By Terry Battisti
Special to BassFan
Most anglers equate the cold water that accompanies winter with slow-moving baits. Rapala pro Mike Iaconelli fully understands this need to slow down during the cold winter months, but his need for speed has also shown him over the years that winter isn’t all about fishing in slow motion.
Here Ike explains his winter “one-two punch,” which will bring a sigh of relief to those of you who simply can’t slow down.
No Time for Slow Thinkers
“People believe winter’s all about tiny baits and slow approaches,” Ike said. “In some instances this is true, but personally, I never start out this way no matter how cold the water is.
“Even in the coldest water there are fish that’ll strike reaction baits and with a fast-moving bait, I’m able to cover more water in less time. The other thing about winter is the fish tend to group up tighter at this time of year. Couple all of this together and with a reaction bait, I can find a group of fish faster and then when they stop eating the reaction bait, I can slow down and pick at them with a slower presentation.
That’s the “one-two punch” – fast-moving reaction baits first, and then slow down with smaller baits.”
The Reaction Trinity
“There are three baits I rely on this time of the year,” Ike said. “The first bait on my list is a vibration bait like a Rapala Rippin' Rap. Most people think this bait is only good in the spring or as a grass bait. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It shines in the winter because there are few baits that can mimic a dying baitfish better.
“In the winter, you see all sorts of baitfish on the surface dying. As they die, they don’t fall straight to the bottom. They kick and flutter to the bottom and the vibration bait, worked correctly, mimics this well.
“The retrieve technique I use is to make a long cast and let the bait fall to the bottom,” he continued. “Then I work the bait back to the boat with a lift-and-fall retrieve. This retrieve makes the bait look like a dying shad, but it can also mimic the fluttering action of a crawfish.
“Colors for this time of year I keep basic – shad, crawfish and perch imitations are the key.”
The second bait he relies on is a suspending jerkbait.
“As many people know, the suspending jerkbait is deadly this time of year,” he said. “What keys me in to throw the jerkbait is clear water – anything with 5 feet or more visibility. The nice thing about this bait is you can keep it in the strike zone a lot longer than the vibration bait. The main deal with the jerkbait, though, is the retrieve cadence and pause – the pause being most important.
“I hate fishing slow, so I’ve developed a method which allows me to slow down with this bait. I cast it out, crank it down five to 10 cranks and then give it a couple of short rips. Then I pause and count to five and rip it again. I’ll do this for five or so casts and then the next set, I’ll count to 10. I’ll use this method of counting until I figure out exactly how long the fish want the bait paused.”
His No. 1 suspending jerkbait for this time of year is a Rapala Husky Jerk.
“In the winter, I want a jerkbait that has a subtle action and the Husky Jerk has that,” he said. “The way I pick size is to match it with the size of the forage. For example, in New Jersey, we don’t have shad. But we have shore minnows and shiners. The size 6 Husky Jerk is perfect. At Pickwick, though, they have skipjack herring and I’ll match the hatch there with a saltwater-sized bait.
“The third bait is a tight-wobble crank,” he said. “This is a key bait for me when the water is cold and I’m dealing with a lake that has 45-degree rocky shorelines. In warmer water, I’d choose a wide-wobble bait, but when the fish are lethargic, the tight-wobble works a lot better. I’ve also found that baits with a neutral sound (no rattles) work better this time of year.
A Rapala Rippin' Rap is Ike's go-to bait for the first phase of his one-two punch.
“To me, the perfect tight-wobble crank has always been the Rapala Shad Rap in sizes 5 through 8. But I make some modifications to it for winter use. For example, out of the box, the bait will float up pretty fast. Because of this, I change the belly hook to one size larger and after that it’ll barely rise. I also change the back hook to a VMC Sure Set treble. The Sure Set works really well when a lethargic fish swipes at the bait. One thing, though, make sure the long hook is positioned upwards when you put it on the bait.
“The retrieve I use is more of a stop-and-go retrieve,” he added. “I cast the bait out and bring it back at a medium speed, stopping the bait from time to time. I also change the direction of the bait by moving the rod side to side.
Ike’s gear for winter reaction baits is pretty specific, especially when he’s talking line.
“There’s no more important time of the year than winter to be throwing fluorocarbon line,” Ike said. “Because fluorocarbon sinks, it gives you much better depth control with the baits. For example, it won’t float the suspending jerkbaits.
“With respect to rods, I prefer a 7-foot medium-action spinning rod (Abu Garcia Veritas), a 20- to 30-sized spinning reel and 6- to 8-pound line for fishing the smaller jerkbait and crankbait. With the larger jerkbaits, I’ll move up to a 6’3” Vendetta casting rod because it has a shorter handle and the shorter rod doesn’t work me so much. I also use a slower retrieve reel than I normally would.
“For the vibration baits, I like a 7-foot graphite/glass composite rod with a slow-ratio reel and 8- to 12-pound line.”
The Second Punch
“Once I get the fish to commit to a reaction bait, I’ll go back and fish the same area with either a small jig, a shakey-head or a dropshot,” Ike said. “The jigs I like this time of year range from small hair jigs made from marabou, deer or rabbit hair. They mostly represent a small leech or crawfish, so I stick with darker colors but at the same time, whites and chartreuse can be good as baitfish imitations.
“For the shakey-head, I use a 1/8- to 3/16-ounce head and a 4 1/2 to 6 1/4-inch Berkley Bottom Hopper worm, depending on forage size. I fish this on a semi-slack line and shake it really softly.
“The last rig I rely on is the dropshot,” he said. “The six rigs give me everything I need in the winter. Just remember to fish fast first to let the active fish show you where they’re at, then finish the job with the slower-moving techniques.”
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