Drop-Shot Jigging by Ben Hanes
Here in the northwest, things are different. Unlike many of the articles we read that talk of bass migrating to the backs of creek channels and such, these rules do not necessarily apply on our waters. Up north, fall and winter occur slightly earlier, and although the northwestern bass are still on a heavy baitfish pattern like other parts of the country, our cool waters send our bass and baitfish deeper faster. In mid-September, anglers can expect to find fall-like patterns winning tournaments, but by early to mid-October, a large majority of the fish are deep, or at least on the very edge of vertical structure, with shallow water extremely close by. In general, this same pattern occurs through mid-November, but by the beginning of December, smallmouth bass have gone deep…very deep.
Over the years I have pursued smallmouth during these months and I have caught bass as deep as 65 feet, but usually, most fish are semi-permanent residents of structure located in about 45 feet of water. Down deep, the water is more stable, and the fishes’ environment is protected from the harsh conditions that are pounding and churning near the surface. They find solace behind ledges, large boulders, and rock piles. Even in strong current, a bass can easily survive through the late fall and winter, before spring offers more welcoming conditions.
Although it can be difficult to catch these fish, the ones that bite can be quality fish, though a bit lethargic. Hoisting a five-pound smallmouth from the depths while it’s spitting snow, or during a below-freezing, sunny day, can be an extremely exhilarating experience. It gives you confidence that you can find these critters any time of year, in any condition, and that confidence carries you through the tournament season. It’s great to get the boat out, and if you’re not a hunter, it’s a refreshing way to get out late in the year, when other bass fishermen are watching football or day-dreaming about spring.
Generally, the best time to pursue these fish is on an overcast day under relatively calm conditions. It will be warmer with the cloud cover, and the barometer should be steady. Most importantly, with little wind, you will be able to more effectively tackle the deep ledges and rock piles you intend to fish. If you’re having trouble finding fish, don’t hesitate to use an Aqua View camera, if the bronzebacks are there, you’ll see them, gain confidence, and possibly provoke a few bites throughout the day.
With respect to lure presentation, I employ a technique I call drop-shot jigging. Obviously, you can also jig a spoon, but I have found it is difficult to make contact and feel the bottom while jigging a spoon. In addition, spoons have a strong tendency to snag in rocks, particularly the rocks you will be fishing this time of year. With a drop shot, you can effectively work ledges, rock walls, and rock piles at different depths to determine where the fish are located. The main difference between the two approaches however, lies in the ability to dead-stick and doodle once the appropriate depth is found, and this can be done with a more lifelike presentation while using a dropshot. In addition, when working current, drop-shotting creates a natural presentation of bouncing along the bottom or a ledge very slowly. The whole purpose of this technique is to be able to jig your way to the appropriate depth, and then have the ability to work through structure where fish are holding.
Drop-shot jigging sometimes requires an incredible amount of concentration. This is, in part, due to sinker size. The lighter the drop-shot weight, the more effective the presentation will be, and thus the more attention that is required. Given the depth, it is wise to ignore any weight less than 5/16 of an ounce. Try to avoid anything heavier than 3/8 of an ounce, unless fishing in heavy wind or if you’re simply having a difficult time feeling the bottom which can happen after having a few spiked eggnog lattes the night before!
Recently, I’ve discovered that tungsten weights are amazing, many individuals shy away from them because of the price, but as with anything, with a higher price comes higher quality. I’m not exaggerating by saying that tungsten is twice as sensitive as lead, and when coupled with a quality rod, can make a significant difference. As far as rods go, one specifically designed for drop-shotting is the most effective. Okuma, Lamiglas, and G-Loomis all make quality drop-shot rods. I prefer a Shimano Stradic or Symetre reel attached to the rod, and 8# extra tough P-Line (green). To reduce line twist, attach a leader (6#) to the drop-shot, as you’ll be using this setup the entire day and line twist can get very irritating.
In December, the water temperature will most likely hover between 39 and 43 degrees. Low water temperatures generally require a slow presentation to be successful, however, the big bass are still feeding on minnows that swim by, and an angler needs to capitalize on that by slowly presenting baits that imitate minnows. Among my favorites are Ghost Bait Gobies, Clearwater Custom Tackle Tapeworms, and Yamamoto Shad Shaped Worms. Take each of these baits and soak them in Berkley Gulp, letting them sit in the container for several days. Berkley does not promote this, but the stuff works wonders, and it is a phenomenal fish attractant. Ghost Bait Gobies work extremely well if you’re seeing larger baitfish in the area, or if there is a concentration of sculpins.
Overall, drop-shot jigging in the late Fall and Winter (and even really early Spring!) can be a spectacular experience, particularly when you put it in perspective with what else you might be doing during that time of year like watching football. Some of my best days of fishing have been mid-winter. Remember, keep your boat tuned up, double check all of your equipment, dress for the weather, wear your life jacket, and bring a digital scale and a camera!