Many people see bass fishing as a seasonal affair, taking advantage of decent fishing when the weather permits.
However, for the small percentage of die-hard anglers that don’t winterize their boats and put them up for the winter, dropping temps does not mean that fishing cannot be HOT, but it does take a switch up from the norm.
Lighter rods, lighter line, smaller baits, and heavier clothing are usually the name of the game when it comes to finesse fishing during the winter.
Typical presentations include drop-shot, shakey head, small finesse jig, tube, grub, etc. thrown usually on spinning rods with 6-8lb test line. However, in southern Missouri, we have other options in our arsenal to target big wintertime bass in addition to the standard finesse presentations.
Outlined below is my winter essentials for one of the best bass lakes in the Midwest, Table Rock Lake.
- Jerk Baits
There are obviously others I could note, but throughout the course of winter from start to finish, I would not be speculating if I said I had at least half of the baits listed above tied on at any one time throughout the winter.
Let’s get into each category.
Fishing jigs during winter have always been a classic pattern. You can fish it slow, deep, and in the deep cover, the bass may be staged in.
One of my favorite wintertime presentations is the MFC Hula Jig. We get many questions on this one. Typically something like, "well...what is it?!"
I guess it would best be described as a skirted shakey head. My color choices for winter are Moldy PB&J in early winter and PB&J in the middle to late winter.
Rig your choice of plastic weedless or Texas rig for an amazing action.
The way the skirting is tied to the head, it naturally wants to flare out. This means when at rest, the skirting flares out causing the bait to tip up; however, when hopped, or moved, it tucks back against the hook. Think of it as a crawdad that has its claws up defensively, then propels itself backward to escape and puts those claws back up in defense again.
This is a very natural movement of crawdads that other jigs simply cannot replicate. Many of us think that bass just rush in and eat these crawdads, however, many times that simply is not the case.
What actually happens is they take some time to analyze their prey and decide whether they will want to eat or not. In instances like this, a natural presentation is key to triggering the response for them to want to eat the prey.
When confronted by a bass, naturally, a crawdads reaction is to either scurry away, or they will put their claws up defensively. This second reaction is what the Hula Jig is designed to emulate. Many people think that bass will not eat crawdads, head first, and I will agree.
However, I am speaking to them actually swallowing and eating the prey. I have many times seen bass grab crawdads head first and spit them out to be able to grab them tail first so they can swallow them. This initial head-first bite is all us anglers need to set the hook on those big hungry bass looking for an easy meal.
Besides the natural presentation, this jig is one of my winter go-to’s for another reason, which is it can easily be fished slow.
When the water is cold, and bass are lethargic, we often have to fish slow…sometimes unbearably slow, but the design of the Hula Jig makes this easier. The flare of the skirt creates drag, slowing the bait down naturally.
Like bass, crawdads are also cold-blooded, this means both predator and prey are usually moving quite slowly during the winter months, and as aforementioned, the design of the Hula Jig emulates this type of movement easily. This can be slowed down more depending on the plastic you choose to use. If I want a quicker action, I typically will throw a 6” FAT WORM from Roboworm but if I want to fish slower I may use a Strike King Rage Twin Tail Menace Grub.
The MFC Pro-Finesse jig is my other go-to jig during this time. I typically will throw 5/16oz or 3/8oz with a 3/0 hook. I like to get a very compact presentation, and if fishing 40’+ I may switch to a 7/16oz or 1/2oz with a 4/0 hook to maintain a fairly compact presentation but a quicker fall to get me in the strike zone quicker when the bass are hugging the bottom.
My color choices are Golden or Long Pincered Craw for early winter, Moldy PB&J in mid winter and PB&J mid to late winter. My trailer choice for winter typically will be a NetBait Paca Chunk (3”) or Tiny Paca Chunk (2”) depending on the size of jig. I like this trailer for its waving action and for the wider profile of the claws, which helps slow the baits fall and action when hopping it across the bottom.
Many might consider cranking to be a fall pattern which it normally is, but the weather we had this year made us jump from summer to winter pretty quickly. With the Army Corps of Engineers continuing to pull water and dropping the lake coupled with the crazy weather, this bite has not been as good as in years past for the late fall and early winter bite but may be better in late winter.
Once the water dips below 60 degrees, I’ll start trying to see if I can get fish to eat the crank. This normally is a good time to catch some BIG fish. Winter is fast approaching, and all they know to do in preparation is to eat, eat, eat.
I’ll usually throw the crank into the upper 40’s. Crawdads are the main forage this time of year but this year as mentioned many fish never moved up and have stayed out deep schooling up on shad, which we will soon cover, however for now we will continue to focus on crawdads.
My top two choices for this time are a SPRO RkCrawler 55 or a Storm Wiggle Wart.
