For as much attention as bass get spring through fall, it’s surprising how quickly they get the cold shoulder from anglers once first ice arrives.
Catching a 6 pound largemouth on hardwater is no less thrilling than it is in open water. And when the bite is hot, you’ll be hard pressed to beat a day on the ice chasing bass.
The popularity of ice fishing for both smallmouth and largemouth bass is growing, but very slowly. Walleye, panfish and trout seem to steal the show every winter and bass get put on the back burner until spring thaw. But don’t be fooled by the lack of interest.
You can easily catch largemouth and smallmouth bass through the ice. Cold water slows the metabolism of bass so you’ll find them concentrating in areas with smaller, easy to catch prey. Therefore, ice fishing with downsized baits around deeper structure and healthy weed lines produces big bass in most lakes and ponds.
To catch ice bass, you must get rid of the open water mindset where covering water with big baits is the norm. Downsizing your gear and understanding the winter habits of bass is the order of the day, so read on for all the essential tips you need to catch more bass through the ice this winter.
Where do bass live in the winter
I’ll admit, figuring out spots that bass call home beneath the ice is a bit more challenging than during open water season. But like any creature of the depths, bass prefer a few specific amenities to live comfortably and once you have that figured out, catching them gets easier.
Whether you target smallmouth, largemouth or both in the same water body, these are the places bass live in the winter.
Smallmouth associate strongly with hard-bottom structure all year. Their wintering zones usually include a mix of rock or gravel points extending to depths of 40 feet or more.
Isolated mid-lake rock humps are also a favorite holding spot for smallmouth. Deep transitions and drop offs against cliff faces tend to hold a fair number of fish as well.
Once ice caps the lake, smallmouth push to deep haunts adjacent to shallow feeding areas. They spend most of their time in 30 or more feet of water if the lake has it. When smallmouth are active and feeding, catching them in 10 feet or less is entirely possible.
I have caught smallmouth in 8 feet of water just an hour after catching them along the same rocky point in 35 feet of water. Active fish tend to swim a few feet off the bottom while lethargic bass hold tight to the bottom as if glued in place.
Largemouth bass spend most of the winter in different zones than smallmouth. Soft bottom flats with nearby weed growth is a common theme for locating a good number of largemouths.
In addition, main lake flats or basins are going to hold the lion’s share of big bass. Shallow bays off the main lake tend to be devoid of good forage as the depths of winter takes hold but are worth checking out early in the season.
The environment in small bays becomes toxic as aquatic vegetation dies in the winter which drives bass to better oxygenated water in the main body. Although, every lake is different so make sure to fully explore your lake a bit.
Largemouth bass seldom hold deeper than 30 feet during the winter. And most are going to cling tight to green, healthy weed beds. During active feeding it’s possible to find them in less than 8 feet of water searching for an easy meal.
Feeding habits of winter bass
Bass are able to live in some chilly water but unlike pike and lake trout, bass feed much less aggressively in winter. The cold water slows their metabolism and as a result, they eat smaller meals less frequently.
That’s not to say largemouth won’t go on a feeding binge under the ice when conditions are rights. In fact, sometimes bass go into overdrive when temperatures rise above freezing after a long cold stretch. The water might only warm a degree or two but it’s enough to get bass feeding.
For most of the winter though, expect bass to be less aggressive. Sluggish bass are not looking to chase down big prey. That’s one of the reasons panfish anglers occasionally yank out bass on tiny jigs.
Scale down your baits and adapt your techniques to the mood of the fish on any given day. Some days a jigging spoon with a chunk of meat will get bass to bite, while other days a delicate panfish plastic is the sweet spot.
Gear up for ice bass
There’s no need to splurge on new ice fishing gear for bass. The same tackle and gear that works for panfish, walleye and trout works for smallmouth and largemouth bass.
Rods, reels and line
A light or medium light rod is sufficient for even the largest bass, unless they bury you in the weeds. Bass have a lot less energy during winter months so they don’t require heavy rods. I have pulled 4 pound smallies through the ice on a noodle rod without a problem.
Resist the urge to go heavy on the rod since sensitivity is just as important as it is for panfish. When the bass bite light, you might want to even add a spring bobber.
Be sure to stick on a good reel with a quality drag system. For winter bass, 4 pound fluorocarbon or mono should do the trick. Stay on the lighter side with line to better handle small tungsten jigs and finesse plastics.
Keep a variety of tungsten jigs on hand ranging from 1/12 oz to 1/64 oz. Most ice anglers already have a selection of these micro jigs. You might think the hooks are a bit small for the gaping mouth of a bass but in my experience they still hook up solid.
Use jigs in tandem with live bait. A few wax worms or a small shiner are good options. If you’re using small ice plastics like the Clam Maki, tip it with a meal worm.
First ice and last ice bass tend to amp up feeding routines and you’ll find active presentations entice more strikes. Jigging Rap #3, rattle baits and spoons work to call fish in from a distance. Tip them with a small bit of bait to seal the deal.
For a super simple deadstick approach, use a #2 to 1/0 hook and a minnow. Attach a couple small split shots just above the minnows to help drop them down without hindering their movement.
