You won’t catch as many fish as you do on spring and summer outings, but no time of year offers a better chance for trophy bass than late winter. You could well latch onto the fish of a lifetime now, with February and March being two of the top months of the year for citation-sized (8 pound) largemouths in the state. Even if you don’t, there should be plenty of quality 3-5 pounders coming to the net to ward off the chill of the winter air.
On a trip a while back to Lake Anna, a friend and I tossed black jigs with frog trailers across submerged structure and watched our lines, waiting for the gentle tug of a lethargic winter bass. Suddenly one of the rods bowed deep. A slug-fest battle ensued before my friend worked the hefty fish close to the boat. With a swift dip of the landing net, 10 pounds of silver bass came thrashing aboard.
Right then and there, we both agreed, it was well worth the cold fingers, red noses and countless casts we had made. That’s the kind of action that keeps diehard anglers fishing right through the dead of winter. It won’t happen every day, but the potential for catching huge bass is best from right now through early April.
Shenandoah Valley anglers have plenty of top bass waters within a day’s drive. Here are some tactics that will be worth trying on these impoundments as well as smaller ponds, rivers and natural lakes over the next few weeks.
Crawl a jig and trailer
A ¼- to ¾-ounce black jig is best, with a rubber skirt or hair dressing and a weed guard. Dress the jig with a pork or plastic frog, crayfish, lizard or eel in purple, brown, red, blue or black.
Cast this combination out to points, brushy cover, submerged humps and drop-offs and reel it slowly back after it touches the bottom and the line goes slack. Pickups will be soft in winter. As soon as you feel a slight tapping on the line, set the hook hard. If a fish doesn’t hit on the drop, reel in extra-slowly so the jig stays on or just above the bottom.
Bounce a grub
If fish are skittish, a plain jig-head with a plastic twister tail is a better choice. Work this with more of a lift and drop presentation instead of crawling it like you do with the jig and pork.
Often fish will strike as the grub flutters down after the lift. Be ready and set up quickly. Most experts use lead-heads of 1/8 to 3/8 ounce for this fishing. These can work in the same areas mentioned earlier and closer to shore as fish start moving in shallower when spring approaches. Good colors include chartreuse, motor oil, pumpkinseed, smoke and watermelon.
Work main lake points, humps, bridge abutments and river channel drop-offs with grubs, probing 12-30 foot depths.
Twitch a jerkbait
Stock both suspending short-lipped versions such as the Smithwick Rogue, Mann’s Loudmouth Jerkbait or Rapala Husky Jerk and big-lipped deep-running versions such as the Rebel Spoonbill, Bomber Heavy Duty Long A, Cotton Cordell Deep Minnow and Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow Deep Diver.
When going after deep fish, choose the large-lipped versions that you can crank down fast. For transition fish slightly shallower, use the suspending versions. Work these with a reel and pause presentation.
Fish a spinnerbait on the drop
Most people slow-roll or rip spinnerbaits back. Both tactics catch fish, but sometimes fishing a spinnerbait “on the drop” can be a deadly tactic for winter bass. Focus on areas where you see baitfish or gamefish activity or have caught fish in the past.
Alternately, target good looking cover such as logjams, rock piles or a dock that’s been soaking in the sun all day. Watch for the slightest hesitation or twitch of the line as the lure falls, then set the hooks fast.
If the weather has been particularly cold and no strike comes on the drop, reel the lure back slowly near the bottom. If it’s been sunny and unusually warm, try cranking the lure back fast before recasting to a new target.
Jig a spoon
This is a tactic that will score not only with largemouths but also other gamefish like crappies, white bass and stripers. You can use vibrators, tail-spinners, blade lures and jigs, but the best lure for vertical jigging is a hammered metal spoon such as a ½-1 ounce Hopkins.
Find fish on the depth finder or locate good structure where you’ve caught bass in the past. Then lower the spoon down to the bottom or where fish show on the sonar.
Start with a short lift and drop presentation. Raise the spoon 12-24 inches and then let it flutter back down like a wounded shad.
Watch for strikes as the lure descends. The line might shoot sideways or simply stop falling. Other times you might feel a slight tap or jerk. Set up fast.
Extra tip for winter bass outings
Use a thermometer to check the water temperature. Some parts of a lake may be 42 degrees while other areas are only 38. That four degrees can make a huge difference in your catch rate. Also concentrate on northern and northeastern shorelines. They receive the most sunlight and warm more quickly.