In the lifecycle of bass fish, the calendar year is divided into four general intervals that are based on the fish’s spawn, or reproduction period. Each interval is primarily motivated by the water temperature and the bass move around to different places in the water-based on how warm the water is there. In winter, bass tend to be much more lethargic and move to deep water, where they can remain suspended motionless for weeks at a time.
Before this long period of stasis, the bass will be stocking up on food to last through the winter. They move around a lake looking for structure suitable to accomplish these goals. Structure, in fishing, is a term that describes the physical features of the bottom of a lake. It’s helpful to know what kinds of structure bass will be looking for in the fall and winter to know where to drop your line.
Since bass are moving to deeper water in winter and preparing to do so in the autumn, bass fishermen will have to change up their tactics if they want to catch bass. Many anglers think this is a dead time of year, and while it may be more difficult to catch bass in winter and fall than in summer or spring, it’s still very much possible if you know the right bait and the right method.
With popular bait and lures like crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and jerkbaits, anglers are able to use different styles of fishing to catch bass where they love to hide, namely under cover, where it’s deep, and where there’s food. This can be tall grass in lakes or rip rap in rivers, or it can be out in the middle of nowhere if it’s a shallow lake in general.
In the fall, bass go to shallower water to fatten up for the winter months. Sudden cold fronts can interrupt this process, sending bass back into deep water until the weather warms up again. This is far more common in the early spring pre-spawn period but it can still happen in the fall. When the cold weather sets in, bass go to deep water for good.
Topwater lures aren’t going to be met with much success at this time, but there are plenty of ways to drop-shot fish or use a crankbait to put the lure right in front of the bass. You can also use a jigging spoon for a vertical presentation. Even though the bass are quite slow in the winter months, they’ll still attack any bait that looks like a minnow, shad, or similar baitfish.
Even though it may seem like all the bass start to disappear in the fall and vanish completely all winter, they are still there. Knowing the physical features of your fishing spot and the general behavior of bass can help you find them. Once you do know where they are, using the right fishing technique will help you reel them in. Keep reading to find out where bass go in the fall and winter and how to catch them there.
Fishing for bass in the autumn
Autumn is a welcome time of year for many because the temperatures finally start to cool down, granting some relief from the scorching summer. For cold-blooded bass, it’s not quite the same story. They like to swim in warm water and when the water temperature starts to drop, they know it won’t be long before it gets colder. Bass start to eat like mad in preparation for the colder months, knowing their food sources will be scarcer and they’ll need extra stored energy to survive. Shad, one of bass’ most common food sources, often move to shallower water as the deep water gets cooler in the autumn. Bass will follow them there to gorge themselves.
While bass do love to hide under cover in other parts of the year, that’s not their main priority in the fall. During this time of year, they are focused on feeding. They’re going to stick to a food source more than they’re going to stick to shielding themselves. Sometimes anglers can find bass under cover, most likely if the sun is shining particularly bright. But most of the time, bass are going to be chasing after food before the cold water slows their metabolism in the winter months. While shad are a popular food source for bass, they don’t live in every lake or pond; look for any kind of baitfish and it’s likely there will be bass there eating them.
Tactics for bass fishing in the fall
So how should you fish for bass in the autumn when they’re feeding like crazy in preparation for the water temperatures to fall in the wintertime? There are a variety of tactics and tackle you can use. It depends on the particular physical characteristics of your fishing spot, but in general, there are a few methods and bait that are really successful. Keep in mind that bass like to school up to feed in the fall, so you can sometimes get multiple fish from one piece of cover.
If you fish a lake with creeks feeding into it and the baitfish head to the shallower water of the creek mouth when water temperatures drop, the bass will likely be there too. Try fishing a crankbait that will help you drop your lure through every level of the water column. Try a crankbait that looks like a minnow, shad, or crawfish. Remember, these bass are going to be jumping for a bite, so the more realistic you can make the presentation of your bait, the more likely you are to get a bite. You can use a fairly lightweight test line unless there’s lots of cover that you’ll have to rip your crankbait out of, in which case you should get line that’s a bit heavier.
Try fishing a jigging spoon if the sun is out and the bass seem to be sticking to cover. With a jigging spoon, you can get a vertical presentation that mimics an injured baitfish in an attempt to draw the bass out from their hiding spot. Drop-shot fishing works pretty well because, unless there’s a cold front, the bass won’t be hanging suspended in autumn the way they will in the wintertime. Anything to get the bait low and draw them out of cover without risking a line break is a good strategy for this situation. The bass aren’t going to be as static, which means you don’t necessarily need a lure that will sink straight to the bottom. Rather than trawl, a slow-sinking lure works great for drop-shotting during this time of year.
Spinnerbait is a great option for late fall when the water temperatures have fallen lower but not as low as their wintertime temperature. While the bass are still in the shallower water, spinnerbait that you can precision or finesse cast into the shallows will help tempt those bass to use those last remaining bits of autumn enthusiasm and chase your lure right to the hook. The spinnerbait works at this time of year because in the last months of autumn the bass will find even shallower water, so traveling through a large water column is unlikely to be necessary.
Where do bass go in the winter?
