded so the temperature really dictates what they are doing. As temperatures rise, to a point, the fish activity also rises. As temperatures decline then fish activity also declines. The extremes of heat and cold can lead to fish being very inactive. Colder temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit actually cause largemouth bass to feed less because their metabolisms slow down. This creates a unique challenge for the winter fishermen because a fish that isn’t feeding isn’t biting.
Temperature and Largemouth Bass Behavior Break Down as Follows
In winter temperatures of the Southern US, around 50- 60 F, you are going to have the least trouble fishing. At these temperatures, the fish are still very active as they are either transitioning into or out of mating and feeding seasons. Your options are wide open and you can fish with a large assortment of lures and techniques.
Things start to become more challenging as water temperatures begin to drop between 40 and 50 degrees. The bass begin to slow down a little but thankfully not too much. The fish aren’t biting as much but they still have a little fight in them and they will chase lures to a point.
Water temperatures below 40 F are the real challenge. For a purist, this is winter fishing. These fish are in a nice slow metabolic state meaning they aren’t eating or chasing things anywhere near as much as they would at other times of the year. Fishing bass at these temperatures requires you to be a marksman of sorts. You have to be almost right on top of the fish. You have to work to get to the bass because they are certainly not going to work to come to you.
Preparing to Fish for Largemouth in the Winter
The single most important thing to consider when preparing to fish for largemouth in the winter is your safety. The right bait and tackle don’t amount to much if you succumb to hypothermia while waiting for the fish to bite. In some places, winter temperatures might set in around 60 F while in others the temperatures quickly plummet below freezing. When you are on or near the water both ends of the spectrum are more dangerous than you might realize. Hypothermia can set in even in waters that aren’t freezing, it just depends on time and exposure.
It is best to keep in mind the essentials of winter weather safety and fishing safety. This means that, as much as possible, you should always fish with someone else or at the very least tell someone exactly when and where you are going. This precaution applies year round but becomes even more critical during the winter. It isn’t unheard of for vehicles to break down and injuries to occur. Be safe, not sorry.
Winter fishing specifically demands that you dress appropriately. Wear your layers. If you aren’t familiar with typical winter layering then here are the basics. You should start with a thermal base layer. This is basically your underwear and it can come as a single piece of clothing or in the form of thermal pants and a thermal shirt. A good pair of nice warm wool socks are also a good idea.
Next, you need a middle layer that can be made up of some nice warm pants, a long sleeve shirt, and a fleece jacket. This middle layer should be breathable while also keeping you nice and warm. The final layer should be waterproof and durable. This can consist of a jacket, extra pants or a bib. Some fishing bibs are made especially for the winter. You will also need good waterproof shoes or boots, some warm gloves (try fingerless for more dexterity), a beanie cap and maybe even a scarf.
Layering like this is essential especially if you’re fishing for largemouth which will be slower and harder to catch in these colder temperatures. It is also important that you pack an emergency kit. This kit should have a complete change of clothes as well as blankets in case you fall in the water or you get stuck. You will also want food, water, medical supplies like bandages, hand warmers, and all the essentials to take care of basic vehicle issues. The vehicle essentials include a pre-charged battery to jumpstart your car if needed and a spare tire (plus tire iron and jack to change it).
Last but not least, do not drink alcohol! For some fishing aficionados, this might be like asking a fish not to swim but this is important. Winter fishing is not like the relatively cozier Spring or Summer time fishing. Winter fishing carries with it a serious risk of hypothermia. Alcohol increases this risk dramatically by both lowering body temperature and making it more difficult for the body to generate heat.
It might seem like you’re warm when you have a drink but this is only because alcohol dilates blood vessels near the skin causing heat-carrying blood to move away from the core of the body, this being your heart, lungs, stomach, etc., and flow to your skin instead. Alcohol is very commonly a cause of or a complication of hypothermia. Add to this the fact that drinking only increases your chances of falling into frigid waters, injuring yourself, or not being able to repair any vehicle issues appropriately, and you can quickly see what a bad idea alcohol is for a winter fishing trip.
