Bass are America’s sweethearts. Despite being found in other countries like Canada, Mexico, and even Japan, fishing for bass is iconically American, as much a part of our culture as eating hotdogs, watching football, and screaming “Free Bird!” at the top of our lungs during concerts.
Dozens of U.S.-based outdoors companies made their fortunes developing equipment and boats specifically for catching bass. The fish have weaved their way into the very fabric of our sporting society and created a healthy obsession, fueled by countless TV shows, magazines, podcasts, and other media dedicated to their pursuit. But once the rivers and lakes freeze up for the winter, most bass anglers put their wacky-rigged worms and chartreuse crankbaits away to focus on other pursuits. This is a mistake because they’re missing out on one of the most thrilling activities in the entire world of angling—ice fishing for bass.
Bass Under the Ice It’s well known that bass are a warm-water species. A lot of anglers believe that once the water temperature drops below 50 degrees, fishing for bass becomes pointless. In fact, I’ve run into several anglers who actually believe that bass hibernate during the winter and bury themselves in the mud till spring. Yeah, that isn’t true. The reality is that a bass’ metabolism slows to a crawl during the winter. They become lethargic, limiting their activity throughout the day, yet they remain active enough to catch. You just have to know where to look.
When lakes first freeze over, largemouth bass will move away from their autumn haunts. The sudden lack of light causes weeds to die off, which starves the water of oxygen and causes largemouth bass to briefly move off into deeper water where they have room to breathe. They’ll stay there for a short time before coming back into the shallows once the bulk of the weeds are dead. Here the bass congregate around the surviving weed beds, which are typically much smaller and more concentrated. These weed beds are often made up of mixtures of water cabbage, coontail, and milfoil, which attract schools of baitfish and small aquatic insects. Bass will remain in these spots throughout the winter, gradually moving shallower as the ice begins to thin and break up, adding more light and oxygen to the water and triggering the start of the spring spawn.
Though they can be found in a lot of the same areas as largemouth during the warmer months, smallmouth bass are an entirely different animal during the winter. While largemouth will generally seek out the shallows, smallmouth go deep. As the ice freezes over, smallmouth gather in large schools and move onto points of deep-water structure such as rockpiles, underwater humps, and reefs in 20 to more than 80 feet of water. Here the bass will assemble, occasionally feeding on small baitfish and crayfish, but mostly just holding tight and relying on the weight they built up during the fall to get them through to spring.
How to Ice Fish for Largemouth Bass Since it’s a widely-held belief that largemouth are inactive beneath the ice, there aren’t a lot of hardwater anglers out there that target them. However, one who does is Jason Durham, owner of Go Fish Guide Service. Durham is a hardcore bass nut who chases the green and bronze fish all year on the lakes near his home in Park Rapids, Minnesota, but especially loves catching them through the ice.
“I don’t understand why more guys aren’t doing it,” Durham said. “During the winter, largemouth are still feeding because they’re getting ready to spawn. As the eggs develop and grow, so do the fish. This means your best chance to catch your biggest bass of the year is through the ice. Plus, you won’t lose them when they jump.”
Durham prefers to target largemouth a month or two after first ice when the fish move back into the shallows and are cruising around weed beds. “Typically, I’ll look for bass in 5 to 12 feet of water along the outer edges of weed growth, that’s immediately adjacent to deeper water, say 18 feet or so,” Durham said. “Bass use these channels to travel, gliding along and hunting for panfish, minnows, and even crayfish.”
One of Jason’s favorite strategies is to set up a portable darkhouse shelter in a good spot and then he’ll drill or cut an extra-large hole in the ice. “I’ll usually make at least an 8-inch hole but sometimes I’ll make a bigger one, the size I’d use for spearing. In clear water through a decent-sized hole, you can actually watch big-ass bass come in on your bait pretty regularly. It’s awesome.”
Jigging slowly with small baits is by far the most effective strategy for largemouths. While during the summer these bass wouldn’t hesitate to crush a big flashy spinnerbait or a giant swimbait, the real key to catching them through the ice is remembering that cold water makes big largemouth lethargic. They won’t attack big baits nor fight as aggressively as they would in warmer water. That means you can ice fish for them with the same gear you would use for panfish like bluegill and crappies. A short, light-action jigging rod and reel rigged with 10-pound braided line and a lighter 4- or 6-pound fluorocarbon leader is the perfect setup. Rig up with a small 3/64-ounce jig head or Durham’s favorite—a 1/10-ounce spoon like the Swedish Pimple. Tip the hooks with waxworms or maggots and drop it in the hole, letting it drop within a few inches of the bottom before you start to jig.
