Get out in the yak for bass during winter

The stealth of a kayak is hard to beat when fishing shallow. The author watched this bass come of the weed and eat the plastic grub.

by Peter Phelps •

Now, just when you thought it was time to pack the kayak away for the winter months, I urge you to reconsider and read on.

When you think of typical kayak bass fishing your mind often wanders towards tiny creeks and rivers – the sound of cicadas singing in the treetops, bass actively feeding on top and warm summer days. Most people chase the wild bass during this time, as they have pushed as far upstream as they can reach, into all these small tributaries.

As we enter the cooler months now, chasing bass from a kayak isn’t a typically considered idea. The river fish will start to migrate downstream now in preparation for spawning. In these lower sections of the rivers they tend to school up in holes in heavy tidal current flow, which makes it very hard to fish from a kayak. Plus, the closed season comes into play on 1 May, so while you can target bass during this time, the bag limit is zero. General consensus amongst most river bass anglers is to leave these wild fish to do their thing over the closed season to maximise the numbers for the following generations.

On the other hand, the impoundment bass do not have a closed season. Australian bass don’t breed in lakes because they need brackish water to spawn. All these fish are hand placed into the lakes as fingerlings, so you can actively target them during winter without the fear of disturbing the breeding cycle. As someone who fishes the lakes all year round I find it quite baffling to see so few people fishing the lake during winter, apart from a few die-hard tournament anglers.

In the winter time, impoundment bass fishing is when it’s at its best. You can almost get sick of catching them some days, as they feed up and put on massive amounts of weight. Most fish during winter will weigh up to 200-400g heavier than their summer weight. This extra bulk, combined with crystal clear water and light line, makes for some exciting fishing.

Now the daily movements of impoundment bass in NSW are totally dependent on available light, and the water temperature over the seasons will position them shallower or deeper in the water column. During the summer months bass fishing from a kayak can be great, but you will find it at its best during the low light periods. Around sunrise and sunset, the fish move more freely around the water column and come up shallow to feed.

During daylight hours in summer, impoundment bass usually hold up in deep water as far down as 40-60ft. Targeting these fish from a kayak can be difficult compared to a boat. Without the aid of a sounder and the ability to hold directly over the top of fish it becomes quiet challenging to target them.

However, during the winter months the water temperature drops dramatically; water temperatures below 14°C are more common compared to 28°C+ over summer. The winter months start a transition for the bass. As the water cools, they will move shallower more freely and stay there for longer periods throughout the day. They will use the available cover as ambush points for any small baitfish that swim past. Weed beds, rock walls and timber are the main areas where you should be looking. As a kayak angler I know I certainly prefer to actively cast towards structure in cold water so clear you can see the bass come out and eat your lure, then fish deep water in summer. Over the winter months the fish will be spread out throughout the whole lake. They’re quite accessible from a kayak, so you won’t need to go far from where you launch.

Unlike their wild relatives these fish don’t have the urge to travel downstream and school up. Their main food sources over winter are smelt and small baitfish. When they are keyed onto this bait, you should choose your lures accordingly. Small, slender baits work best for imitating these. Small plastics, stickbaits, jerkbaits and fly are all effective over winter.

This heavyweight bass was caught over some shallow weed.
Warm, glassed-out, bluebird sky days often follow those frosty mornings in NSW.
Ideal shallow water conditions like fog help prolong the bite long into the morning.
Making the effort to be on the water early is worth the effort, as the fishing is always its best around the light changes.
Tournaments have certainly helped pave the way for exploring the lakes in a kayak in winter.
One of the author’s favourite wintertime lures is the Daiwa Double Clutch.
Packing a few essential things makes those winter trips more bearable.
Being able to stand up in a kayak gives you a higher elevation for spotting holes in the weed where the bass live.

When starting out for the day I love to use a suspending jerkbait first thing. During low light, these are very quick at determining whether the fish are up high in the water column. An aggressive 2-3 rips to get the bait darting around followed by a three-second pause is an all-round good retrieve. As you bring the jerkbait out into deeper water you may pause a little longer. This gives fish that are sitting slightly deeper on the structure some time to swim up and intercept your bait.