Time to Hit the Water in Style
Armed with a basic understanding of largemouth bass and winter safety you are just about ready to go out and start casting. The first point of consideration then becomes the location. With bass, you are lucky because they are fairly common in many places. Any freshwater lake or river is a good place to start. You will want a spot that has both deep and shallow water as well as plenty of baitfish. The baitfish and smaller fish are the most common meal for juvenile and adult largemouth bass. Although, largemouth bass can eat fish up to half their size. That’s a very important consideration when choosing bait and tackle if you’re going for the heavyweights.
A spot with a rapid change in depth is perfect for finding bass. They can maintain warmth at depth but rise quickly to take advantage of a snack in shallow waters or to enjoy a warm sunny day.
Water temperature is really going to dictate where and how you should be fishing. As it gets colder river bass are going to seek sheltered spots away from the flow of cold moving water. Relatively warmer and stagnant water is what they are after. In lakes and larger bodies of water, the largemouth bass will usually go for the deeper points. In both environments, bass will also try to balance these preferred spots with proximity to food. So, any sheltered areas or deep water near a spawning flat are a good place to start fishing.
As the water temperature drops so does the activity of the largemouth bass. This means they are going to eat less and chase less so food proximity is important. This also means that as the water temperature drops your lures are going to have to land closer and move slower to be effective.
Gear Up Like a Pro
Fishing is about picking the bait, lures, and tackle that best imitate the prey of the fish you are trying to catch at the time you are trying to catch them. It is also about setting yourself up as best as possible to match the behavior of the fish. Winter fishing for largemouth bass is no exception.
Since winter largemouth bass are often sluggish and in deeper waters, it would make sense to avoid using topwater lures. It also makes sense that with whatever lure you do use you move it slowly so the frigid bass can actually catch it. Slow and low is the name of the game.
There are a few winter fishing techniques that you can consider. Hair jigs and football head jigs are great for starters. You can rig them up and move them nicely along the bottom of any lake or river. With the right colors (mainly brown or green) the jigs can imitate crawfish which are always a favorite snack for bass. Drop these just ahead of a largemouth, move them slowly, and you will have a chance of hooking one.
You can also use soft-plastic baits and metal baits, such as blade and spoon baits. The soft-plastic baits can be hooked up on a drop shot rig which you can then experiment with. Different leader lengths and bait sizes might be appropriate for different situations. Generally though, the colder the water temperatures the slower and lower you should fish the rig.
Rigging up a Ned rig is another solid idea and some people swear by it. This is basically just a piece of soft plastic stick bait strung onto a lighter weight jighead. With these rigs, you really don’t even have to set the hook once a fish bites, simply reeling the fish in will cause the fish to hook itself.
Overall you should keep your options simple and limited. If the temperature has been consistently sub-’40s then you should expect the bass to be in deeper waters and a bit lethargic. Hooking these fish can be cold and long work, no need to overdo it by trying a dozen different tackle combinations. However, if a string of sub-’40s days is punctuated by a relatively warmer day over 50 F then you might want to prepare for some bass swimming closer to the surface as they take advantage of the heat to feed.
Don’t Discount Modern Tools
Winter fishing just might be the perfect time to use fish finders and depth finders. The depth finder is nice for finding the places where shallow depths drop off quickly. You are likely to find largemouth bass here. The fish finder is even better since you can find schools of baitfish and other indicators of bass. Once you’re in the right spot according to these tools you can just drop a lure or bait directly below you in the hopes of landing near a bass. With enough practice and iteration, you eventually will.
Largemouth bass fishing is an enjoyable challenge that can be found in almost any freshwater location. This challenge is amplified in the winter though as fish behavior changes, feeding levels drop, and the fish go for deeper waters. You can overcome this with the right knowledge, preparation, and tools. Fishing does not need to be restricted to the warmer months of the year and bass fishing especially. As the temperatures drop your lures should too. So, if winter has felt like a hopeless time to fish maybe it is time to reevaluate that. With safety in mind, get your kit, find a good spot and see if you can hook a largemouth!
Bonus tip: Check out the huge bass one fisherman landed after a massive snowstorm had just swept through!