How to locate bass beneath the ice
Without electronics, ice fishing for bass is a shot in the dark. I’m not saying you need electronics to pull the occasional bass through the ice. However, a good flasher, sonar or even an underwater camera will turn a one or two fish day into an action filled day worth remembering.
The first step in finding bass beneath the ice is to assess the structure of the lake. If you have experience fishing the lake during open water season then half the battle is won. Narrow your efforts to the structure and weed lines you usually fish and start drilling holes.
For new lakes, GPS mapping and charting are the most helpful ways to find points, flats and other structures that hold fish. You can eliminate a lot of water by using contour maps to hone in on likely spots.
Your next step is to start drilling a series of holes around the structure or weed line you want to fish. Check your depth and bottom hardness in each hole with your flasher. This will give you a better picture of the bottom transitions around points and help you find pockets of healthy weeds on flats.
Early and late in the day you’ll find bass moving shallower as they forage for small minnows and other aquatic prey. At these times, largemouth and smallmouth often occupy the same areas near weed edges.
Don’t fish next to just any weed edge though. Live, healthy weeds are a must for largemouth. Decaying weeds reduce the oxygen content of the water and reduce the amount of food available for bass. If you have one, use an underwater camera to check the health of weed beds.
Ice fishing tactics for bass
Now that you have the gear and the spot, it’s time to start ice fishing for bass.
Water clarity plays a role in how you first approach the fish beneath you. Except for the clearest of lakes, I like to blast down to the bottom with an attention grabbing bait. Reach for a small, lipless rattle bait and drop it straight to the bottom.
Pounding the bottom with that type of bait really gets bass interested. Bass are far more curious than you might think and you’ll quickly see fish appear on the flasher if they are nearby.
Now give a few good rips with intermittent twitches to get the rattle going. As fish approach your bait, let it hang still to get them to strike.
The action of rattle baits, Jigging Raps and spoons get bass fired up when they are aggressively feeding but make sure you pause the bait when you mark fish on top of your lure. They usually strike on the pause.
For bass that seem less enthusiastic, have a second rod handy with a more delicate offering. The rattle bait is great for calling them in but now you need to tone it down and give them a morsel to chew on. Something like a 1/32 oz or 1/64 oz tungsten jig with a panfish plastic will convince most fish to bite.
Switch to live bait when things cool off. Tipping micro jigs with wax worms usually does the trick. Small twitches of the rod are all you need. As bass approach, give them just the slightest wiggle in place and slowly lift it 6-8 inches to get them to chase it.
Essential tips for a tough bite
Every once in a while the bite gets tough. Coaxing even a single bass from the lake is a big accomplishment. But with a little effort and a few tips I’ve learned over the years, you can stack the odds in your favor for your next trip on the ice.
Tip #1: Time it right
I would say that for most fish we target through the ice, early morning and late evening is prime time fishing. Yet with bass, we experience the opposite.
The bite often picks up later in the day. And clear skies on a slightly warm day produces even better fishing. As a temperature sensitive fish, the warming effects of mid-day sun through the ice puts bass in the mood to feed. So sleep in and hit the ice just as the bite gets good.
Tip #2: Use your second rod
Winter bass have some wild mood swings. One day you might get 30 fish on the ice ripping Jigging Raps and the next day they only sip small jigs like it’s tea time. To cut down the learning curve, make use of your second rod (or third if it’s legal where you live).
Come prepared with two different presentations. One with flash and noise and a second with more subtlety. Try a 1/64 oz tungsten jig with waxies on a deadstick. And don’t be afraid to drill your second hole for the deadstick within arms reach of your jigging bait.
Call them in with the flashy bait but keep an eye on the tip of your deadstick in case they prefer to dine on a more delicate meal.
Tip #3: Run and gun
Habitat is at a premium for largemouth and smallmouth bass during the winter. Ice up immediately starts causing vegetation to die-off and bass begin to school up where green cabbage still exists to support aquatic life.
For that reason, you might need to stay on the move to find holding spots for schools of bass. Electronics are a huge help here. Fish a likely hole for 10 to 15 minutes. If you don’t see any marks on the flasher, move on.
Tip #4: Scale down your bait
I know I mentioned it earlier but I’ve got to stress the importance of scaling down your bait for icing bass. They aren’t looking to digest a three course meal. With slowed metabolisms, bass turn into opportunistic feeders of minute invertebrates and occasional small minnows. If in doubt, downsize.
Tip #5: Fall homework for early winter bass
Both smallmouth and largemouth occupy much of the same water during early ice as when you last caught them in the fall on open water. If you want to boost your catch rate of hardwater bass, get out on the water in the fall.
Mark a waypoint when you locate mid-depth bass out in the boat so you can return later on the ice. This little bit of homework will go a long ways in simplifying early ice bass fishing.
As fall transitions to winter and water temperatures plummet below 50°, most avid bass anglers stow their rods for winter. But for the true die-hard bass fanatics, ice fishing for bass add a whole new layer of fun.
Catching bass out on the ice is not nearly as hard as some might have you believe. With the tips from this article and a selection of good baits, you’ll be catching winter bass in no time.