Winter Tactics for Spotted Bass
By: Jim “Jimbo” Mathley – Jimbo’s Lake Lanier Spotted Bass Guide Service
Many anglers make the common mistake of underestimating the viability of winter fishing. While the outside elements are not always favorable, the months of December, January, and February on Lake Lanier can offer anglers some of the best fishing of the year. Big sacks of spotted bass can be taken during these cold-weather months if you approach the lake with an open mind and are willing to try some different techniques and locations. While the bass’ metabolism is indeed slower due to the colder temperatures, they will still actively feed and can be caught, if you do the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. The notes below will help your winter fishing and make you a better, more complete angler on Lake Lanier.
A ditch can be defined as a significant depression, typically narrow in width (2-10 feet), which offers a sharp depth change of 2 feet or more from the surrounding structure. Ditches can be naturally occurring or can be man-made. An example of a naturally occurring ditch would be a creek channel that feeds a pocket or cove. A man-made ditch could result from a trench that was dug during the construction of a housing edition near the lake. These features exist in many places on Lake Lanier, and they hold fish during the winter months. Ditches can be found both shallow and deep, and can be approached in a number of different ways.
Often times, if you find a shallow ditch (15 feet or less) in a creek, you will find bait fish present in and around this ditch. Bass will show up and feed in these areas, particularly in low-light conditions, even in the dead of winter. Slow-rolling a Fish Head Spin or slow cranking a crankbait in these areas at daylight is a great way to take some huge spots through-out the winter. Present a jerkbait over these same areas for bites as well. Cast your jerkbait long distances over the ditch, and work the bait back to the boat with a jerk, jerk, pause retrieve. Include long pauses of 20-30 seconds between jerks. Also, ensure that you jerk the bait on slack line to improve the erratic action of the bait, which will trigger more strikes. The key to this technique is patience. Long pauses are critical to getting bites. I prefer a Denali Jerkbait Rod for this technique. The Michael Murphy Signature Denali Jerkbait Rod is the best on the market. It provides a fast tip to aid in presentation and plenty of backbone to fight and land a big fish. If these 2 techniques do not produce, try dragging a worm or jig in the area of the ditch or the ledge created by the ditch. Again, slow is the key. Impart short movements of the rod tip and drag the bait on the bottom for more bites.
Many of the same definitions and techniques will still apply to deeper ditches, but there are some key differences. When you search for these deeper ditches (25-50 feet deep), start by following the shallow ditches out to deeper water. Once you have moved to the deeper part of the ditch, use your Lowrance electronics to look for cover within or around the ditch that may offer an ambush spot for bass. Always remember that bass are predatory and constantly seek an advantage through a point of ambush. Structure changes, such as a ditch, along with ancillary structure/cover such as brush or standing timber, offer a refuge for bait fish, as well as an ambush position for the bass. If you can find an area with a ditch, standing timber, brush, and key feature changes such as an outside channel bend intersected by a road-bed in 40 feet of water or so, you have found the perfect winter haunts of the bait and our green-backed friends. Good electronics, such as Lowrance HDS units with Structure Scan Technology, are vital to finding these subtle depth changes and cover. Once you find a location like this holding fish, start by dropping a jigging spoon down to the location of the fish. Allow the spoon to sink to the bottom and then real it 2 cranks up before beginning your presentation. Jig the spoon with quick, short, upward thrusts of the rod and include pauses in your presentation. Let the fish tell you how they want the bait presented. Most bites will come on the fall, so after jigging the spoon upward, follow the line back down with your rod tip so you maintain “contact” and therefore “feel” of your lure. Other options for these deep fish include a drop-shot rig. Rig a drop-shot with a small worm or minnow imitation and present the bait in the area of the fish. Shake the bait with your rod tip slightly and include intermittent pauses. Do not lift the weight off the bottom, simply shake the bait lightly. Vary the length of your leader on your rig as necessary. When the fish loads up your rod-tip, simply lift your rod sharply upward. Do not set the hook as you would traditionally. With the proper set-up to include a small, light-wire hook, lifting the rod is all that is required to set the hook properly. Jig head worms and jigs with twin-tail trailers can also take these fish. Again, slow is the key.
