Reprinted courtesy of the North American Fishing Club
California bass fishing is, in many ways, unlike anything you'll find elsewhere in the country. The climate, forage base often centered on trout, and the state's typically clear waters, give the sport a certain uniqueness.
Yet, anglers east of the Rockies also encounter deep, barely-active fish during the cold-water period and find that techniques honed by top anglers in California are their ticket to winter bass success.
Like their eastern cousins, California bass head for deep water during the coldest months of winter searching for suitable water temperatures. Of course, "deep" is a relative term. On southern lowland impoundments, such as Texas' Toledo Bend, deep water may mean 15 to 25 feet of water. While on California's famed canyon impoundments, like Casitas and Castaic, deep water could mean 40 to 60 feet.
Although the depth an angler finds winter bass differs with each body of water, the slow, methodical presentation required for coaxing deep bites seems universal. During the cold months, a bass' metabolism and activity slow down, so you must pinpoint the fish's location and keep your lures in the strike zone as long as possible.
On many western impoundments, that challenge is compounded by extremely clear, deep water. Success comes to those who can achieve precise lure placement and control while fishing small, light lures on thin diameter line.
Pioneer anglers like "Doodlin'" Don Iovino of Burbank, California, developed special techniques for finessing tough bites from deeper water. Naturally, the more advanced anglers were quick to pick up on them.
"Polishing the rocks," so named bacause it's a slow, bottom-hugging presentation, is versatile and productive on waters across the country, according to Iovino.
"Last year I taught this technique at all my seminars out East," he says, "and have received a lot of letters telling me how well anglers have done. This technique works everywhere."
The presentation centers on a unique rig Iovino calls the "suspended doodle." But before you can fish it successfully, you first have to find the bass.
Pinpointing Cold Water Bass
"During winter," explains Iovino, "bass in canyon reservoirs concentrate on deep ridges with abrupt drop-offs on either side. On Lake Casitas for example, most of the action seems to occur at a depth of 45 feet."
When the fish are inactive they hold extremely close to hard bottoms and are difficult to pick up on a sonar. "You're not going to see any inverted Vs or activity zones," he says. "At most, you're going to see a straight line representing the fish."
When actively feeding, however, bass rise off the bottom, often holding near a structural edge. Last year, Iovino found such a scenario on Lake Casitas.
Bass were holding two feet off the bottom and 55 feet down, along the edge of a quarry wall that dropped into 90 feet of water. The "guru of finesse" caught 50 bass out of an area only 20 feet in diameter.
"They were sitting right on that edge," he says. "If you missed the target by just a few feet, you didn't get a bite. That's how it is when you're fishing deep water. You better have a good sonar unit and know how to use it."
"On these deep structural edges or small areas, you have to get right over the top and fish vertically."
Polishing The Rocks
A vertical presentation offers important advantages, especially when fishing depths of 35 feet or more. It's the western angler's deep-water equivalent of flippin' a stump, allowing him to put the bait into the strike zone while maintaining direct contact with the lure.
Iovino's suspended doodle rig was designed for this type of presentation. It consists of a 3- to 6- inch hand-poured soft plastic bait, fished above a brass weight and bead. At first glance, it looks like an inverted Carolina rig, with the weight dangling below the worm.
Iovino builds the rig by first tying on a size 2 (Model 5140-071) or size 4 (Model 5140-091) Owner Cutting Point "J" hook to 6- pr 8-pound Berkley ProSelect monofilament, leaving a 2- to 3-foot tag-end on the Palomar knot. He then slips a 5/32- or 3/16-ounce brass worm weight up the tag end, followed by and 8mm glass bead that is pegged in place with a Top Brass Peg-It.
The ProSelct monofilament stretches about 24 percent, less than many other monos, which improves sensitivity and helps with hooksets. Another option is to attach a 10- to 15-foot mono leader to one of the ultra-thin, no-stretch super lines.
