For many, winter’s time to hang up the bass gear and wait until spring ushers in warmer waters and the magic of the pre-spawn period.
But for others, like B.A.S.S. pro Mark Menendez, winter represents a great time to focus on large bass, albeit in conditions that require more substantial clothing and thinking outside the warm weather bass box in terms of fish behavior, location, and presentation choices.
“There are three ways I really enjoy fishing winter bass and a couple deviate from what most of the crowd does,” says Menendez. “The first is I love to crank a crankbait in winter. Secondly, one of my specialties is fishing a suspended jerkbait, and the final way—which nobody seems to fish anymore but I have the gray hair to remember how effective it is—is fishing a curly-tail grub.”
All three techniques play into his focus on main lake structure when fishing winter bass. “This goes against the grain with what most anglers think about winter bass fishing, that all bass end up deep, but that’s not necessarily true,” says Menendez. “What winter bass want is the shallow availability to get a bite to eat and then move to deep water to metabolize that food. Another thing anglers forget is cold water affects big bass less than smaller fish. Big bass are just like us, in that when you go to the buffet restaurant you’re trying the get the biggest meal possible for the least amount of energy extended, so that’s why I always like to sit right next to the buffet. When the water’s cold, big bass are the same way. That’s why they target gizzard shad, perch, and bluegills first rather than chasing threadfin shad, shiners, or those smaller minnows because they want to get the biggest meal possible so they don’t have to feed for two or three days with their metabolism being so slow.”
That said, when winter bass fishing, Menendez is constantly on the lookout for any kind of shallow flat, ledge, or other shallow area with deep water next to it. “You have to remember that in winter, bass are feeding in a vertical manner, moving up and down in the water column instead of moving long distances laterally to the backs of creeks and things like that. So I’m basically fishing main lake oriented structure in the winter with vertical-oriented techniques.”
Of Menendez’ favorite winter bass techniques, the crankbait rod is often the first to come out at the start of the day. And when it comes to how to work the bait, the key is exactly the same as it is when warm water crankin’—and that’s deflection. You still need to get your bait down to the bottom and get that bait bouncing off rocks and structure to get bites.
“The real question you have to ask when choosing a crankbait in winter,” says Menendez, “is do you want a wiggle or a wobble? Traditional thought processes want a wiggling crankbait in clear water and a wobbling crankbait in dirty water. But I tend to buck that system a bit in that even though bass are primarily sight-oriented feeding fish in cold water, I choose a wobbling versus wiggling bait. In the winter I like a crankbait with a very big, wide weight-laced wobble, so that leads me to a Strike King Series 4 crankbait, which is a little bit bigger than the average 10-foot diving plug as far as profile and it has a bill that extends at a downward angle for a really pronounced wobble and excellent deflection.”
Besides wobble and deflection, color also comes into play when chasing winter bass.
“One of the things that’s really important is how that color reacts under water and creates a pulse or flash. That makes Green Tomato my top choice—a red bait with a chartreuse belly and crawfish pattern. When it wobbles that chartreuse really throws a pulse of color out there so the bass can see it from a distance. My number two choice is Sexy Shad, a white-bellied bait that’s perfect when I’m fishing waters with gizzard shad. My third choice is actually a root beer color, which kind of gives me that perch or bluegill appearance.”
As far as gear for wintertime crankin’, Menendez says line choice is critical and opts for 12 pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon. “I’m bouncing that bait off rocks so extreme durability is key. I’m not doing it with a ton of force, but I am making that bait get down to the bottom and deflect and that’s how you get the majority of your bites. My favorite line for this technique is definitely Seaguar’s InvizX. It’s tough, nearly invisible to the fish, and extremely sensitive.”
Along with the line choice, Menendez is quick to share a line maintenance tip that’s been substantial in improving his winter bass game. “One of the tips I like to utilize in the winter—especially needing to crank slower in colder water anyway—is not filling the reel spool to the maximum. Always leave an 1/8- to a ¼ inch from the maximum spool fill and your reel gear ratio will actually go down to aid in slower cranking and will also make your line behave much better. You don’t have as many overruns on your casting and if you do have some ice or moisture build-up you don’t have to worry about that interfering with the behavior of the line and reel either.”