So now we know that bass slow down in the winter after feeding intensely during the fall months. But where exactly do they go in the winter? Unlike the late autumn when bass search for shallow water in an attempt to find warmth, in the winter months they will go to the deepest part of the lake they can find. It can be a deep hollow or a drop-off.
This is because, generally speaking, they are following a food source. One good thing about the wintertime is that female bass have to eat a lot to recover from the spawning effort. There is also less going on in the deeper parts of a lake, if those depths are really deep, enabling the bass to hide or hang suspended without having to worry about their predators. Other than larger fish like pike, bass’ major predators are outside of the water. Eagles and hawks are some of the most common bass predators. Their main predators are humans.
If the lake is not particularly deep and has little in the way of structure, bass will try to find rocks to stay under. Rocks retain heat fairly well on sunny days, which will attract bass, but the main reason the bass go to the rocks in the wintertime is that baitfish flock there for protection. Again, they will tend to stick to the deeper water on the lower side of the rocks, so anglers will want to get their lures as deep as possible as quickly as possible. Bass will also hide near anything vertical if other structure or cover is lacking. This means that bass fishing near docks or other platforms can be very successful in the wintertime if you’re fishing in the right lake.
Tactics for bass fishing in the wintertime
Winter bass fishing is much different than bass fishing at any other time of year. Rather than using a blade bait or a lipless crankbait, anglers are going to want to switch to a vertical presentation. A vertical presentation is a lure that hangs down longways, rather than horizontally. The idea is to mimic an injured baitfish; bass don’t want to expend any more energy than they have to, so an injured baitfish is ideal. You want to get that lure down to the depths as fast as possible, so a jigging spoon or any kind of metal sinking lure usually works great.
If you are fishing a shallow lake, you can stick with horizontal presentations, but the lures should be heavy and slow-moving. Whereas you would want to give these lures a realistic presentation in the summertime by moving them through the water quickly and, in the case of jerkbait and crankbait, in small bursts, the lure should resemble a lethargic baitfish in the wintertime. That means you can cast it out and reel it in slow. The bass should think it’s an easy target and worth whatever effort they’ll expend to attack it.
Bass fishing in muddy water
One thing that can really affect winter bass fishing is water clarity. In clear water, the bass is lethargic but they can at least see a baitfish and are more willing to attack it. In muddy water, bass aren’t going to be able to see your cleverly designed lure unless it’s right in front of them. That’s why you should concentrate on jigs in the first three months of the year. Spinnerbaits work great in muddy water, but you have to make sure to get one that will display action even at the slowest speed. If you can get it right next to where the bass are and reel it in at a consistent and slow pace, then you’re more likely to get a bite from a bass.
If you happen to live in a place where it rains in the wintertime, that could affect where the bass go. If the rain was brought on by warm conditions preceding a cold front, then the bass may have moved to the shallows. If that’s the case, you can fish the shallows likey you would any other time of year, but remember to keep that reel-in moving nice and slow.
River fishing for bass in fall and winter
Up to now, we’ve mostly been discussing bass fishing in lakes. Rivers are a little different, especially if there isn’t much cover. One great place to fish for bass in a river is rip rap, which is any kind of structure (in the angling sense of the word) exposed to moving water. This can exist in a lake if there’s a current, but it’s more common in a river. Bass are usually feeding if they are in a rip rap and that makes them more likely to strike.
If you river fish, look for a rip rap near deep water. Bass love to camp out there in the wintertime for much the same reason they look for rocks in a lake. If you use a spinnerbait, slow roll it, which means you reel it in really slow.. Just like fishing in muddy water, you want a spinnerbait that will move and displace water even at the slowest speed.
If you use crankbait, bang it off rocks. You want to have a rod with enough action and a thin enough line to feel what the crankbait is doing so you can keep it moving and banging off the rocks. Squarebills work great for this method. You can also use a shaky head to fish a rip rap. Cast out, keeping the line taught while feeling for a strike against the rocks. Slowly bring it to the outer edge of the rocks. Texas rigs and jigs work for this method as well but don’t let anything settle on the rocks or they could snag. It’s important to keep them moving very slowly but not to let them stop. It’s hard to master but it’s a great way to catch bass in the wintertime.
Bass fishing, whether it’s for striped, largemouth, or smallmouth bass, is some of the most fun you can have freshwater fishing. As opposed to their active lifestyle where they are either hunting or protecting a nest when the water temperature is warmer, in cold water bass will be more lethargic and less likely to strike. That doesn’t mean they never will, but it does call for some different fishing methods.
In winter, fishing for bass generally requires anglers to slow everything down and get lures that will still have enough action at these slow speeds to attract the attention of the bass. Swimbait and soft plastics can work, but they are much more difficult than crankbait and spinnerbait whether you’re fishing a rip rap or casting into the shallows during a warm spell.
In the fall bass are feeding more heavily to prepare for these cold winter months. They will head to the mouths of creek channels where the water is shallow primarily because that is where the baitfish they feed on go. Be wary of brush piles, rocks, and weeds if you fish past the weedline. Coldwater fishing can be more difficult once autumn progresses and it only gets more challenging as the year moves on toward late winter. Fall and winter are the times of the year when most anglers pack up their equipment, but it need not be the case. With the right strategy and equipment, you can still catch bass all year round.
Bonus tip: Check out this video for more information on finding fish in cold water lakes!