The baits are similar, but there are some important differences to note. The RkCrawler is a little bigger than the Wart in length (2.17” and 2” respectively) and a little heavier (1/2oz and 3/8oz respectively) so It provides a little bigger profile. In my experience, the RkCrawler will dive a little deeper than the Wart, which is nice when the fish still may not quite be moved up, but depending on whether your throwing mono, flouro or fluoro-coated mono, will determine how deep you can get. Mono floats, so the crank will run shallower with this line and will run deeper with fluoro since fluoro sinks and fluoro-coated mono will be somewhere in between.
Another noticeable difference in the two baits is the buoyancy. The Wart is much more buoyant than the RkCrawler and generally, if it gets hung, simply give it some slack and usually it will float out. The RkCrawler seems much less buoyant and isn’t so forgiving as far as floating out of snags, rocks, wood, etc. Sometimes the fish prefer this action to the high float of the Wart when coming off of cover. I generally will let the fish tell me what they want depending on how they eat each crank to see which they prefer that day. Sometimes they really want one or the other and the results can be dramatically different.
I generally will let the fish tell me what they want depending on how they eat each crank to see which they prefer that day. Sometimes they really want one or the other and the results can be dramatically different.
My color choices are typically greens in early winter when the water is in the upper 50’s, and I’ll usually switch to browns after the water dips below the mid-50s. Once winter is coming to an end and the cycle repeats, I’ll make the switch back to greens.
Once winter is coming to an end and the cycle repeats, I’ll make the switch back to greens. 45-degree chunk rock banks are normally what I’ll target, and wind-blown banks seem to be better since they stir up the water and the crawdads move around more. This pattern can be dynamite, but as mentioned hasn’t been as good this year as in the past, but hopes are high for late winter.
Once water temps dip into the 40’s the crank bite is usually ending, but that doesn’t mean the reaction bite is over.
Throwing a jerkbait in the winter can produce some big bags but be prepared to lose some money in the process. Bluff banks with standing timber are what I will target and as we all know, good treble hooks are very sticky and make for nice ornaments in underwater cedar trees. This bite can be fire, but it can also be painfully slow in the way they want the jerkbait.
Often people will fish this bait too quickly and will miss out on the big bass suspending in tree tops because they get impatient. When jerking the lure, my jerks may be very subtle but never overly erratic like you might do when the water is warmer. Remember the fish and the bait are cold blooded, and finesse is key. The pause between jerks can be anywhere from 5 seconds to maybe a whole minute; it really depends on what the fish want that day. Don’t discredit the long pause because sometimes that’s what it takes.
My lure choices are a little pricey and maybe not as conventional as some, but weird works. I prefer a deeper diving jerkbait for a few reasons.
- In diving deeper, I feel I am actually within the strike zone where as shallower diving jerkbaits I feel are being worked over the strike zone. The fish are often suspended in these tree tops much deeper than the depth that these jerk baits run at so in being closer to the zone that they are suspended in, and knowing they are lethargic and not wanting to move farther than they have to in search of a meal, I feel I do better than when fishing shallower diving jerkbaits.
- I also prefer the deep diving jerk baits because they can target deeper trees that the shallower diving jerk baits cannot reach. In Tablerock the water is often very clear, and these fish can see these jerkbaits from far away, but as aforementioned, the less they have to move to eat the bait, the better.
Now I mentioned the baits I use are pricey but well worth the money in my opinion.
My first choice is a Lucky Craft Staysee 90sp Ver. 2. This bait is 3.5” and 7/16oz which is good for long casts. Longer casts mean more time deeper in the strike zone, so I really like this about the bait. It claims to dive 8-10ft, and I’d argue it even goes deeper, closer to 12ft in my experience. The long bill will cause a quicker deadening of the action, which sometimes the fish want and other times they want it to “die off” more slowly. My color choices are shad patterns like a Tablerock Shad or Ghost Threadfin Shad.
In the event that the fish want an action that will “die off” more slowly, I will pick up my second choice, the Megabass Vision 110+1. The Vision 110+1 is 4.33” long and 1/2oz for superior castability. The 110+1 will dive 3ft deeper than the original 110; so about 9ft they say, my experience is closer to 8ft. The shorter bill decreases drag and the quick deadening action that you see in the Staysee, which is also due to the line tie being at the nose of the bait rather than on the bill like the Staysee.
This bait being a little longer has three #6 trebles as opposed to the two trebles on the Staysee so don’t get too attached because it won’t be long before it becomes an underwater tree decoration…and an expensive one at that. Color choices again are natural shad patterns as visibility in Tablerock can be gin clear.
Are you familiar with your electronics? Well if not, it’s time to learn because this will be critical to your success when spooning.
