By Steve Price
January 10, 2012
For most bass fishermen, the rules for finding fish change during the cold water months. Because bass are not as active and don’t chase lures as much, it’s more difficult to determine if you’re even around fish, much less if you’re using the correct lure and presentation.
Brent Ehrler, winner of the 2006 FLW Forrest Wood Cup and a veteran Yamamoto Pro Staff member, uses an easy and efficient three-step approach to reading winter water that erases many of the questions about lethargic largemouths and puts the odds of finding them highly in his favor. It’s a system he’s developed over years of top level tournament competition across the United States, and it’s a system any angler can adapt to his own fishing style, regardless of where he fishes.
Ehrler’s system begins with studying water color, continues with analyzing the dominant cover and structure, and concludes with lure choices. All three are closely interwoven and depend in large part on water color, a criteria many bass fishermen overlook. A much more common practice among anglers is depending instead on water temperature to lead them to fish.
“Water color is the first thing I study because it tells me whether I need to fish shallow or deep, even in the winter,” the Redlands, CA pro explains, “and water temperature doesn’t give me that answer. Water color, in turn, leads me to certain locations on the lake where I can start studying the cover, and that tells me which type of lure to use.
“When you’re searching for bass, it’s like trying to fit the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together. A lot depends on the type of lake you’re fishing, of course, but when you start with water color, which you can see from the boat ramp, or as you’re idling out from the ramp, you can get several answers that immediately fit into the puzzle.”
Here’s how Ehrler makes it work: In stained water, he fishes less than 10 feet deep, while in clear water he nearly always starts between 20 to 30 feet. He fishes deeper than he can see; for example, if Ehrler can see the bottom at 10 feet, he starts fishing deeper where the bottom is not visible.
“I am not the type of fisherman who runs 20 miles up the main river to find stained water, either,” he continues. “I take what the lake gives me, and I think this is important, because you never want to try to force bass to bite. If the water is stained, I’ll head into a main tributary creek and keep going until I find stained conditions. Sometimes, I’ll go all the way to the back, but in winter I normally don’t need to go that far back.
“Conversely, if the water is clear, I’ll normally stay in the main lake. You can get some answers about where to go by studying lake information before you head out. If the lake is known as a clear water structure lake, for example, you can learn beforehand what types of structure dominate, such as bluff walls, mid-lake ridges, or rocky points.
“Whatever features are dominant in the lake are the types of features I want to concentrate on, because that’s what the bass will be using.”
The same is true of cover, emphasizes the Yamamoto pro. At Lake Norman in North Carolina, the dominant cover is boat docks, so that’s what Ehrler fishes. At Table Rock in Missouri, the main cover is standing timber; and at Okeechobee, it’s vegetation. While Ehrler looks for the less-obvious places to fish, he does not vary from whatever type of cover is the most common in the lake.
By combining this basic prior study with the lake’s current water color, Ehrler has answered the questions of depth and basic location. Once he’s in a tributary creek in stained water, for example, he can look at the type of cover available, and choose his lures accordingly.
Water temperature, which many anglers depend on to tell them how bass might be acting, is not that important to Ehrler during the winter months. He knows shallow bass will be more finicky, simply because they feel temperature changes like cold fronts much faster than deep water bass; fish in deep water are always more consistent in the winter. While it is true that a few degrees of difference can change bass behavior dramatically, and that different tributary creeks may have these slight temperature variations, Ehrler does not look for them. He stays with his basic water color options.
“Water temperature can be specific to a geographical area of the country, so it’s never as reliable,” he explains. “For instance, when the water temperature drops to 50 degrees in Minnesota, the bass don’t react to it nearly as much because they live in colder water year-round. When the water temperature drops to 50 degrees in Florida, however, everything changes.”
Lure-wise, Ehrler lets the water depth and cover determine his choices. His two primary groups of lures are finesse baits and reaction baits; he would rather fish fast to cover more water, but knows slower-moving finesse lures also draw a lot of strikes, particularly when it’s cold.
Thus, rigged and ready on the boat deck are shaky heads with 5-inch Yamamoto Kut Tail worms, along with ½-oz. jigs with Flappin’ Hog trailers. These are the
slow-movers he uses to probe slightly deeper cover or structure, including brush piles underneath boat docks, rock piles, tule edges, even breaklines. They’re effective in both shallow and deep water, clear or stained.
“With both the Kut Tail and the Flappin’ Hog, I don’t have a lot of swimming or kicking action,” says Ehrler. “You don’t want that in the winter because it can be too intrusive. The Flappin’ Hog, especially, is a slender bait that doesn’t create a large profile, either. It literally turns a big jig into a finesse lure.
“I usually begin with my faster reaction lures if I can,” Ehrler admits, “and I keep three different types ready for different situations. These include a square bill crankbait (Lucky Craft 1.5), a deeper diving crankbait (LC 1.5 DD), and a jerkbait (LC 112 Slender). Together, these cover water depths from the shoreline out to 12 or 15 feet.
“These lures not only let me cover a lot of water quickly, but also help me locate bass by drawing reaction strikes or even just pulling fish out of cover to look at the lure. If I just see a bass flash at one of these, I can pick up the shaky head or jig and have an immediate slow, deliberate presentation that will often produce a strike.”
While Ehrler’s system of reading winter water may sound a little difficult to accept since it depends almost entirely on water color, it does work universally in lakes across the nation, as he has proved time and again. Stained water pushes bass shallow, even in liquid-air impoundments like Mead and Powell, not just in the dead of winter but also during the heat of summer; and when the water is clear, the bass will be deep. Those two simple facts can tell you where to go, which lures to use, and how to fish them.
When you think of this way, the rules for finding winter bass don’t really have to change that much for you at all.