Detect winter bass bites by improving your feel
"What's it feel like when they hit?"
By Jeff Little
Almost 20 years ago, I asked a fishing buddy a question still eludes me. We were fishing the Shenandoah River in West Virginia, and the water was 41 degrees. I had never caught one in water that cold before, so as my kayak drifted up beside my buddy Brian, I asked, "What does it feel like when they hit?"
That day I got my first few winter bass on a green pumpkin orange fleck tube, and I've not missed fishing a winter ever since. The fortunate thing was that I had gained confidence in winter jig fishing.
Yet just the other day when catching a 6-lb. 10-oz. reservoir largemouth, I couldn't tell you what I sensed that made me set the hook. How is it possible, that after two decades of winter fishing, that I still can't define "What does it feel like when they hit?"
Instead of trying to answer that question, I'll share some tips that will hopefully lead to your having more timely hook sets while fishing a jig or tube this winter.
What does the bottom feel like?
Although you might sense a "tick", "throb", "crunch" or merely the absence of the weight of the jig, the best way to be ready to set the hook at the right time is to concentrate on what the jig feels like at the end of the line while it is sitting on the bottom.
Try to determine if the bottom substrate is rock, sand, clay, brush or some kind of dormant vegetation. All have unique sensations. Learn the difference and in the process you will become better at sensing when the jig has entered a fish's mouth. This is a total "Wax on, wax off" piece of advice. Embrace it.
I'm still guilty of putting out too much line. The water may be crystal clear, and the fish can hear the kayak's seat creak through the hull at close range. You may decide that putting more distance between you and the fish will compensate for any of your stealth shortcomings, but it's hurting your ability to detect a strike.
Any number of things like the wind, current, a deep submerged branch that you cast over and don't know it yet, can deviate your line from being perfectly straight. Maintaining straight, not bowed line or line touching something is the best way to feel whatever is going on down there. And a short cast reduces how many of those line benders can muddle your feel.
This one took me far too many years to figure out, and being in a small craft like a kayak makes it that much more important. It's actually more difficult to feel the bite from a free floating kayak than in a free floating bass boat. Here's why: The bass boat, being a larger and heavier vessel tends to move in a more constant speed and direction. A kayak on the other hand is easily pushed by a gentle breeze, the angler shifting weight in the seat or the turbulent water at the edge of an eddy. All of these have the potential to cause very brief and erratic instances of slack in the line. If this happens at the wrong time, say when a smallmouth just nipped at your finesse worm on a shaky head, you won't feel the bite.
The point is that you will feel more bites if you get yourself and your kayak still. On the reservoir when I caught the 6-10, I did it by using a small clip at the end of a two foot section of parachute cord to attach to a branch. That kept my kayak from being pushed by a breeze in the direction that I just cast. On the river, I may use a shallow water anchor system like the River Stick. Pick your favorite method and get locked in.
I could go through my exact set up, and I'm sure that my sponsors would be happy to have me do so. Instead, I'll just say that you get what you pay for. If you spend a few dollars on your rod and line, you'll feel a few bites. If you spend a lot of dollars on your rod and line, you'll feel a lot of bites. Low stretch braid and fluorocarbon help, as does a lightweight graphite rod.
In the last year, much of my tournament fishing has been "power fishing" – grinding the river rocks with a crankbait, or crossing eddy lines with a spinnerbait and swimbait trailer. Early this winter, I found that my hands had lost touch with jig fishing. It took a while to relocate that state of relaxation and focus. Get on the water as often as you can. Five hours without detecting a bite isn't wasted time. It's five hours of probing the bottom and trying to guess what's down there by what the jig feels like dragging across it.
Move it less
This one is counterintuitive for most folks. Incorrect human assumption dictates that there is a need to animate, or move a bait frequently in order to convince the bass that it's a living morsel of food. The things that they eat in 38 degree water don't move much at all. When they do move, it's slowly and for short distances. A big advantage of frequent pauses, sometimes minutes at a time is that if you aren't moving it and it moves, you know that it's time to set the hook. Put another way, if a fish hits the jig right after you've dragged it across the edge of a small boulder, sometimes you can second guess yourself and think the jig was tapping down on the next rock in it's path. You just missed a bite.
Stink it up
Using some sort of scent may not draw any fish over to investigate your jig. But what it will do is increase the amount of time that the fish will hold the jig in its mouth, believing that it's real food. If you weren't paying attention when they tapped it, maybe you'll feel the weightless sort of throb five seconds later. You'll only feel it if they hold onto it that long. Scent makes that happen.
I bet 20 years from now, I probably still won't be able to define what a hit in 36 degree water feels like. I can say this, the sensations you may feel at the end of your line will range from a well defined double tap to the mere absence of the kind of solid connection you felt a moment before as your jig rested on a rock. But just because the sensations can't always be defined, don't let that stop you from trying to figure out what's happening down there.