There has been a lot of talk on the forums lately about where bass go in the winter. Well, I hope to shed some light on the topic based on my experience in this article. Be warned that not every river is the same due to several factors each could have – dam downstream or upstream, large tributary entering it, warmwater discharge by a power plant, a lake downstream etc.
The key to this question is to know more about the bass and the priority of their needs to survive. It is no different than humans really. We have certain needs that must be met in order for us to stay alive. I would put oxygen at number one on that list. If I am not getting oxygen then everything else is moot because I will be dead. I’m not thinking about women or food if I can’t breathe! Likewise, if I am freezing without any warmth, my next natural instinct is to get warm before I can move onto the next need which would probably be food or shelter depending on the where I was. Bass have priorities that they follow as well, and if you know where their priorities lie in the winter it can help you track them down! So, let’s get to it!
A lot of animals literally hibernate in the winter and some species, such as bass, just, what I call, “kinda hibernate.” Actually, I could argue that humans “kinda hibernate” too with our limited activity and excess food and football consumption in the winter, but that’s another story. Aside from really warm climates like Florida, river bass in the winter put temperature (warmth) at number one on their priority list. Remember, bass are cold blooded like reptiles and amphibians. Surely we’ve all noticed how much turtles, snakes and lizards like to lay in the sun while fishing a river during the spring, summer or fall. Remember, cold blooded creatures are dependent on environmental heat sources to increase body temperature and metabolism, and have relatively low metabolic rates in the winter because of it. What this means is that bass, since constrained to the water, don’t have much choice and therefore their metabolism slows way way down in the winter because of the cool water and the fact that they have no option to simply “take a vacation to Florida” or say, “honey, turn up the thermostat for me, its chilly in here.”
Now that you know that temperature is number one on the list that can help you locate the fish. And, the great thing about winter is that bass will often be hanging out taking it easy all together in the same “warmest” spot where they don’t have to expend energy. Remember, they aren’t taking in a lot of energy because their metabolism is slow so that means they also don’t want to expend energy and that is your second clue to where they will be – slower water. Like I said, its like they basically “kinda hibernate” and that is the reason they eat so much in the fall – so they can be fat for their take on hibernation. However, just like when you say “yes, please” to your wife when she offers to bring you a plate of steaming chicken wings while you’re watching football on the couch in January, a bass is also going to say yes to a tasty meal if it too is dropped right in their winter living room. You can still catch them! The key is finding their living room and the room can be found if you look for warmth and slow water, but there is more to it than those two elements.
Of course many rivers have lots of slow water that is about the same temperature, so how do you narrow down exactly where that sweet spot is? Well, as crazy as it may sound, moving water is my next key. Now, you may be exclaiming to me through the computer, “I thought you just told us that calm water was the key?” Well, stretches of water where there is dead calm water is certainly likely to fulfill the need for warmer water and will allow them not to expend energy if they choose not to eat at all over the winter. However, it certainly isn’t the place where food is going to be swept down to them allowing them an occasional meal without having to swim around and expend energy while looking for it. They will still be in the calmer water, but just facing the moderate current waiting for a meal, as you do while your wife brings your dinner tray as you kick back in your Lazy Boy. Surely, you reciprocate by bringing her breakfast in bed from time to time as well, right fellas?
Here are a few more keys that all of my favorite winter spots have in common. They don’t have to have all the elements, but the more they have the better the spot will be.
- A solid current break – islands, confluence points where a creek or river enter, eddy point, large rocks or boulders that, at normal winter river levels, are protruding completely out of the water to break the current.
- Depth – this can be relative to the size river you are in, but even though rivers are generally the same temperature on the surface as they are on the bottom, I still feel like fish prefer the bottom because they feel safe next to a solid edge. Imagine yourself playing army as a kid, did you feel safer out in the open where you are vulnerable to get shot or with your back up against a big wall like the side of the neighbor’s house? They feel safer on or near the bottom and there is no doubt that during the night and in the morning the surface water is cooler than the bottom of the river. Later in the day if it is very warm the surface may get warmer than the bottom and the fish will react to that and move up in the water column so keep a thermometer handy because it is an important tool in the winter.
- Structure – If you find the first two keys, but the bottom of the river is just flat mud or sand then the fish will likely not be there. When the smaller fish retreat deeper because the water is too cool in the shallows they will need structure to hide in and the bigger fish will also use these bigger pieces of structure to hide behind as well.
- Warmer water than the main river – whether it is because of a tributary, upstream dam, warm water discharge or just the right combination of slow water on an exposed sunny bank, warmer water is key.
- Abundance of food - I really haven’t mentioned food yet and that is because like a lot of cold blooded creatures they could probably live most of the winter without hardly eating a thing. Of course, they want to. I also haven’t mentioned it because all the areas I have mentioned above will also be the same places the food will move to because other fish/creatures have the same needs as the bass and will gravitate towards warmth, depth and calmer water etc.
