Contributed by John Henry Boatright
Inevitably it happens, every year. In the words of the Starks, “Winter is coming.” You can’t avoid it and neither can I, but you don’t have to let Old Man Winter ruin your river fishing. Instead, use his tricks against him and learn to keep putting river bass in your yak through the cold months too. Rather than instinctively grabbing your shotgun or deer rifle, grab your rods and let’s put some time in…
Once the first cold snap comes around, which thankfully in Texas can be as late as December or as early as September in the northern states, the bass begin a transition period. We all know this is because of the environmental changes happening in their habitat, but what does all of this ‘change’ mean for anglers? It means you need to change your techniques because rarely will your favorite summertime lure keep landing bass year round. But how can we dissect the rivers during the colder months to convince these bass that they want your lure? Here’s a few things to consider before the weather and slower bites discourage you from grabbing your waders…
Pay attention to the weather
During the summer, temperatures can be pretty consistent for weeks, if not months at a time and weather is less of a factor than it is during the winter. During the winter you should be focusing on weather trends and weather changes, especially sharp changes in temperature or sunlight. I wake up daily, grab my coffee and immediately after, check the weather for the coming days. I also check river flows and weather upstream as these can have profound effects on waters downstream. But how do I know what weather the bass like? Well, for starters I like to think of the weather I like during the winter…
First, if you’ve had a trend of a few days of cold temperatures, rain and cloud cover- you’re going to be cold and try to find the warmest place to stay. For bass, this usually means getting into a deep hole where warm water settles. If you’re lucky enough to have natural springs along your rivers, this is a great place to find bass hanging around the warm water escaping from Earth’s thermally insulating crust. I’d especially recommend deep holes out of the current or holes downstream of structure, where cooler water has a heard time penetrating. Multiple bass can occupy these warm pockets, and if you grab one bass out of that hole you can almost be certain his friends are down there also, just waiting for an opportune meal. Don’t hesitate to cast back to that same spot.
Next, I look for sharp changes in weather- on both ends of the thermometer. Days where the temperature drops substantially or rises substantially are indicators of activity changes. If after your few days of cold snap, the sun decides to come out in full force and the mercury climbs 20, 30 or 40? in one day, you’d notice how your innate instinct is to get out and enjoy the sunshine. Bass will also have this instinctual urge to get out of their hole and get back into a warmer spot. Intense sunlight and the ambient air temperature rising will inspire black bass to seek shallow waters where the (also more active) insects and amphibians tend to congregate. These waters warm quicker, especially rivers lined with rocks and gravel banks. On these days you’ll notice bass higher in the columns and closer to the banks where the water is warming quickly. Throughout Central Texas our rivers tend to have both a soft, mud bank (inside turn of the river) and rock banks (outside edge of the river). I alway cast the rock bank first unless it’s a steep drop off and the mud bank is a shallow slope (in this instance I would cast the mud bank first). Rocky areas tend to warm quicker than mud or clay and bass now this.
You should also focus on shallow inlets or flat pockets out of the main channel, like where creeks and draws dump in, specially if that creek holds water. More than likely during the summer and early fall this area is choked with slop such as cattails, reeds or lily pads. Focus on these areas on the warmer, brighter days as the lack of flowing water allows the area to warm up quickly. Bass like to warm up in these depths and will try to find cover near the current (but just outside of it) to ambush prey as it flows by in the swifter water. It offers a chance to warm up while waiting for a easy pickins.
If, on the other hand, you’ve had great sunlight, warmer water and higher temps for a few days and you see that a storm system is rolling in tomorrow evening- you better grab your poles. As the pressure drops and these bass prepare to return to their winter hideout they have an urge to feed and you should take advantage of this by being on the water trying to feed them. You’ll have some work cut out for you… on the days of substantial change the bass aren’t always sure what they want or how they want it- but you can convince them.
I’ve often started out with one lure in the morning, another during mid-day and a third or fourth before the sun goes down (not to mention the intermediate ones that weren’t catching bass). There have been some of these ‘transition days’ where me and my fellow fishermen are all throwing different lures and they’re all working- the only constant usually being the depth we’re finding active feeders. Color, style, location and presentation all varied, but the depth didn’t. I could pull one off the rocky warming bank while a friend hits a small eddy behind rock in the middle of the river. As the temperature changed, our lures and techniques had to as well. If the temperature is dramatically falling, start shallow and quick along warm banks in the morning and by evening you’ll be fishing slowly in deep pockets, following the bass as they transition through the water column. If the temperature shows a sharp increase, start slow off the bottom in pockets and work your way to shallow water as the bass transition there later in the day.
Take it slow… nope, slower!
I like fishing almost as much as I like teaching my friends and family to fish and as the first cold front of the season blew in I couldn’t resist the urge to get a line wet. A cold front blew in during the evening and my buddy calls me inquiring about my plans for the following day, knowing for certain what my answer would be before he even called. The plans were set and we hit the river at sunup.
