By M.L. Anderson
Winter can be a tough time for bass fishermen, but no matter how cold and nasty it is out there, somebody always seems to find them. Tai Au is one of those guys, and we went out with him to find out how he manages to boat decent bass during the toughest time of the year. Just to make it extra hard, we met him at Lake Pleasant, just north of Phoenix, AZ, famous for being a tough lake in any season.
On a chilly, windy December day, our first stop was a cove very near the main boat ramp. Tai told us that this cove has been holding a bunch of fish since April. He began by throwing a G-Funk Baits Desert rig (umbrella rig) with very small willow leaf blades and 4” Yamamoto blue pearl grubs (40-20-239) above and two 3.5-inch Yamamoto swimbaits (SB35-06-031) on the longer bottom arms. The stripers and bass have the shad trapped in this cove, and this rig mimics a whole bunch of shad running for their lives. G-Funk calls this a Desert Rig because it is designed to be legal in Arizona – no more than five blades and two hooks. Before you use an umbrella rig, make sure you know the laws where you are fishing – be sure to check before an out-of-state tournament!
When he’s throwing this rig, Tai keeps his boat very close to shore (max 10 feet away), and he casts the rig out in front and much farther away than the boat is – toward the center of the cove. He has investigated this cove many times, both on foot when the water is down (Pleasant rises and falls 100 vertical feet per year), and with his excellent Lowrance electronics. Because he has done his homework, he knows where every submerged tree in this cove is, and he makes sure he fishes the rig close to every one of them. His average is one fish for every seven trees. The lake is usually coming up in winter, and Tai says that when that happens, the fish often pull out, which is why he’s targeting the trees offshore. He moves along at a pretty good clip, covering water. He cranks it really fast for a few seconds, stops for a second, then cranks again.
Tai says he always rides the shore like this in fall and winter, and in the transition between the two seasons. There are still some shallow fish, but most of the fish are deep, especially on this day, with a front moving through and a big wind. The umbrella rig is hot again right now he says, although it’s a seasonal bait. It’s great in early winter, rigged with smaller blades that provide less resistance and allow the bait to be fished deeper and more efficiently. He wants to show this setup to as many fish as possible, and that means getting it deep quickly, then moving on. He fishes it on an 8-foot swimbait rod with a 6.3:1 Diawa reel and 16-pound-test fluorocarbon line. He can cast that bad boy a mile.
Tai has been fishing tournaments for about sixteen years now. He started at the local level and now fishes the Wild West Bass Trail, the WON Bass Open, FLW, and some local tourneys when he can. He got hooked early – someone told his dad (actually one of the Boat People from Vietnam) about San Carlos, a small lake about an hour southeast of Globe, AZ, and his dad took him and his brother to the store where they each chose one bait. They both caught fish, and the rest is history.
Loving to fish and learning to fish are two different things, and Tai says he’s wasted a lot of money buying stuff that doesn’t work. So he values education, which is why he spent a lot of time as a non-boater. It’s a good investment and a great education to be a non-boater in a big circuit like the Wild West Bass Trail (website). Tai says his greatest period of improvement came when he admitted that he didn’t know anything. His advice to anyone who dreams about turning pro is to fish with as many different people as you can, and learn from everyone.
After throwing the umbrella rig for a while, we moved to a different cove (still in the main lake) and he began throwing a Strike King 6XD Gizzard Shad. He likes this crankbait because it’s silent and on 10-pound-test line it will run 15 feet deep. While he fishes he keeps an eye on the graph, and when he sees fish he picks up a spoon and drops it to them. He keeps several rods tied up on the deck this time of year because you never know what the fish might want, and it often changes as the day progresses. He’s throwing the crankbait on the shoreline that receives sunlight first.
On a lake like Pleasant, says Tai, it’s all about the angle, so even when he is throwing a crankbait he keeps the boat close to shore and throws out toward the center in front of the boat. His theory is that the fish see the bait running toward shore, where they could escape into rocks or brush. “It gives the bass a sense of urgency,” he says. He also says that people often don’t realize how fast bass are. You can fish a bait as fast as you can, but it’s still not too fast for a bass to chase it down and eat it. Even in winter when fish slow down a bit, when they are hungry they’ll chase a bait down and grab it. He used to just accept the fact that if you’re throwing a crankbait you’re going to lose one or two out of every five fish, but now he immediately changes the hooks on all his plugs to Gamakatsu EWGs and his catch rate has skyrocketed.
If reaction baits don’t work at first, he moves out into deeper water in the middle of the cove and drop-shots a Kut-Tail Worm. At dawn, and then again starting around ten a.m., there is a reaction bite, but in between those times he usually throws a drop shot. This time of year he generally ignores the bank. Occasionally when the sun gets high there may be a bank bite, but in the winter he almost always fishes the structure and cover out in deeper water. As the water rises, he fishes even deeper. “In the spring they move up when the water rises,” he says, “but in the winter they go deeper.” The water that feeds into Pleasant is Colorado River water, and it is cold this time of year. In the Wild West Bass tournament in January of 2016, his shallowest fish came out of 55 feet of water, and he caught his fish on 5-inch Yamamoto swim baits and swim jigs. With the gizzard shad in the lake now, you can fish much bigger baits, but no matter which bait he’s throwing, the Yamamoto Blue Pearl seems to be the best color.
On our way out of the cove, Tai spotted fish on his graph and stopped to drop a spoon to them. Within minutes, he started boating both largemouth and striped bass. “I’d never have caught those fish without the graph,” he pointed out. “I do a ton of pre-fishing with the graphs without ever even picking up a rod.” He drops the spoon and picks up a Yamamoto Pro Senko (9P-series). These he rigs with a heavier medium wire Rebarb hook. The heavier hook, he says, gives the bait extra shimmy. This Pro Senko is rigged on a drop shot with a 20-inch leader. He fishes this rig at a variety of depths and it produces some awesome bass. He also likes to fish a wacky rigged pink or morning dawn Kut Tail, weighted in the head with a tungsten nail. Morning Dawn works everywhere, he says.
It isn’t always necessary to slow down and crawl a bait in winter. Fish have to eat no matter what time of year it is, and Tai uses his electronics and the experience garnered from years of fishing as a non-boater to find fish this time of year. He’s a very approachable guy, and eager to help anglers who are trying to work their way to the top. If you see him on the water out west, be sure to stop and talk to him.
Get to know Tai by following him socially:
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tai.au.14
Follow his Facebook Group - AZ Anglers: https://www.facebook.com/AZAnglers/
On Instagram: @bluevision781