Winter Trip Tips: Thanksgiving 2009 on the Hudson

Story by Russ Bassdozer

I'd like to tell you this holiday tale and share some winter fishing tips derived from the trip that Jim Mayberry, Bobby Uhrig, Big John and I made to the Hudson the day after Thanksgiving.

We met up in the town of Saugerties, New York on Friday morning after Thanksgiving. Bobby Uhrig owns which offers scent attractant, for buzzbaits, and for jigs. Big John Radamski is president of the New Jersey BASS Federation Nation. Jim Mayberry's made a name for himself as a regional tournament angler, and is on Bobby's pro staff.

We fished inside Saugerties Creek, a tributary of the rustic Hudson River, about 120 miles north of the Verrazano Bridge (the mouth of the Hudson). It's been said this was one of the mildest November's on record for New York, and the water temp was only 45-ish. That's milder than average for this time of year, but still considered pretty cold water. Nevertheless, the fish were still quite active and shallow.

I fished with Jim Mayberry on his boat. Jim started out with some very small bass baits - about 3-inches long I'd reckon. Small baits are often a wise choice for winter bass in the northeast, but Jim just couldn't get past the hordes of eager crappie in order to inveigle any decent bass with such diminutive baits this day.

Jim Mayberry landed at least 30 crappie and a handful of short bass before he finally went to a little bigger bait out of frustration.

Once Jim switched to a little bigger bait, he latched onto decent bass from then on. What I mean by a little bigger, for example, was that once Jim switched over to 4-inch soft baits, he enjoyed more and better bass catches - and he spent substantially less downtime catching and releasing crappie. So lure size does matter - not only to attract decent fish but also to deter undesirable small bass and plentiful yet pesky panfish that were thick in this particular location!

Ratcheting up in size to a 4" 40-series grub on a light roundhead jig helped cure Jim Mayberry of his chronic crappie problem. Sign of a true expert is that Jim worked an exposed hook jig through terribly snaggy cover without hemming up. It can be done!

As for what I was using, Bobby Uhrig tossed me a bone, a rod, a few 4-inch Yamamoto 40-series single tails, some 4-inch Yamamoto 93-series double tail hula grubs and three of Bobby's brand of ShakE2 jig heads when I boarded Jim's boat. I didn't hook a single crappie on the relatively bigger 4-inch grubs. Although only an inch bigger then what Jim had been throwing, the 4-inch grubs were definitely more bait than the crappie wanted, meaning there was more time for bass to decide to strike them.

I had already caught a few nice bass on the unskirted 40-series single tails. So I decided to see if they'd go for the skirted 93-series double tails, which failed to produce any strikes. After an unproductive period, and again illustrating the critical importance of lure size for cold water fishing, I began to suspect that the skirt on the double tail hulas was producing too much lure bulk, even for the bass. Sure enough, once I pinched the hula skirt off the top (leaving only the double tail grub body), I started to get bites and catch bass again - but only after removing the hula skirt from the grub.

Russ Bassdozer with one on double tail hula grub sans skirt.

So it seemed there was a very narrow range of soft baits working for Jim and I.

Our "window" for bass was bigger than the 3-inch baits the crappie relished, but couldn't be as bulky as a 4-inch double-tail hula grub!

Most of the fish caught by Jim and I were still shallow. Many of the fish came out of a few feet of water, and my feeling was the ShakE2 jig heads (not sure what size) were actually fishing a little heavy in such shallow water. It was very snaggy, lots of fallen wood, and the weight of the jigs I had were just heading down into the snags too quickly. So I used my Leatherman pliers to break the dangling plate part off the bottom of the ShakE2 jig, thereby lightening the overall jig weight and streamlining the shape, which fished more snag-free and worked through the debris slower with more "float" over snags due to the enhance lightness in the shallow, wood-choked water we were casting up into in this location.

Pinching the skirt off a 93-series hula grub seemed necessary to get strikes on it this trip. Also, removing the protruding bottom plate (shown attached in photo) on one of Bobby's ShakE2 jigs made it lighter and more streamlined to almost hover and float its way through the prolific shallow wood where bass were hunkered below the steep rocky promontory that formed the shoreline at this location.

So it goes to show, making the adjustments to the sizes of our baits and leadheads made for a successful day for Jim and I!

If you look at the topo map of Saugerties above, that's the creek outlet to the mighty Hudson River on the right. At the left, just above the road bridge, you'll see the first impassable barrier on this tidal creek, a riffle rock dam. The south side is the consistently shallow side of the creek. The deep creek channel runs along the steeper north shoreline. It is the creek channel side that consistently holds fish in winter. The red line furthest to the left (semi-vertical) is where Jim and I spent most of our morning. If you look at the tightly-spaced topo lines on the land there, you'll recognize this is an extremely steep, rocky promontory overhead. A lot of trees barely cling onto the steep rocky sides, and over the years, many of those trees have toppled and slid down the steep rocky slope, with all that dead wood ending half on the shoreline, half in the water, plus living trees grow right down to the shoreline. So it is a wood-filled rocky, steep habitat where bass winter-over.

We made pass after pass down the steep, rocky shoreline all morning and continued to catch fish on most every pass. But all good things must end, and once those fish ran out, Jim motored back to a stretch of residential property bulkheads where we had some action first thing after launching earlier that day. On the map, this section of residential bulkheads are where the rightmost, red horizontal line is drawn. Sure enough, there were still some fish to be had off these bulkheads.