“The key to jigging up largemouth is subtlety,” Durham said. “Once your lure is close to the bottom, just start making small, concise movements. Shake the rod tip gently like you’re sprinkling salt on a steak. Then if nothing happens after ten minutes or so, very slowly move your lure up around 3 feet and let it free fall till it hits the bottom. Then start that maneuver all over again.”
When a largemouth hits under the ice, the sensation will be very slight. They won’t smash the jig like they would in the summer. The fish simply move in and wrap their mouths around the lure. So whenever you feel even the slightest tick, raise up slightly on your rod tip. When you feel weight, it’s time to set the hook.
If jigging isn’t your thing, it’s also possible to catch largemouth on tip-ups. This is also a great way to find the fish when your jigging holes aren’t working out. Start by drilling two or three holes in 6 to 10 feet of water around weed beds adjacent to deeper water. Rig your tip-up with a 2/0 wide-gap hook baited with a 3- or 4-inch gold shiner or sucker minnow hooked just below its dorsal fin. Add a small split-shot and lower the bait until it hangs 3 to 6 inches above the bottom. Set your flag and wait for a big winter bucket mouth to come along and inhale the baitfish.
How to Ice Fish for Smallmouth Bass Catching smallmouth through the ice is considerably harder to do than catching largemouth, simply because they’re often so tough to find. Smallies’ habit of moving into deep water and stacking up on structure after freeze-up forces you to rely heavily on electronics and pre-scouting to find just where they’re hanging out. Furthermore, just because you find a few good deep-water humps and rockpiles doesn’t mean the smallmouth will necessarily be there. Much of the time, almost every bronzeback in the body of water you’re fishing will be over-wintering in only a few locations. This makes the search less like looking for a needle in a haystack and more like looking for a certain needle in a warehouse of needles.
However, once you do find a good smallmouth spot, it will produce for you regularly. On one lake I ice fish, a rock pile I found years ago has consistently provided me with 20 to 30 bronzebacks per day for nearly 20 years. Finding those productive areas is key.
Concentrate your efforts on humps, rock piles, and reefs in depths of 20 to 30 feet. Not only are these zones easier to fish, they’re also safer for the smallmouth you intend to release. Pulling smallmouth bass out of depths much past 30 feet can cause barotrauma, which these fish are particularly susceptible to. With the bass being so stacked up in certain spots, fishing too deep could mean accidentally killing every fish you catch, ruining the location for years.
You can catch smallmouth using the same jigging setup you would use to catch largemouth, except you might want to use bigger baits. Smallmouth are typically more aggressive and opportunistic than largemouth during the winter and prefer meatier offerings.
Some of my favorites include the ⅛-ounce Johnson Swimming Grubs in white or yellow, a ⅛-ounce jig head tipped with a soft plastic like a 3-inch Zoom Tiny Fluke, a 4-inch Berkely Gulp! Minnow, or even a live minnow. Jason Durham is also a smallmouth nut, and his favorite lures include small to medium white bucktail jigs or ⅛-ounce jig heads tipped with a white or gray 4-inch Berkely Gulp! Minnow Silky.
When jigging for smallmouth on humps of structure in deep water, it’s important that you’re jigging in the right place. You want your jig to land either right on the peak of the structure or along the upper edge where it begins to drop away into deeper water, but not into the deeper water itself.
“It can be really difficult to catch smallmouth once you find them,” Durham said. “You have to rely pretty heavily on your electronics and in that depth, you really have to lift up on them to set the hook. In the deeper water, I want to drill the smallest hole I can get away with so I can both stay on target and make sure that once I get the fish’s head into it, it can’t go back down. This is good because the bass can be landed quickly, putting much less stress on the fish.”
It’s the American Way As Americans, we pride ourselves on going all out. At sporting events, we stand and sing our anthem then tear off our shirts to show our team's emblem painted on our chests. On Thanksgiving, we gather with family and friends to celebrate our blessings, then devour a 40-pound turkey with all the trimmings while watching a parade that shuts down 100 blocks of our largest city. In all things American, we go to the extreme and that should apply to our most popular fish. We shouldn’t let winter stop us. When it gets cold, we should go out, drill some holes in a thick sheet of ice, and then freeze our asses off for hours trying to catch bass and whatever else might show up. It’s the patriotic thing to do.