Hardwater Bassin’

By Ted Pilgrim - December 8, 2016
Alternative Winter Activity Comes of Age

Ice fishing for largemouth bass is sort of an economized version of its openwater counterpart. Hobbit-size rods. Little bitty plastic worms, micro hair jigs and small spoons, and even scaled-down "ice crankbaits," each worked with utmost finesse, mesmerize wintertime bass. We say mesmerize because sometimes in freezing water, bass like to hover and stare things down for agonizing minutes at a time before leisurely paddling off in the other direction, or finally, mercifully, opening up and eating. Ice bass do head shakes in slow motion, so if you're watching on an underwater camera, the sluggish drama looks particularly awesome.

Lightly pursued on ice, big largemouth bass offer some of the best sport of the winter. Photo by Bill Lindner.
All of which runs a little counter to what happens in waters hosting prodigious populations of largemouths or smallmouths. Especially in ponds, lakes and reservoirs in the southern edge of the ice belt, bass often bite well all winter. Meanwhile, peak fishing in northern natural lakes occurs at first and last ice. That said, it's feasible to find underwater havens with an Aqua-Vu camera-sunken Christmas trees and other artificially placed cover-that collect cadres of big bass all winter. Put a lively golden shiner down there, and you'll eventually catch every bass on the tree. Rig a deadstick or Frabill tip-up and wait for flags to fly.

Hardwater Sight Fishing

Most of the rest of the time bass languish in water shallower than about 18 feet, and in many lakes, that means sight fishing near remnant veg beds. Viewing through a "widescreen" hole, delivering baits to bass while sitting in a spacious shelter is a can't-miss hardwater event. Well worth the price of admission, sighting merely costs the effort to cut the crater, either by drilling a sequence of at least six holes in a rectangular shape, or by using a chainsaw or an Ice Saw.
Sight fishing for ultra-selective, sluggish bass is one of the most exciting ways to angle for the species through the ice. Photo courtesy of Aqua-Vu.
For sight fishing individual big bass, I'm partial to tiny black marabou or fox hair jigs; or 1 to 2-inch micro plastic worms. Rigged on a #10 Custom Jigs Chekai tungsten jig, a little Wedgee softbait is a bona fide bass catcher. Even better if you add a micro collar, skewering a Nucler Ant legs onto the jig first, followed by the Wedgee worm. Heavy headed tungsten fishes fast, and exaggeratedly activates a thin plastic tail, even if you're barely quivering the rodtip.

The trick is to keep the jighead relatively still while pulsing the tips of the plastic like it's a little tense. Best way to pull this off is to OD on coffee first thing in the morning. Get your hands nice and shaky with a caffeine buzz; that's about the right jigging cadence for triggering coldwater bass.

A downsized jig and plastic combo, such as this sweet 2-inch "tungsten bug" remain consistent ice bass producers." Photo courtesy of Custom Jigs & Spins.
Seriously, sometimes, the best move of all is to simply keep the jig stock-still, giving quick, short hops every ten seconds or so. Again, watch each bass's reaction on a camera to discover the best rhythm.

One slick softbait alternative is a micro wacky rig. Skewer the middle of a Custom Jigs Noodel-essentially a micro wacky worm- onto a tungsten 'shaky head' (a #10 Majmun is perfect) and go to town. Another option is a downsized dropshot rig, wielding the same micro softbaits on a different presentation, albeit in vertical fashion.

Same deal with bait moves as before. Take your time. Pause for painfully long seconds before giving the bait one or two tiny undulations. Pause again and wait. No, really, wait! (Everything takes its time when the water's 35-degrees.)

Hobbit Rods

All of these fine-tuned moves are best accomplished with, frankly, a fine-tuned ice rod. You can't believe how delicately bass can nip bitsy artificial things that fit into a contact lens. It's why whether you're working a tiny tungsten jig and inch-long Wedgee plastic or a 1/16-ounce Slender Spoon, the right rod's a big deal for hardwater bass.

St. Croix has borrowed the concept of a split grip handle from its Mojo Bass openwater rods and applied it to ice. Wise move, dudes. Sensitivity reigns supreme at Croix, and a Mojo Ice split grip ice rod sports an exposed blank, perfect for pencil-gripping with an index finger. Grab a pair of fingerless gloves and catch the vibe. A 32-inch medium Mojo Ice is just right for tungsten jigs and plastic, while the 36-inch MIR36L-a lightweight gem of a rod-is exceptional for working small hair jigs, spoons or downsized swimming lures like Custom Jigs & Spins RPM (sort of a secret bass lure). Spool with 4- or 5-pound test micro braid, such as PowerPro Ice Tec, and you'll be fishing the most sensitive, fine-tuned bass instrument on the ice.

Bassin' on ice remains sort of a cult-classic; almost like the behavior of the anti-establishment. Few do it on purpose. Though no one really knows why. But those who fish 'em, release 'em. And if they happen across a pocket of smallmouths wintering in 25 feet of water, they move along and leave 'em in peace. Barotrauma's a nasty business. The rest of the time, bassin' on ice is a beautiful wintertime behavior. Think of it as fishing for members of the sunfish family, on a truly titanic scale.
Author Ted Pilgrim
Ted Pilgrim
Ted Pilgrim (nom de guerre) is a veteran outdoor writer, ex-fishing guide, and trained biologist who hails from Northcentral Minnesota. First published in national fishing periodicals at age 16, Pilgrim has for over two decades contributed to numerous national and regional publications on a wide range of angling related topics- from bass, walleye and catfish to ice-fishing, conservation and fly-fishing for monster carp.