Cold, Cold Water Bassin’Cold, Cold Water Bassin’ Many anglers will tell you that you can’t catch bass through the ice. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Learn more inside!
By Mike Gnatkowski
I always get a chuckle when I hear those southern boys on the bass fishing shows talk about cold-weather bass fishing. They explain how you need to slow down your presentation when the water temperature dips into the 50’s or even 40’s, heaven forbid. You need to downsize your baits then, fish more deliberately and concentrate on the shallows where the sun is warming the frigid water.
North of the Mason-Dixon line, we’ve got our own form of cold-water bassin’. Cold-water bass fishing to us northern anglers is when you can walk on the water! Many of the bass experts will tell you that you can’t catch bass through the ice. They are just too lethargic and languid, lapsing into a state of semi-torpor when the water gets that cold. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Bass remain relatively active under the ice in spite of the cold temperatures. I’ve caught dozens of largemouths, and plenty of smallmouths, through the ice. It’s about as much fun as you can have on the ice when a largemouth inhales your tiny teardrop intended for bluegill and you have to battle a good-sized bucketmouth on a wispy ice rod and one-pound test line! Granted, they aren’t going to fight like they do later in the summer when the water temps are in the 70’s, but even a foot-long bass will give a pretty good account of itself on ice tackle.
Many largemouth lakes are shallow bodies of water so it's finned residents can't retreat to deeper, warmer water. When that's the case, you'll find largemouth bass right where you'd expect to find them in the summer, in most cases patrolling weed edges, schooled near the first prominent drop-off or relating to other structure. Bass will remain fairly active unless oxygen levels drop precipitously low due to snow cover on the ice or decaying vegetation. In fact, one key to catching bass through the ice is to locate still-green, healthy weeds. Normally, largemouth bass won't be far away.
My home lake is an outstanding winter bluegill lake and first ice finds angler catching limits of slab 'gills in 7 or 8 feet of water. What surprises many is the number of bass that they'll catch right along with the bluegills. Many times I've seen a mark on my flasher and watched the screen go from green, to orange to red and had my spring bobber slowly bend down. The hook-set is met with an immoveable object that at first makes you think you've hooked bottom. Soon, the bass realizes that the tiny morsel he just inhaled isn't food and the battle is on. If you're lucky enough to land the bass it will be invariably hooked in the upper lip.
Largemouth bass seem to like the same teardrop and spike or wax worm combinations that catch bluegills. I haven't really noticed any color preference, but glow-in-dark colors, chartreuse and orange seem to be good colors for the bass I've caught when fishing hard water. Slightly large ice jigs, like the Genz Worm, make it easier to hook big-lipped bass.
While most of the largemouth bass I've caught through the ice have been caught incidental to fishing for panfish, I know anglers who regularly catch some giant bucketmouths while tip-up fishing for pike. It seems bass under the ice are more inclined to eat a golden shiner than a sucker minnow, but that may be because the shiners tend to swim higher in the water column while the sucker bore for bottom. Either way, a largemouth is just as receptive to eating a fat golden shiner under the ice as he is eating the same shiner on Lake Okeechobee in open water.
I've caught far fewer smallmouth bass through the ice than I have largemouths, but I have friends who catch them on a regular basis while fishing for walleyes. Smallies tend to be tightly schooled while relating to deep structure in the winter. It would seem that's the same kind of spot where you're likely to find winter walleyes, but friends Paul Ko and Shane DuBois of Born To Fish Media (www.borntofishmedia.com) claim that winter smallies and walleyes won't mingle.
"Usually when we catch smallmouths through the ice we'll find them on top of the structure in deep water," Ko said. "Most times you'll find the walleyes shallower, off the sides of the structure on the flats or relating to an old road bed."
Winter smallmouths are still fairly aggressive and can be caught using aggressive presentations. "A lot of the smallmouths we catch though the ice are caught on lipless crankbaits, like Dynamic Lure's HD Ice (dynamiclures.com)," Ko said. "You'll be ripping the lure and see a mark come on the screen. If you kind of dance the lure upward, they'll usually come up and smack it."
Smallies are not above hitting ice-fishing spoons either. Many a walleye angler has been surprised when the fish that slammed his minnow-tipped Swedish Pimple or PK Fluttter Fish ends up being a different color of bronze than what they expected.
It's not likely that they're going to schedule a B.A.S.S. tournament on a Minnesota or Michigan lake in February any time soon, but ice anglers prove all the time that cold water bassin' is all relative.
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