Cold is relative. Today’s 50-degree temperatures, combined with a brisk west wind, put a glitch in the plans of the crappie fishermen in my neighborhood. It’s common for native Floridians to claim that, although the temps rarely dip below freezing, the humid air makes it “feel” colder than the mercury measures.
But they’ve never been cold.
Cold is when your baitcaster continues to freeze up and, when you blow on it, your lips immediately freeze to the sideplate of the reel. Cold is when your shotgun freezes shut while duck hunting and still won’t open after you pee on it. Cold is when you enter a marina in pursuit of perch, drive the boat up on the ice and get out and drill a hole. That’s cold.
But in terms of bass fishing, cold can be a good thing. Take into consideration the following facts I continue to ponder:
• A friend is one of few people I know who has caught a certified bass exceeding 16 pounds in Florida. It was taken the day following a nasty cold front, with bluebird skies and harsh winds. It would be one of only a couple bites that day, despite fishing live shiners.
• Another acquaintance, one of Florida’s most successful guides, reports the biggest fish to ever come over his gunnels was caught on the coldest day of the year, when area temps dipped below freezing.
• The largest smallmouth bass I ever caught outside of the Great Lakes – a 6-15 brute from New York’s Chautauqua Lake – was taken on a cold November day when a friend and I combined for two bites, total. Incredibly, his hit for the day immediately preceded mine and may have, in fact, been the same fish.
• Each year, the largest stringers caught by Lake Erie regulars come in the harshest conditions; in fact, my best day occurred a decade or more ago during the week of Christmas, when water temps hovered below 40 degrees.
• As a youngster, friends and I haunted several area ponds in the national park near my home, as well as one small reservoir. Without fail, our largest bass of the year were caught within a week after ice out – this often occurring three months or more before “pre-spawn”.
In fact, when it comes to catching the biggest bass in the lake, oftentimes the colder, the better, regardless of where you’re at in the country. But why is that?
The answer is likely a matter of biology. Big bass, or any big fish for that matter, are the most successful members of their specie, therefore feeding the most efficiently. They don’t waste energy in pursuit of inefficient food items. As they grow larger, big bass simply become better killing machines and their chances of success increases.
For all of that to happen, a big fish must not only feed efficiently, but often. Contrary to popular belief, bass continue to forage throughout the winter. In fact, I’ve mentioned here a time or two of my previous exploits around Lake St. Clair, when I often spotted big smallmouth chasing perch beneath the ice in three feet of water. In terms of largemouth, any northern angler worth his jig-and-pig can recall porkers caught with skim ice still in the creeks.
Moving southward, we see less of a tolerance for extreme cold in bass, but a similar pattern of resilience. The biggest of Chickamauga’s record-setting hawgs have been caught in the winter: the Tennessee state record was caught in February, and a recent near-miss was landed in December. Some of the biggest stringers ever weighed from Kentucky Lake came jerkbaiting in the snow, and many of Dale Hollow’s world-record seekers fished religiously in January.
Florida, where bass are said to go into shock when water temps dip below 60, continues to buck the odds and kick out giants on the coldest days, as earlier mentioned. True, the overall fishing is usually deplorable after winter fronts, but the single bite experienced by persistent anglers is often from that of a trophy-class fish.
The moral of the story? Get out and fish! While it takes a few extra cups of coffee in the morning, you won’t catch a giant unless you’re on the water. The winter period is the best time of the year in many locales. Fishing pressure is non-existent, the ramps are void of confused trailer-backers and our waterways are again peaceful; the way they should be.
Take extra precaution when venturing out, however. Most anglers have no concept what it’s like to be accidentally tossed into ice-cold water and how quickly things can go horrifically wrong even after you’re out, given the cold air temps. An extra layer of clothes – specifically a big wool coat, hat and set of dry bibs – can save your bacon should the unthinkable occur. Be sure to fish with a buddy and wear a lifejacket from the first to the last cast; with all the other layers, you won’t even notice..
Want to blow up social media with a big bass pic? Grab a handful of rods and some kind of jig and get back out there.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)