Fish Don’t Know What Month It Is. Why Should Anglers Care?
Does this sound familiar? For years you have been reading and watching videos of giant Florida bass. It’s the middle of winter, so you decide to get out and do some Florida fishing. When you arrive at the water, the weather is warm and winds are calm. You find a great spot on shore or to launch your boat amidst the palm trees. Suddenly, the weather changes quickly and you are assaulted with temperatures in the forties and 30 mph winds. You decide you’ve come too far to quit and push on to fish all day. But, yet the fish are nowhere. You heard and read plenty about Florida bass fishing, but it’s not living up to its reputation.
This scenario is repeated time and time again as anglers of all levels set out to do some winter month fishing, but often face unexpected results. Winter bass fishing in Florida can be a mixed bag. In times of extended warm weather, it can be fantastic. When a midwinter cold front moves through, it can be extremely difficult.
The Strike Zone
In order to understand bass behavior under cold front conditions, you need to be familiar with the term “strike zone." The strike zone is the circular area around a fish where a fish will move to a bait. Think of it as an invisible basketball shaped sphere of influence surrounding a fish. When the fish are active, the strike zone balloons to six feet or more as fish will swim farther for a meal. When fish are stressed or after a cold front moves through, the strike zone can shrink to inches. Still, the best time to go fishing is whenever you can and there are tactics to use so you don’t get the “cold front blues.”
Cold Facts on Florida Cold Fronts
Winter cold fronts in Florida can begin in mid November. They are generally over by the end of March. As the front approaches from the northwest, the wind often will initially blow in advance out of the southeast. During the day, the wind swings south then hard out of the southwest. When the front arrives, rain can begin along with strong wind out of the west. After the front passes, cold wind can blow out of the north and the air and water temperatures typically drop. The day after the front has passed, most often the wind slows, waters calm and the skies are bright and cloudless.
Winter bass fishing in Florida is best on the warm days just before a cold front. The weather can be in the eighties and the sky is full of white puffy clouds. The water temperature could be in the high 60s to the mid 70s depending upon the location. In Central Florida, it is not uncommon to have 30-40 degree cold front days. These cold snaps typically only last for a short time as the average winter temperature is comfortably in the 70s.
Cold weather and atmospheric pressure affect Florida bass more severely than bass found in northern climates. When Florida water drops into the 50s or colder, bass become stressed since they are cold blooded animals. As the water chills, they become less active and their strike zone shrinks. Thus the phrase “you should have been here yesterday" often becomes the standard answer to why the fish aren’t biting.
Shiners Shine On
Regardless, you’re staring at the cold water and you want to catch bass. While you can’t change the weather, there are things that can be done nonetheless. Let’s cover the obvious first. The most reliable and proven way to catch bass in Florida is by fishing with live wild native shiners. Not the small silver commercially raised shiners you may see in a tackle store. They will catch a few bass, but they are not hardy enough to last for more than a few minutes on a hook. What you want if you can find them are locally netted golden shiners from 6-8 inches in length. These baits are expensive and often difficult to obtain. Professional bass fishing guides either will net and raise their own or secure a reliable source well in advance. To find these prized baitfish, try casting a line under a float or large structure along the shore. These live baits will catch bass typically when nothing else will. The larger the golden shiner, potentially the larger the bass you may find.
Flipping and Pitching in Florida
But how do bass tournament pros catch cold front bass when they can’t use live bait? The answer is they “make" the fish bite. When the strike zone shrinks, you can use two tactics, either you can bait closer to the fish or you cause the fish to react before it has time to realize its mistake.
For getting bait closer to cold front bass, there is the technique of flipping and pitching. Years before any TV bass tournament, subsistence fishermen learned that you can catch bass with a long pole and short line technique they called “doodle socking". They used a long pole to reach as far back in the cover as possible. The lure was typically homemade and designed to aggravate a bass by invading its territory. Large bass are often protective of their space and will aggressively hit any small annoyance that comes within reach. In the 1980s, this technique was refined and adapted by tournament and sport bass fishermen and “flipping" was born.
While this article is not a how-to tutorial on flipping and pitching, the key to the success of these techniques is in making multiple hits to the fish’s strike zone. When flipping, each drop of the bait has the potential to catch a fish even if the fish is inactive. In addition, the average bass caught flipping and pitching can often be larger than fish caught with straight casting. And the thrill of hooking a 8-10 pound Florida bass on a short line is something every bass fisherman should experience.
In Praise of the Lipless, Rattling Crankbait
Flipping and pitching is not for everyone. It can be tedious and requires much practice and precise control of the boat. Fortunately, there are other techniques that you can use to catch cold front bass. One of them is fishing a “reaction bait." One of the best of these baits is a lipless, rattling crankbait. The flash and vibration of the bait is enough in cold weather months to attract even the most uninterested bass. The most common size of these baits for Florida bass is 1/2 ounce, and they come in a wide range of colors and patterns. For Florida winters, two basic lipless, rattling crankbaits can be effective, one chrome with either blue or green back scales or gold with a black back. Hooks on the bait can be changed out and upgraded later if bass throw hooks sold with the bait or the hooks do not penetrate deep enough for a reliable catch.
Winter fishing with a lipless, rattling crankbait is power fishing and you need endurance to keep this up for any length of time. To make this easier, try to use a high speed 7/1 or 8/1 reel. Make your casts as long as possible and retrieve the lure fast enough to feel the lure vibrations in your line and rod. Keep the lure as close to cover as possible. If you are fishing along a weed line by boat then position the boat alongside the weed line and cast down it. This will keep your bait in the strike zone longer than casting perpendicular to the weed line. If the lure touches the cover, it may trigger an inactive fish into biting. Every 2-3 cranks of the reel jerk the rod and line to cause the lure to mimic natural bait twitching and naturally irregular movements.
Fishing lipless, rattling crankbaits at a high speed can help cover a lot of water quickly. And if you find a spot that holds bass, stop and fish it thoroughly before moving on. Trolling a lipless, rattling crankbait down a weed line is a great way for inexperienced fishermen to catch bass as they fish from a pontoon boat. Fished on heavy monofilament or braided line, these lures will normally run 3-4 feet deep or just above most aquatic vegetation.
Brave the Cold
Another way to beat the cold front blues is to downsize on bait size and gear. Most any lure that catches bass in good times will potentially work during a cold front in smaller finesse sizes. Four-inch worms, tiny crankbaits and spinnerbaits, even small top water lures can help save a cold front fishing day. Be sure to downsize your line and tackle as well as heavy line negatively affects these lures.
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Fishing in the winter season comes with the benefit of often fewer anglers on the water. So get out and enjoy any time for fishing even when cold fronts descend on the region. With the colder weather, just remember to adjust your expectations, slow down and fish closer to the fish. The fish are there and still need to eat. Using a few techniques and some seasonal planning with fishing gear can help land big fish even in the winter months.