It's tough and demanding, bone-chilling and frequently unproductive, yet winter bass-fishing grows every year.
The largemouth bass -- and to a lesser degree the smallmouth species -- commands the biggest following among American anglers. Tackle industry figures say more than 30 million men, women and children rate the black bass as their top quarry.
Small wonder, then, that bass waters are beaten to a froth during the warm months. Such demand has created a new breed of bass-hunter: someone who prefers solitude and doesn't object to mind-numbing cold. As long as the crowds are absent, the bluenose angler is happy. But there's one small problem: This type of bass-fishing requires a boat.
It doesn't have to be a $9,000, carpeted, metal-flaked wonder specially created for bass-fishing tournaments. Anything that safely floats will do. Just remember that shoreline walking won't always get you into the type of terrain required for successful cold-weather bassing.
"I wouldn't leave the marina without wearing a snowmobile suit and the best life vest money can buy," says fishing guide Bill Mathias, one of a handful of local experts who consistently pull trophy fish from the depths of Virginia's Lake Anna -- in the middle of January and February.
"Add to that a big thermos of hot coffee, warm gloves and hat, maybe even a goose down or leather face mask during speedy runs on the lake, and you're beginning to look like a winter bass-fisherman," he says.
Mathias is happy to share his secrets. "Actually, there aren't any," he says, "only common-sense moves that force a good fisherman to think like a bass when the temperature drops.
"Forget the summer equipment. Leave the surface buzzers and shallow crankbaits at home," Mathias recommends. "Instead, stuff your tacklebox with lures that will trigger responses from a deep-swimming character whose feeding schedule is reduced and whose reflexes aren't half as fast as they will be, come May."
His fishing methods are echoed by winter bass-seekers who scour tidal rivers and impoundments from Maryland's Eastern Shore to the mountains of southwestern Virginia.
First a rundown on lures. Remember, deep rock or stump-layered levels of water are the hangouts of cold-weather bass. Such terrain requires sinking lures that will imitate crippled baitfish or other life-like food. The top producers are black or brown, 1/4- to 1/2-ounce jigs dressed with dark slivers of porkrind, followed by 1/2- to 1-ounce metal spoons in the style of Hopkins, Kastmaster or Holiday.
The porkrind jig -- jig'n'pig to insiders -- can be cast into structure-covered depths, allowed to sink, then slowly retrieved by lifting the rod, taking up a bit of slack line, dropping the rod tip back toward the water, then gently repeating the lifting motions until the bucktailed or rubbery skirted lure comes back to the boat.
Jutting landpoints that reach into the lake are ideal for this type of fishing. Some anglers station themselves in the shallow parts and cast out into the deepest water, retrieving their lures up a staircase-like bottom. Happily, some bass will simply inhale the offering and swim along with it, letting you know they're on the business end of the line.
On the other hand, they just as often will give little more than a telltale shake of the line. It takes practiced fingers to feel a tiny twitter in the nylon. When it happens, sock it to the fish. The rest will be easy if a net is handy and you're using at least 12- to 17- pound testline. The twitching-line feeling or sighting is especially important on vertical drops of the jig or the metal spoon. Again, only hours of practice will turn the trick.
Slowly drop the spoon straight from the rod tip into 15- to 25-foot depths that hold sunken trees or rock ledges. Watch the line and see if you notice any sideways movement when it should fall straight. If nothing happens, let the lure bump the bottom, hope it doesn't snag on something, then lift it off the ground by a few reel turns. Extend your arms, lift the lure several feet, then lower it again without reeling in additional line. A largemouth bass, and frequently a landlocked striped bass, will not tap the lure as it is raised, but rather as it falls again. Line-watchers who can feel the slightest shake, twitch or bump will be the ones who'll eat fish that night.
In tidal rivers, the jig'n'pig will do just as well cast toward a deep ledge, then slowly hopped back toward the boat, as will a slowly retrieved spinnerbait. Spinnerbaits, those ungainly triangular-shaped bladed lures that look like nothing else in nature, can be deadly in winter. With or without a sliver of porkrind or fluttering, plastic, curly tail, the spinnerbait is best fished by letting it sink to the bottom, reeling in a few feet, then allowing it to fall back a bit simply by pushing your arms forward and down, then reeling in again. This stop-and-go system has caught many a trophy fish. Just remember that quick hook settings must become the norm the moment you feel unusual pressure on the line.
Long-lipped, deep-diving crankbaits that look like baitfish work better in warmer tidal rivers than they will in still-water lakes. Just be sure you can crank it down as far as it will go (few lures will dive to 20 feet on the retrieve), then stop, let the lure hang for a few seconds, and reel again with a fair amount of speed. An underwater picture of the crankbait resembles a crippled bait unable to get away quickly, with sudden bursts of energy. It may turn the trick.
Then, of course, there's the real McCoy in the shape of a live shiner, threadfin shad or bull minnow. Lip- or dorsal fin-hook the bait, add a small splitshot weight a few feet above, cast it out and keep your reel open, ready to let the predator swim off with the food. Let him have it for a count of three or four, then close the reel and slap the hook to him.
That's all there is to it, with the exception of long hours spent in something cooler than Caribbean climes. With a bit of luck and a large helping of skill, winter bass-fishing can be quite rewarding. WINTER BASS HOTSPOTS DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA POTOMAC RIVER, downtown Washington. MARYLAND NANTICOKE RIVER, at Sharptown on the Eastern Shore, State Route 313. SASSAFRAS RIVER, at Georgetown on the Eastern Shore, State Route 213. BOHEMIA RIVER, near Cayots on the Eastern Shore, State Route 213. VIRGINIA LAKE ANNA, west of Fredericksburg, State Route 606 to Route 208. CHICKAHOMINY RIVER, near Williamsburg, off I-64. LAKE GASTON, at Gasburg, State Route 46, off I-95. KERR RESERVOIR, at Clarksville, U.S. 58, off I-85. SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE, southeast of Roanoke, State Route 122.