Now, having said this you have to remember that there are numerous species of black bass and they all act differently. Largemouth are the most structure oriented of all the bass and many live in the slower/deeper sections of river year round, often choosing wood to hide in. And, in the winter their locations don’t change a whole lot over the course of the year when compared to smallmouth or shoal bass – although when the temperature picks up a certain number of them will move in and feed more in the swifter water and shoals, but not all of them. I compare largemouth behavior in the river to how it is in a lake, there are two types. There is a certain type of largemouth that love to swim in the open water and feed on shad, herring and other baitfish along with spotted bass and striped bass in lakes. Then, you have another group of largemouth who decide to hang out on the banks in their favorite blowdown or stump for most of their life and never really get into chasing food in the open water. In the river you have the largemouth that only like the slow, deep water with wood structure and the ones that prefer to get into the shoals some when the water warms up. This is what makes writing an article like this so difficult because it all depends on where you live and what species are in the river that you fish in the winter. Smallmouth and shoal bass will still relate more to the current and rock than their largemouth counterparts so be sure to find some nice deep rocky areas below long stretches of swift water. Many smallmouth populations have even been observed to move into the upper end of the lake if there is one downstream. Then, in the spring they can move back up into the swifter river. Both smallmouth and shoal bass have been known to travel distances of 40, 50 and 60 miles from wintering spots to spawning locations so keep this in mind. Spotted bass are sort of in between the largemouth and the smallies/shoalies because they are very versatile and can adapt to numerous environments well – swift water, calm water, lakes, river, cold water, warm water, rocky, woody etc. You’ll likely find them in the winter mixed in with the largemouth, and in areas where they live with shoal bass and smallmouth, they will join them in some of their winter haunts as well.
Places to look for:
- Large tributaries that potentially dump in warmer/stained water at the confluence - I caught five bass that weighed around 23lbs one day in February when I located a large tributary dumping murky (warmer) water into clear water and the current break was the point created by the convergence of the two bodies of water. Depth and structure were also there and WHAM, honey hole located. You can read the report here.
- Dams - below dams you will often have deep water, swift water nearby and food coming through the turbines as well.
- The end of a long stretch of extremely swift water – There may be some great wintering holes that are the size of a small car but if they are smack in the middle of a long section of swift water they will likely not be as productive because when the water rises due to a rain, that spot will no longer be calm enough for the bass to chill out in without expending a lot of energy. They don’ t want to have to swim upstream or downstream through all the swift current to move in and out of that location during the winter. The best places are at the very end of a long stretch of river that has swift water because the fish that inhabited the swift water likely moved to the closest wintering spot available. On the same note the last bit of calm water before a long stretch of swift water can be good.
- The biggest eddy/river bend – sometimes in sections of rivers that don’t have rapids or shoals you just need to find one of the biggest bends in the river that offers an equally big eddy where the bass can chill in. If there is structure and depth there then you’ll likely find some bass.
Other scenerios and things to keep in mind when winter river bassin because it is always a dynamic situation.
- Extended warm fronts – On the third or fourth day of a ward trend the bass likely will move shallow, especially from noon or 1pm on because the surface water may be warmer than the bottom temperature and their body temperature may rise by a few degrees increasing their metabolism. If this happens they will be ready to feed some more. Watch the weather and know the water temperature because if the lows at night barely get below the water temperature then you know the daytime highs will be able to do some significant warming.
- Rain – Keep an eye on rain and what the temperature is when it rains. Tributaries can bring food and warmth into a larger river and attract fish.
- Patience – It may take 10 trips before you find a real honey hole but once you find it, you’ll be able to return to it every year and catch fish out of it in the winter. Just think about how many of these locations you’ll have to go back to in 5 or 10 years if you just find one or two a winter. You’ll also need patience in your retrieve and lower your expectations when you are on the water. Most winter days you do not catch big numbers of fish and it can be very difficult, but the chance to find a real sweet spot will keep you going – not to mention the fact that many of the larger fish are caught in the winter!
- Clothing/Safety - Make sure you have the proper clothing and an extra set of dry clothes with you when river bassin in the winter. Hypothermia is not something to play around with. Only run small rapids that you know well because it is not worth the risk to run big rapids this time of year.
- Fish Slower – Slow your presentation down and focus on slow rolled spinnerbaits, chatterbaits or a deep running crankbait. When you do get bit on one of those lures go back into that spot even slower with a plastic worm or jig-n-craw. If you aren’t getting bit on the spinnerbaits or chatterbaits you’ll have to go straight to the slow soft plastics and bump the bottom all day to get those few bites. When you catch one, be sure to spend a lot of time fishing in that exact spot because there may be more in there!
Most of all have fun and remember that any day on the water is a good day!
Tight lines and smooth rapids,