We noticed that on some (but not all) of the bulkheads, the fish were nose-tight to the structure. On other bulkheads, the fish were not tight to the bulkheads, instead hitting about 5 feet out from the structure. We soon realized that the fish holding away from the bulkheads were on "inside grass lines" whereas the fish holding tight on the bulkheads had no grass beds in front of them.

Jim Mayberry on the Hudson.

"Find the grass and you've found the bass," chuckled Jim as he switched to a Megabass Ito Vision 110 slow-floating jerkbait. This axiom holds true even if it's dead grass you've found. Jim tossed the jerkbait down the length of the grassbed, and landed four decent bass in about as many casts.

The grass was dead chestnuts, a type of pad that emerges on the surface during summer. Chestnuts have thick stalks and develop a knotty, thorny seedpod that looks a lot like a chestnut tree seed pod (which has a thorny covering with the actual chestnut inside). So these aquatic pads that are very prolific on the Hudson get their name from the similar appearance of the "chestnuts" that these pads produce. In summer, the chestnut fields can stretch for acres, even miles on the Hudson, but by late November, all that's left are fields of chilly, chocolate brown stalks with frilly, filamentous nodules lacing them.

Although debilitated, the remnants were still thick and snarly enough to make it impossible to work the jigs and grubs through them. Fortunately, shallow suspending jerkbaits like the Ito Vision 110 and Sebile Koolie Minnow 90 SL could be jerked and paused directly through the remnants wherever there was a couple feet of water above the tops of the stalks. Later on, as the tide ebbed lower, even these shallow runners bogged down deeply in the dead chestnut tops. However, switching to the Sebile Stick Shad 90 SU, which is a lipless jerkbait, proved better able to come through the almost-emergent stalks relatively snag-free and resulted in a precious few more hits and fish.

Three shallow suspending jerkbaits we tried all worked whenever we had 2-3 feet of water in which to pause them above the grass tops. Top: Sebile Koolie Minnow 90 SL in Silver Liner. Bottom: Megabass Ito Vision 110 in Pro Blue. Middle: Sebile Stick Shadd 90 in Perch was the only one that continued to move through the grass cleanly as the tide ebbed lower.

"The jerkbaits opened our eyes to just how many fish were still clinging to the remnants of grass beds in the mid-section of the creek. It made us realize that many bass had not yet moved to the deeper, rocky, protected winter-over grounds in the very back yet," says Jim Mayberry.

Bobby Uhrig looking satisfied near day's end.

Action was consistent from boat launch around 10 AM until vessel recovery at dusk. The day flew by all too quickly since we were constantly concentrating on catching fish!

Big John Radamski ends a great day by releasing some nice ones at dusk

The next day, John and I went home early, due to 50-60 MPH winds, but Bobby and Jim acting on a wild hunch, returned to see if there was any hope they could try Saugerties Creek again despite the gale force winds. Sure enough, they found the very same grass bed was sheltered from the gusts, and they enjoyed good action with Zappu Inchi Wacky jig heads with wacky-rigged 4-inch 9S-seires Senkos on the outside grass lines of these same chestnut remnants.

4-inch 9S-series Senkos on Zappu Inchi Wacky weedless jig heads.

The strong winds had blown and pushed a lot of the water out of the creek, and the remnants were topping out on the surface, making it impossible to fish the inside grassline. There was no water left to work even the shallowest of jerkbaits through the midst of the grass either. Yet the low water had moved all the present fish to the outside grassline, bordering the creek channel, and Jim and Bobby enjoyed a bonanza day fishing the outside grass line with Zappu Inchi wacky jigs and 4" Senkos. Most fish shot out of the grass, grabbing the weighted wacky Senkos before they reached bottom, as they wiggled and sank down the outside grass line adjoining the creek channel

So, grass and bass always go great together, even in winter. We had first hit fish on jigs and grubs on the inside grassline, caught them right over the middle of the grass bed on lipped and lipless hard jerkbaits, and then the next day, Bobby and Jim fished the outside grass line with wacky jig heads and wacky-rigged Senkos.

Winter Fishing Tips to Remember from our Trip
The story above seems to be all about a fishing trip with friends, but there are always lessons to be learned and tips to remember from every fishing trip you make. For instance:
  • Grass and bass always go great together, even in winter! "The water here was only 45-ish in terms of temperature, and the bass were still clinging to the last remnants of grass in the mid-section of the creek. The bass had not moved all the way to the deepest, rock-walled sanctuaries in the back of the creek yet," says Bobby Uhrig.
  • The deep sides of creeks consistently hold fish in winter. The shallow sides will liven up toward early spring when fish get spawning on their minds.
  • As the water gets increasingly colder in winter, bass often tend to prefer smaller and smaller soft baits, and they prefer shapes with less of a bulky appearance. Although the water was not cold enough yet for bass to key off 3-inch soft baits on this trip, they clearly preferred smaller baits than in spring, summer or fall, and by the dead of winter, fish will tend to want the very smallest baits of the year, with the least action to them.
  • Suspending jerkbaits rank among the most productive hard baits for winter bass. "A pause of about five seconds seemed best for bass to strike on this trip, and as the water gets even colder, progressively longer pauses become necessary for bass to strike jerkbaits," explains Jim Mayberry.
  • Wacky Senkos always work. Spring, summer, fall or winter.