"This rig allows you to vertically fish with relatively light line, the rocky bottoms that typically hold concentrations of winter bass," Iovino says.
The pegged head eliminates the problem that anglers who use the popular split shot rig encounter - hangups.
"When you're split shotting, the rig often gets hung on a rock when you get a strike or while fighting a fish. If the suspend doodle rig snags, the glass and brass simply fall off the line and you're free to fight the fish."
The suspend doodle rig not only allows Iovino to accurately place the worm in the strike zone of fish suspended off the bottom, it allows him to manipulate the bait with every rod shake.
"With the sinker on the bottom and the worm directly above it," he says, "you can impart more action to the worm. It can do different things than it does when you're split shottin'."
Hold a quivering plastic worm right in front of a bass' nose long enough, and there's no doubt about what's going to happen.
Although the suspend doodle rig was designed for vertical fishing, it's equally effective fished horizontally. This means it will hook bass in just about any water you're likely to fish. Try it whenever the fish are two to four feet off the bottom, like when they are cruising above the cover such as a rocky reef, stock tank dam, stump field or holding over the deep, sparse outside edge of hydrilla.
Another western pro with a knack for finessing cold-water bass is Greg Gutierrez of Red Bluff, California. This young pro cut his angling teeth on Northern California's Oroville and Shasta Lakes. Like Iovino, Gutierrez fishes deep and slow, trying to to force inactive fish to strike. But his approach is to fish horizontally.
"There are a couple of tried-and-true things I do. First, I try to keep the bait on the bottom throughout the retrieve. Also, I move it slowly, as if I am counting every stone as I go."
Instead of the suspend doodle, though, Gutierrez prefers to shake or pull a 1/4-ounce Kalin's darter jighead over the rocks. He completes the package by adding a 4-inch hand poured worm in a shad pattern.
The key to this deep-water presentation, he says, is the custom worm because it's much more active underwater. "When you slowly drag the jig over the bottom in relatively deep water," he explains, "you're not able to impart much action to the bait.
"And although I barely crawl the lure over the rocks, the worm produces an enticing action bass find irresistible."
Gutierrez says a hand-poured worm is better becuase it is a lot softer and a lot more pliable than factory worms. Another important benefit is that bass tend to hang on to the lure longer because the worm feels so real. Plus, it takes less manipulation by the angler to make it appealing.
Like Iovino, Gutierrez uses 8-pound ProSelect mono to fish this lightweight lure.
Line control is particularly critical when fishing horizonally at extreme depths. The weight of the line, extended over a great distance, causes it to bow and you lose contact with the lure. It also means that you must move a lot of line fast to get a solid hookset. Gutierrez improves his odds by rigging the worm with the hookpoint exposed.
"As soon as I feel a bite," he says, "I quickly reel in until the rod begins to load, then set the hook. When fishing these depths, it is critical that you collect the slack before making the hookset. If you don't, you're going to miss fish."
When doodlin' a Texas rigged worm, Gutierrez first pops the rod back, hard and sharply. The inital movement starts the hook's penetration through the plastic and is enough to stick the fish. He then uses a reel set, followed by a rod sweep to drive the hook in deeper. When dragging a darter jig with the hook exposed, he only needs to use the reel set, then the rod sweep.
Even the angler's boat itself plays an important role in securing the hooksets on deep bass. "I fish out of a Nitro Savage 896, and its long front deck allows me to take two or three stpes backward when setting the hook.
"I started using this hit-and-run technique after watching Gary Klein run to the back of his boat after each hookset during a tournament. He later explained that the hooked fish would swim toward his boat, and it was the only way he could keep a tight line between his rodtip and the bass."
"If Klien does that to maintain control, I thought, why couldn't I use it to move as much line as possible? I tried it and it worked."
No matter where you fish, catching non-aggressive bass in deep water is a challenge. But it's a challenge you can conquer if you give these western finesse techniques a fair chance.