The river steamed like a power plant, the air hung cold with no wind and the cloudless sky began to be illuminated by the sun. As is his summertime modus operandi, my buddy began pounding the banks with his Texas-rigged brush hog, knowing that this would be my first lure of choice as well. The only difference in our lure selection was presentation and weight. While he chose an 1/8 oz. bullet weight and started burning it near the banks I chose a 3/8 oz. bullet weight and casted upstream and let my lure fall to the bottom. A slight twitch every now and then, or a rise in the rod tip with little to no reeling and I began to land a few bass an hour while he was stuck in a skunky rut. So, as I tend to do, solicited or not, I chime in with why I thought I was fishing more effectively than he was. In true educator fashion, I tried to push him to realizing the answer without me giving it away. As I asked him why he was burning a creature along the banks in shallow water and asking what weather trends we’ve noticed lately, he began to realize that the bass weren’t even seeing his lure (because they weren’t near the banks at all) so he had to change it up, and I urged him to try it slow off the bottom. Within minutes he had his first fish of the day.
So I decided to try an experiment- to figure out just how slow was too slow, just to show him that when bass get snapped into cold weather they want it slower than you think sometimes. So after I had pulled a bass or two out of one pocket I decided to cast into it again but this time I wasn’t going to touch to the rod. I allowed my brush hog to settle on the bottom, placed my rod in the holder and I kept stationary over that hole by slowly paddling against the current. Without touching the rod we both watch my line’s slack get taken up and disappear into the current. After a short struggle, an adult Smallie surfaced to have his photo op with me. At this point he realized, you gotta take it slow.
During cold water days bass know they shouldn’t expend energy, nor do they really have the energy to expend since their food is more scarce and their metabolism slower. They aren’t likely going to be chasing your crank all around the river investigating it before a strike. However, they will still eat at opportune times and it’s our job to give them that opportunity. Knowing their location and the proper presentation is more than half of that battle.
A few weeks later winter had decidedly settled in and the bass were bundled up behind rocks, hidden in deep pockets and we were back on the water again. Now, rivers around here are unforgiving of exposed hooks- hence how the Texas-rig got its name, but I decided to throw a football jig with a craw trail and again, fish it slooooooooow. Casting upstream, I’d allow my jig to fall through the column and come to a rest on the solid limestone depths. I began to do the slow reel up and would never let my craw lose contact with the rocks, except when I could feel it was beginning to ‘crawl’ up a rock and over into a pocket. As I inched my craw up and over the rocks it would get to a point where it was much easier to reel (the peak of the rock) and then the current would almost assist the lure down the backside and all I had to do was keep an eye on my line. A few times the bass would catch it as it fell off the rock into their hole but more often I’d let it sink into the hole and 15-20 seconds later would reel up the slack, to the point I could feel tension. With almost imperceptibly slow reeling I’d drag the craw through their hole and feel my jig get taken up, sometimes to watch the bass decide to flit off into current. My buddy couldn’t believe how slow they would take it, commenting that it was if I didn’t have to do anything but give it time to find it. Which is exactly what I was doing. The bass were watching it come over the rock and if they were close, would take it up as it cascaded down the back. If they were tucked down deep in the hole, or on the far downstream side of the hole and rocks, it would take them some time to get close enough to decide whether or not to inhale the craw. So I again had the chance to reiterate that during the wintertime, fish it slow(er).
My first trophy Guadalupe bass took a brush hog off the bottom that had been sitting there motionless for at least 30 seconds before the line started to creep tighter indicating I had a fish. Don’t be afraid to try a stationary lure if the super slow presentation isn’t working.
Lastly, I’d like to focus on tips to keep you, as the angler, comfortable enough to fish through the winter. We’ve all heard of layering up, but there is more to it then throwing a jacket over your hoodie and t-shirt. If you can’t keep comfortably warm your angling prowess will diminish and you’ll get frustrated easier leading to all sorts of other potential mishaps, the least concerning of which is getting skunked, the most disconcerting being ending up in the frosty drink, potentially threatening your safety.
First things first- before winter comes around you need to ensure your PFD is comfortable with many layers on. Don’t sacrifice safety and comfort if you don’t have to, because ignoring one can lead to disaster in freezing water. Take the time to get geared up and layered up. Ensure your PFD and waders are up to the cold season ahead. Ensure you’re comfortable in all the layers while sitting in your seat. I like buying waders a little big so I can bend my knees easier. The waders you use to wade and fly fish your local stream might not be ideal for kayaking. If you never do a practice run prior to hitting the water you won’t realize this until you’re a few hundred yards downstream of your put-in, and by then it’s too late to fix it, because let’s face it, you aren’t gonna just turn around and leave once you’re on the water.
Most of us stash gear, snacks and lures in our PFDs, so wearing them under other layers is impractical. But, as we shed layers we’ll need to remove our PFDs to remove jackets and hoodies. In the last few years we’ve seen the birth of the most stable kayaks ever and elevated seats, so it’s less of a problem to squirm around on a yak. If you’ve ever turtled (and let’s face it, who hasn’t) imagine doing that in 40?F water and maintaining your composure. I bet you can’t. Take the time to practice removing layers on your boat in shallow water. On some rivers it’s practical to paddle to a bank and do this all on solid ground. On others it isn’t. Don’t get all bundled up and plan on a winter fishing trip without practicing this step. Removing your PFD to shed layers (and potentially turtle) is a dangerous proposition when hypothermia is a real threat.
Don’t let the cold weather discourage you. Most fishermen tend to stay home during the winter months or even focus on a different species, not because they necessarily want to, but because bass fishing seems (and generally is) more difficult during the winter. With these tips in mind you can develop a different seasonal skill set. Huge bass are still lurking in the depths and need to be fed- so if you aren’t going to get out there and catch them, I sure as heck am.