There's no question that the coldest fishing excursions I've experienced have taken place in January. Cold enough that I had to dip my fishing rod down into the water to thaw the ice from the guides on one memorable trip. On another trip, I remember the beard of a fishing buddy being caked in icicles from the spray.
Those are just a couple of extreme examples of the weather many of us have experienced as we've chased after largemouth bass. But another common thing about those experiences is that they also produced fish. Maybe not a lot of bass, but there were bass to be caught.
"Bass eat pretty much every day. The cold weather affects the fish, but it affects the attitudes of fishermen more than anything else," said Mike McSwain of Broad River Smallmouth (broadriversmallmouth.com).
"I was watching some really good instructional stuff several years ago and one thing really came through. In winter, you should go out with the expectation of catching fewer fish but that you can still catch good fish."
And McSwain said that there's a good chance you are going to catch bigger fish during the winter months.
"I always catch bigger fish in the winter. This past week we caught some monster fat largemouth bass, big fat fish," said McSwain, who targets largemouth bass in several private lakes in Dorchester County. "The fish in a healthy fishery are big and fat in the wintertime. Most tournament guys will agree that when you catch really big fish is in the winter."
There are a lot of factors to consider when you target winter largemouth bass, one of the most important being water temperature.
"Fishermen are too guilty of assuming that because it's 38 degrees outside that the water is cold," McSwain said.
He said he recently was able to disprove a client who felt bass wouldn't be caught using topwater lures in January. McSwain pointed out that the water temperature was a balmy 58 degrees
"One thing you shouldn't do is assume the water is cold until you measure it," he said. "When the water is in the 50s, it's not really cold for a bass. When it gets down in the 40s, they start to slow down. When it gets below 36 or 37 degrees, it's hard to catch bass. But when do we ever get water that cold? Don't assume that because it's January that the water temperature is 40 degrees."
As the water temperature drops, the metabolism of the bass slows down. But they still eat, McSwain said. "You should simply slow things down. I tell my clients to fish with the rod, don't fish with the reel handle. Lift the rod tip up just a little and make a little hop. When you get extra slack in the line, then reel that in."
As for winter lures, he said fishermen should try to emulate what the bass are feeding on.
"They don't have the metabolic rate to chase things all across the lake. They are looking for easy meals," McSwain said. He likes to fish big creature baits, big plastic worms, baits that can be fished slow but represent a bigger meal. Suspending jerk baits also work well in the winter.
"You can make fish bite just about any time," McSwain said. "But that water temperature is everything."