By filling his reel with less InvizX, Menendez actually decreases the gear ratio of his Lew’s BB1 from 5.1:1 to as low as 4.8:1 or 4.7:1, which he throws on a Lew’s 7-foot composite medium-heavy David Fritts Perfect Crankin’ Rod.
Although Menendez loves crankin’ for winter bass, he’s quick to admit that fishing a suspending jerkbait often trumps all in terms of producing both numbers and good size bass during winter—and may be the absolute best way to catch your biggest bass of the entire season.
So why are jerkbaits so effective in cold water? Menendez explains it like this: “Here’s something you can say about a jerkbait. You can flip a jig under a boat dock, you can skip it under a pontoon boat, you can throw a jig into a brush pile, pitch it around lily pads, whatever… Like a jig, with most of our bass techniques we’re trying to position our bait towards the bass. But a jerkbait is the only bait we really have that the technique can pull the fish from the depths to the bait – so this is a lot of cat and mouse play that works well in cold water. You can also change your cadence on how you jerk the bait – mine’s normally a jerk, jerk, pause – but sometimes you have to jerk the rod down two or three times and jerk the rod up once to get that bait to do something different. Sometimes it’s just a single jerk, sometimes it’s four or five in a row, sometimes it’s sweeping the rod. So you have to be cognizant of the jerk method and what makes the fish bite it. That will tell you how you need to make your cadence.”
He continues: “The thing you have to remember is big bass are not affected as much by cold water. That said, fishing a jerkbait will catch you big largemouths, smallmouths, spotted bass, everything… The key to this is water clarity. You have to have a minimum of 18 inches of water clarity for jerkbaits to be effective. Anything less than that and the crankbait will shine.”
With Menendez, the proof’s in the pudding. Looking back, he won his first national B.A.S.S. tournament back in 1998 fishing a jerkbait in extremely cold water. What he discovered early on is the basic premise of jerkbait fishing is determining how hard to jerk the bait and how long to pause. Along those lines, the colder the water, the softer the jerk and the longer the pause. Of course, this requires a great deal of patience and angler control.
“One of the things I’ve found is when you’ve giving the bait a five, 10-, or 15-second pause, I’m much more efficient at fishing that bait when I sit down because as a person I’m far more patient sitting down than I am standing up, and I can control that bait a lot easier. Most of the time we’re on the main lake and generally exposed to wind in the wintertime and when I’m sitting down I have better balance, patience, and posture for fishing that jerkbait.”
Menendez’ solution? Take the back seat out of the boat and put in the front! “It looked kind of funny but that simple solution helped me win that national tournament when I was fishing in three- to four-foot waves. Sitting down, I was really able to focus on the bait and pause for long periods of time and subsequently won that tournament by over seven pounds.”
In terms of jerkbait choice, he’s recently been fishing the Strike King 300 Deep Jerkbait which dives a bit deeper than most baits on the market, hitting that nine or ten foot level. And he chooses his colors like he does with crankbaits; it’s all about pulse and flash.
“On sunny days, I really like to have something that throws a good pulse like a chrome pattern or something white so the bass can see it from a distance. On overcast days, I’m fishing more of a solid white color or something that throws a lot of color,” says Menendez.
Case in point, Menendez was recently fishing with TV host Mark Zona, both of them fishing different-colored jerkbaits.
“Zona was throwing a Crystal Shiner pattern and I was throwing a Strobe pattern, which is a purple back with a silver insert and bright chartreuse belly and in the deeper water along the dam in the lake we were fishing, I got every bite. We were sitting in 22 feet and casting up onto 13 to 14 foot water. There, Mark did not get a bite. Then we moved up the lake a little ways to a major point that stuck out where the water was shallower – 7 to 9 feet adjacent to a 14 foot drop-off by the point, and Mark got every bite on the Crystal Shiner pattern. We could not figure out why I caught them all down by the dam and he caught them all by the point. In both spots we were targeting shallower flat areas with nearby drop-offs to deeper water. But what it illustrates is how important color can be, especially in different depths.”