Use your electronics to locate the balls of shad. If you find these balls, the fish are going to be close. Sunny days look for the balls to be suspended off the bottom with the fish under them and look for them to hug the bottom on the cloudy days. These balls can be 20 to 80ft deep so as mentioned, having good electronics is key. If you misread the electronics, you can end up losing a lot of spoons by mistaking brush for balls of shad.
I generally will drop my spoon down to the ball of shad and depending on the size of the ball will do either larger or smaller jigs, and I will keep a tight line on the fall but not so tight as to inhibit the action; generally the fish will hit it on the fall, so this is key.
I will use either a War Eagle Jiggin’ Spoon or a Hopkins Shorty Smoothie. Both are 1/2oz, but the War Eagle is 1.75” versus the 2.25” of the Hopkins. The War Eagle comes with a barrel swivel standard to prevent line twist. However, I will upgrade this to a ballbearing swivel like a SPRO ball bearing swivel.
The Hopkins does not come with a swivel so adding this is crucial in my opinion to prevent line twist, especially when fishing as deep as is sometimes necessary. Another addition or upgrade I will sometimes make to slow down my spoon is replacing the standard treble with a feathered treble.
As is the norm with fishing schooling fish, it’s all about finding the right school, and though you may fill the boat quickly, it might take some time to find that magical school full of big fish.
So many of you are thinking how to fish the balls of shad that are hugging the bottom, this is where the plastics shine. Once again, having good electronics and being able to interpret these will be critical to success whether you are fishing deep shad balls or deep brush piles.
Typically if I see a school hugging the bottom, I’ll start by dropping a shakey head, typically a 3/16 or 1/4oz, tipped with a 6” FAT WORM from Roboworm. These worms were a secret for quite some time except amongst California anglers, and I would order them from Roboworm direct before they were carried by any retailers.
I was initially attracted by the color schemes, but once I started using them, I found that they had the softness which provided an awesome action but doesn't tear up as bad as normal soft plastics. They do come in a little higher than most plastics, but well worth it in my opinion and have unique color options.
My top color choices would have to be Aarons Magic Red Flake, Oxblood Red Flake or Prizm shad.
My second choice to drop on a school or in deep brush is a drop shot consisting of a 3/16 or 1/4 oz pencil drop shot weight and a size 8 octopus hook with about 8-10” between my hook and weight to keep this thing a little ways off the bottom. I use the pencil weight over conventional dropshot weights or tungsten weights for the simple fact that Tablerock has a lot of rock and fractured rock at that is easy to snag or get hung on. If I am really trying to work my finesse-game, I will use a 4” Roboworm Alive Shad in Hologram Shad, Prizm Shad or Aarons Magic.
This is a small bait and will not have as much action as a straight tail worm. If I feel the fish want a little more action, I may switch to a 4.5” Roboworm FX Series worm in Summer Shad or Softshell craw. As mentioned above, these worms have an incredible action and have had great success with them during tough winter conditions.
This setup I have had the most success with as winter draws closer to an end and the water is warming back up again. For those unfamiliar, the A-Rig or Alabama Rig or Umbrella Rig is a large wire
For those unfamiliar, the A-Rig or Alabama Rig or Umbrella Rig is a large wire form bait consisting of a weighted head with line tie that branches off with usually 5 arms to attach hooks with some type of small plastic.
My setup is quite different from the norm, and I will outline it below.
First, my setup is homemade but is very similar to what can be bought in stores. I have a weighted head with my line tie, and 5 arms coming off the weighted head. In Missouri, only three hooks may be on one line from a pole at a time, so I run two arms with size 4 smooth nickel willow blades and the other three with hooks.
I specifically use 3/16oz ball jig heads with 4/0 hooks attached to the arms with ball-bearing swivels to ensure they run true tipped with either a 3.5” Zoom Swimmin’ Super Fluke Jr. in some kind of shad pattern or a 3.5” Kietech Swing Impact in the same kind of color scheme. I have not experimented a lot with bigger or smaller sizes of baits on my A-Rig, but I find the 3.5” matches the hatch just about right and the bass really eat it up when the conditions are right.
Generally, I look for water in the upper 40s to low 50s while the fish are starting to think about moving back up but just aren’t quite ready yet.
There you have it, my winter essentials for southern Missouri. As mentioned, at any point during the winter I have at least half of these baits tied on.
Winter may seem intimidating at first when faced with the bitter cold, and the seemingly tough fishing conditions but winter fishing really can be hot.
Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with ice except in certain areas and circumstances dependent obviously on weather; so for the die-hards like myself, there is no winterizing the boat, or sitting at home twiddling my thumbs waiting for spring. What it does mean is less pressured fish and often times having the lake mostly to myself.
I am not guaranteeing any one of these baits will land you the motherload this winter, but I am confident that these baits in combination will produce favorable results if fished in the right conditions.
- Robert Fess (Misfit Fishing Co. Co-Founder)