With winter locking down on most of the bass nation, one’s thoughts inevitably turn to more vertical pursuits. While the unenlightened may think the Big Bass Zone is simply a big-bait, big-method forum, our dedicated readers know otherwise.
Since there are no magic bullets or can’t-miss techniques, the pursuit of bigger bass embraces the full spectrum of tackle choices. Like them or not, vertical tools such as spoons, Little Georges, ice jigs, darters and their ilk are often necessary components in getting on and staying on winter bass – at any depth.
Unfortunately, many anglers who go vertical approach the task as if they were searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. They may think they have a plan, but the methods most commonly employed and the scattershot results say otherwise.
If you polled any group of bass fishermen, the standard gameplan for winter spooning is this: Find structure with big McDonald’s arches sitting on top, drop a lure down and start jigging. While this fast-food approach can pay dividends when the bite is on and the fish are in a highly vulnerable, textbook position, consistent it is not. Great if you can find it, but so is a $50 bill in the gutter.
For consistency, winter bass fishing demands a strict adherence and thorough understanding of two premiere BBZ concepts: Spot-on-spot presentations and the top-middle-bottom approach. If you’re a little hazy on either topic, scroll back through the BassFan BBZ archives. For now, here’s a brief recap:
(1) Spot-on-spot locations are the key zones within a larger area where targeted presentations should be made. These high-percentage spots are places that attract larger and more catchable fish. Everything about winter fishing demands accuracy in presentation, so finding the spot-on-spot area is crucial.
(2) The top-middle-bottom concept focuses your attention on finding the most productive zone in the water column. Not necessarily the one that shows the most fish marks, but the one that will produce the most strikes. Ideally, they are one and the same. If not, you must find the depth range (the more precise, the better) where bass are willing to commit to your lure.
Although much has been written about proper sonar operation, a key ingredient often overlooked is the real time use of these units in a see-and-catch scenario. The difference in the BBZ mindset is this: You don’t necessarily have to see the fish you catch, but you should be seeing your lure.
If you own a sonar unit that is incapable of drawing a well-defined path of your lure’s movement in the cone angle, then start shopping for something else. We’re not talking about a scratchy, jagged line, but a precise depiction that requires nothing more than the factory default settings.
If your sonar is set up correctly, you shouldn’t need to jump through any advanced hoops. Tweaking sensitivity, split screens, bottom track, zoom features and suppression controls should not come into play.
However, what is required is a solid understanding of just how much real estate you’re seeing at various depths. Whether this information is included in your sonar owner’s manual or available elsewhere, you need to know – within reasonable limits – how much area you’re seeing at 20 feet, 30 feet and beyond.
Before we go much further on this topic, there is one critical step to be taken. You need to make sure that your trolling motor and transducer are positioned at a perfect 90-degree angle to the water’s surface. If not, the cone angle will be distorted much like a flashlight beam pointed at a slight angle. Instead of having a known quantity with your cone angle, you’ll be guessing.
The best way to confirm the trolling motor and transducer position and get a better feel for the area being covered is to go out on a calm day with a heavy weight - preferably something in the 4- to 5-ounce range. By dropping the heavy sinker at various distances from the transducer, you will get a very clear idea about the cone-angle boundaries. You’ll also see how much precision is required to keep a lure in the cone angle as you move it higher in the water column. As the cone angle narrows, the demand for precision increases dramatically.
If you’ve carefully positioned your trolling motor/transducer and still can’t see that big weight, your sonar unit needs to be replaced. A quality unit is capable of showing a 1/8-ounce darter as it descends through the cone angle. Without this degree of detail, the foundation for your success will be built on quicksand.
One realization that every winter angler must accept is that when spoon fish eat the lure, they eat the lure. Brief taps or short strikes are most commonly the result of snagged fish. If the sportsmanship issue of vertical fishing bothers you, then you’re better off not employing these methods because snagging fish is part of the program. Your intent is to make them strike, but that is not always the case.
As we mentioned earlier, the winter scenario of bass on structure or cover is the ideal situation. Even so, these fortunate circumstances do not ensure a long-lasting bite. Remember, winter bass move in the water column, react to bait and respond to the environment as in any other season. While it may be less quickly or emphatically, changes do take place.
This is precisely why a properly positioned transducer and knowing how your lure is performing are so important. You need the ability to make good presentations at every level of the water column.
Although we are hesitant to establish rules of thumb, line choices for winter spooning generally fall into three categories: (1) For bass from zero to 30 feet, the cushioning effect of monofilament pays off big time when a large fish takes the bait. And, at these relatively short distances, the direct connection that fluorocarbon or braid provides is not critical. (2) From 30 to 50 feet, you should start thinking fluorocarbon, more from a sensitivity issue than a visibility standpoint. (3) Beyond 50 feet, go with braid.
If you’re fishing close to structure, the best advice is a direct line tie to the lure. In other situations, especially around bait, a leader (somewhat shorter than the rod being used) should be tied to the main line with a swivel. Obviously, the swivel is there to help reduce line twist, but it can pay off in other ways.
When tying your main line and leader to the swivel, don’t clip the tag ends. Leave them long so that as you rip the lure through bait schools, the line provides one more abrasive element to wound baitfish, scrap scales into the water and help create a more attractive illusion to cruising bass.
Up to this point, the discussion has centered on the vertical aspect of winter fishing. If you’re familiar with the BBZ, you know we expect more than the standard formula. Yes, vertical tactics are the choice when bass are holding on breaklines or near balls of bait, but when circumstances don’t offer ideal conditions or results, i.e. the kind of stuff most anglers encounter most of the time, you have to think more horizontally.
Too often, fishermen spend their time looking for the so-called “ideal situation” rather than making the most of everything else around them. How many times have you encountered groups of bass suspended just off structure, say the outside bend of a creek channel?
Since these fish are not on the structure, few anglers would even consider the possibilities. They’re not in a commitment zone, so what to do? Quite simply, move the fish to the zone.
By positioning yourself over the structure and casting out to the fish, you will be moving the strike zone to an area where – more than likely – these bass do their daily feeding. It’s a classic funnel attack where bass can be stimulated to follow a lure moved horizontally through the water column and be pulled to an area in a normal feeding response.
This is what they would do anyway if the target were real baitfish and not your lure. Instead, you’re creating the illusion of realism by making the bass think it is accomplishing its goal by funneling bait toward the most obvious feeding zone.
Why is it that so many fishermen consider suspended fish inactive? Isn’t the entire existence of a bass comprised of eating and waiting to eat again? Sure, they may resist the notion at times, but less so when they think it’s their own idea.
One caution, however: The uphill approach is important because fish pulled into cover or structure stay longer than those pulled away from it.