Like his choice of line for crankbait fishing, Menendez says it’s “absolutely critical” when fishing jerkbaits in the winter. And although fluorocarbon is his primary choice, there are times when he’ll switch to monofilament for more control.
“I do like to fish jerkbaits on 10-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon 90% of the time but when the fish are ultra-picky in how they’re biting the bait I will go to 10-pound Seaguar Rippin’ monofilament because when they’re not biting very aggressively Seaguar fluorocarbon will transmit that bite to me so much faster and cleaner to my hand that I set the hook too quickly and actually pull the bait from the fish. With monofilament, which is not as sensitive, and has a lot more stretch than fluorocarbon but still a good deal of abrasion resistance, I’m fishing a little more blind and that allows the bass to get that jerkbait before I realize the fish has got it and I get better hookups.”
In terms of rod and reel set-up for winter jerkin’, Menendez uses a Team Lew’s baitcaster in a 6.8:1 gear ratio on a 6’ 7” Topwater Lew’s Custom Speed Stick.
A LOST ART: CURLY-TAIL GRUB FISHING IN COLD WATER
With so many cold-water presentation options on the scene: Alabama rigs, swimbaits, float & fly, et cetera, grub fishing has pretty much become a lost art. But for anglers like Menendez, they remember how effective the old-school technique can be, despite its decrease in popularity.
“The grub is a cold-water special, particularly in lakes that you have threadfin shad in; that’s what you’re mimicking. And it can catch a lot of fish,” says Menendez.
His choice? A Strike King Rage Grub. “The four-inch version on a ¼-ounce Tour Grade jig head is the one I use nine times out of 10, but it has a flange on it, and there are times when that flange creates too much disturbance, so take my pocketknife and slice off the flange to create a much quieter bait. So, depending on how I get the bite or how many fish I’m catching, I may or may not do that. I tend to cut that flange off in water with five or six feet of visibility just to allow the bait to move a little faster and quieter.”
In terms of grub colors, he keeps it pretty simple and sticks to three basic colors: Pearl Chartreuse, Pearl White, and the third is what he calls Bluegill, a Pearl White with smoked blue flake in it.
Again, line choice is important. “I use 8-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon because it’s so soft, invisible, and behaves so well on spinning gear. I attach the bait with a Palomar knot and that’s it.”
When it comes to fishing the grub, Menendez describes himself as the laziest man in fishing and says if he can make a technique simpler, he certainly will. When it comes to grubs, that means two primary methods that have proven their efficacy in winter waters. And location-wise he’s typically fishing parallel to the bank, a bluff, rip-rap point, or a concrete structure along a dam.
“There are two ways I fish a grub in winter: I’ll swim it suspended in the water column or fish it on the fall. If I notice the fish are chasing shad balls in 10 or 12 feet of water, I’ll count that grub down 7 to 10 seconds and point my rod at about a 45-degree angle and then I’ll start a slow reeling, keeping that bait with those shad and off the bottom.”
He continues: “I want the grub near vertical habitat so I can work it horizontally in the same manner as the shad in these same areas and pull those bass to the bait. If I can’t get them to do that when they’re down 15, 18, 20 feet in freezing water, then it’s a complete vertical technique, and I let the bait pretty much fall on its own counting it down on a tight line 18, 20, 22, 25 feet to the bottom and then begin a very slow crawl back to the boat.”
In terms of rods for grub fishing, Menendez uses a 7-foot Lew’s spinning Custom Speed Stick Shakey Head Special Model with a 3000 series spinning reel on it.
Winter certainly presents its challenges on the water – wind, precipitation, and cold – but fact is, there’s plenty of good bass fishing to be had if you’re up to the challenge.
“Again, winter can be a fantastic season to chase all species of bass – green fish, brown fish, spotted fish – and can produce some really big bass,” says Menendez. “For me, putting these three techniques into play – crankbaits, suspending jerkbaits, and grubs – certainly ups my odds each time I unload the boat during the winter season.”