"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Open-Water, Cold-Weather Fishing
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Scifres

With hunting seasons fading fast, most Hoosier outdoors folks are marking time until the first big freeze of winter creates safe ice. Why wait? Open water fishing for bass, bluegills (even catfish) can be pretty good at this time of year.

Sure, the metabolism of fish slows considerably when water temperatures drop below the 50-degree mark, but the habits of man do likewise when air temps take a nosedive. It's the nature of all concerned.

But nobody flips a button to turn the fish on feeding mode when the surface of lakes and streams are covered with a layer of ice. Bass, bluegills and even the channel cats of rivers, lakes and streams do become more lethargic during the cold months, but they still feed--with or without a cover of ice.

Many years ago my dad proved the point for many of his fishing cronies who worked at the American Can Company plant at Austin (Scott County).

My dad, an ardent bass fisherman with both artificial and live baits, would while away the closing minutes of his lunch breaks while gazing longingly at the water on a pond across the road. He wondered if bass, contrary to popular misconception in those days, would hit an artificial lure during the cold months. Or were they just lolling around down there waiting for spring to happen?

One morning in the dead of winter, and to the guffaws of many of his angling friends, he showed up at work with his old South Bend 550 bait casting outfit and a little box of artificial lures. 

His friends laughed when he wolfed down his fried-egg sandwiches (he liked them a little burned just like my mother made them), and headed for the pond. His friends laughed out of the other sides of their mouths when he returned in time to start working again with a brace of nice largemouth bass.

There was a nice--though quite unseasonable--fish fry at our house the next day. And before many days had passed, lunch hour for some of the other workers at the factory took place on the pond across the road.

Many years later I would put a new wrinkle in my dad's theory on wintertime open-water bass fishing to work on one of my favorite ice-fishing ponds

I had gone there with the hope of dangling some hickory nut worms through ice holes for slab 'gills, but I had found the surface of the pond only half covered with ice and that did not bode well for the safety factor.

However, in addition to my ice gear, I had an ultra light spinning outfit in the car. Still attached was one of Dan Gapen's plastic creations of the one-fourth-ounce class, purple, I believe and with a spinner.

I wondered what would happen if I would cast the lure onto the thin, clear ice and drag it of into the water. I stood on the shore, near the point where the ice petered out and open water began, and sailed the lure far onto the ice and reeled it in until it dropped off.

For two or three casts and retrieves nothing happened. I was about ready to call it a day. But when the lure dropped off the ice on the third or fourth cast, the line told me something different was happening and I set the hook in the jaw of a respectable bass that was freed as soon as I unhooked it.

Another cast produced a smaller bass (also released). I thought I was in for some fun. But that was the end of the line.

My experience with open-water, cold-weather bass fishing has taught me that since the metabolism of fish does slow at his time of year, it is well to fish slow-moving, deep-running artificial lures (even live night crawlers bumped along pretty close to the bottom at the deepest point of the water I am fishing). A slow-wobbling, sinking plug worked very slowly seems to produce best results. But I learned long ago to "never say never" about any situation involving wild things. I have learned that about the time I form an ironclad opinion about something wild things will (or will not) do, I run smack-dab into a situation that makes me look like the dunce that I am.

One of my favorite wintertime bass lures is the large model of the late Warren Hubbard's Sparkle-tail, a jointed plug. But that is not to say that a brightly colored spinner bait fished just below the surface will not produce good results. Just remember that a chief characteristic of all wild things is the propensity for uncharacteristic behavior.

However, my research (unscientific as it may be) once proved that the up-and-down, jigging type lures like the Rapala minnow (hooks tipped with hickory nut worms) can be just as effective for bass in open water as it is through the ice. This, of course, requires a boat for best results. 

To get best results in this kind of fishing, I find water depth, then work the lure in jigging circles at varying depths, including near the surface. Fish of several species take this lure most often when it is descending.

All columns, essays, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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