Steep Rock Banks/Rip Rap
These features consistently hold fish during the winter months. These “vertical” banks, present both in the creeks as well as the main lake, offer the fish the ability to change depths within the water column without traveling very far. This provides an optimal situation for the fish whose metabolism and activity levels are slowed by the colder water. Begin by using your electronics to graph a likely area in search of bait. You will often find bait fish in “balls” on your graph. When you see these, you can rest assured that fish are somewhere in the area. Search for changes in the structure as your starting place. Look for points, pockets, contour changes, or transition areas where sand meets rock or clay, for example. Begin your prospecting in these areas with a jerkbait. Impart the jerk, jerk, pause retrieve mentioned previously, with a focus on long pauses. If the fish are not active enough to hit the jerkbait, try worms or jigs worked slowly down the rock bank. Position your boat in deeper water and cast towards the bank. Work the bait slowly and methodically back to the boat, paying particular attention to your lure’s movements. Bites in the winter are often VERY subtle. Once you detect something unusual in your lure’s action, set the hook. Do not play the “is it a fish” game. Just set the hook – they are free! I have found greater success in both the number of bites I get as well as the length of time the fish hold onto the lure by using JJ’s Magic Garlic Scent. I use the clear on all of my jigs and plastics, and I often dye the tips of my worms in the chartreuse color to provide additional attraction.
Boat Docks and Slips
Boat docks in creeks and the main lake, as well as slips in marinas hold fish year ‘round. There are several important factors to consider as you approach these features. First, explore the area around the docks you are considering fishing. Ignore the docks themselves and focus on the contour changes, structure, and available cover in the area. Does the dock or row of docks sit on or around a point? Does the dock extend over a creek channel bend or ditch? Asking questions like these and finding the answers will help your fishing immensely. Find the docks that are near key bait and fish holding areas, and you will find potentially productive docks. Do not fish random docks as your success ratio will be lowered considerably. Evaluate the area and focus on the docks that intersect with other fish attracting features and success will be yours!
Once you have identified the docks or marina slips you are going to fish based on the surrounding features, to include bait and fish in the area, there are many ways to approach these fish-holding structures. I like to focus on deeper docks in the winter that sit in 20-35 feet of water. This is a general rule and can vary based on the day, water temperature, and weather conditions. There are times when fish will position on shallow docks in the backs of creeks, particularly if we experience a three-day warming trend or a warm rain. Fish will hold on different areas of these docks and marina slips based on the same factors. Set up to fish these docks and marinas in such a way that you ensure proper boat control. Position your boat into the wind, for example, as opposed to drifting with it. I like to fish a dock or a set of docks with some faster moving bait options first, such as a jerkbait, crankbait, or Fish Head Spin for example. I will start by making parallel casts to the face of the dock, followed by presentations parallel with the sides of the docks and in the slip itself when possible. I will vary the retrieve on each presentation to cover different depths of the water column. Generally, when the sun is out, I like to focus on the shady side of the docks as this creates the best ambush environment for the fish. If the moving baits are not working, I will then switch to a worm or jig for a slower presentation. Present these baits in the same manner as mentioned above, but also make “corner” shots with your bait. Target the corners of the dock at the back and the front, along with any “corners” that are created by boats harbored in these docks. When fishing the worm and jig, bites occur on the fall, or as the bait is dragged through a likely area of cover or structure within the dock, such as brush pile or corner, as we discussed above. Again, think in terms of ambush locations. Also, as the water reaches its coldest temperatures, the docks sporting the iron posts should be of particular focus. These iron posts, usually found on older docks, hold heat. Water temperature differences of 1 degree or more can be found in these areas. This temperature difference, albeit small, is enough to attract bait and fish. Focus on these objects and make multiple presentations to these areas with your lures. Remember to be patient and work your baits slowly. Also, incorporate the use of spinning gear to present your worms and light jigs around these docks. With practice, you can use these rigs to skip baits around boats within docks and slips and actually present your bait further back in the dock, which can hold a better concentration of fish. Think like the fish – where would you be if you are looking for maximum comfort/protection as well as an ambush location? Often, the very back of the dock under a boat is the place.
While these three areas are not the only possible places to find fish on Lake Lanier in the winter, they are three very good areas to begin your search. Remember to look for bait and fish in an area before fishing it – fish where the fish are! Good luck out there and see you on the water!