A common mistake I see with people starting out is swimming the jerkbait with the reel. You really need to focus on moving the jerkbait with your rod. The jerking or ripping motion you put into the rod tip will spring the jerkbait into action, darting around and turning back on itself. This really gets the fish’s attention and creates those aggressive strikes that bass are known for as they hit them on the pause. The reel should only be used to wind up the slack or bring a fish in.

When it comes to colours I’m a big fan of chartreuses, whites and silvers in low light or overcast conditions. More natural translucent colours like greens and browns seem to produce in sunny, clear conditions. Lure lengths around 50-90mm are best suited to closely represent the small baitfish. Having a selection of different diving depths is advisable. Have a shallow water one with a small bib and diving depth around 0.5m for fishing high in the water, over the top of weed or casting parallel to structure and the bank.

A deeper diving lure (to 1.5m) is suited for fishing the deeper edges like rock walls. However, use some caution when selecting small deep diving suspending hardbodies. The deeper models that can reach 2.5m+ have a longer bib. While they can reach those depths, the long bib inhibits the darting side-to-side action that is required to get the bites; they tend to just surge slowly ahead as that long bib digs in. These deeper styles are mainly suited to a crankbait rather than a jerkbait.

To maximise the amount of water you can cover and get the most depth out of the jerkbait, you need to be able to cast it some distance. I highly advise picking ones that have a casting transfer weight. This allows the weight to move towards the tail of the jerkbait on the cast and create an aerodynamic profile. Some with the fixed weight in the belly have a tendency to helicopter through the air dramatically and reduce your casting distance, the area you can cover and the maximum depth the jerkbait can reach.

Small 2-3” curl-tail grubs and paddle-tails are absolute slayers at this time of year. These are a perfect imitation of a baitfish and allow you to cover lots of water looking for active fish. Rig them on a light jighead like a 1/12oz and fish them up and over weed beds or rig them on a 1/4oz and fish them down deeper along steeper edges. When retrieving these plastics, keep a tight line as you slowly wind in and impart some small twitches with your rod tip. It gives the plastic a natural little surge as it swims along. This imitates a baitfish in the water as they move along darting forward, looking to escape predators.

These plastics, like the grub and paddle-tail, are your all-rounder for this time of year. They are so versatile with how you can use them, whether you work them super slow along the bottom or up high in the water column. I always have a rod rigged up with one of these on the kayak.

Another great bait to use over the cooler months is a soft plastic stickbait. Long and slender in design, these imitate a wounded baitfish perfectly. They have a similar action compared to a jerkbait but these sink and allow you to reach greater depths. They are best unweighted with 1/8oz jigheads. You should always choose the lightest jighead possible to fish, given the conditions such as wind and water depth. The reason for using such light heads is so you won’t send the stickbait plummeting to the bottom.

The light head allows the plastic to slowly sink down; this gives the fish plenty of time to react. Throughout your retrieve you should attempt to follow the contour of the structure, whether it’s weed or just the bottom. Little twitches up with your rod tip will make the stickbait dart around. As you let it fall on a semi slack line it will tumble and turn on descent, imitating a dying baitfish.

Most plastic bites over the winter months usually happen as the lure falls back towards the bottom. The bites could be a little tap or a full-on engulf and streaming drag from your reel. For those tentative bites you need to stay in contact with your lure as it falls. Winding up the slack and closely watching your line for the tell-tale tick is important, so you don’t miss any fish.

Most bass will hold onto a plastic if you let them eat it. They have a soft mouth and really do not need an aggressive strike to hook them on a jighead. Once you feel the bite, simply continue your slow roll or wind up the slack line feeling for extra weight. This will be the bass with the plastic in its mouth. Then wind quicker while leaning back on the rod; this is enough to hook the fish.

If you start striking aggressively you will rip the plastic away from the fish, often scaring them off. When you just continue your retrieve, feeling for that extra weight, you can get them to come back and eat it. Some fish may bite a plastic numerous times before you actually hook them. Patience is required, but once you resist the urge to strike you will catch a ton more fish.

Kayak bass fishing over winter might not sound the best but the rewards far outweigh the negatives. Proper preparation towards safety can see you having a ball out on the water. The recent NSW Maritime law brought in requiring all canoe and kayakers to wear a PFD at all times is a great ruling, especially in winter when you are going to have extra clothes on during this time of year.

In the unfortunate event that you do end up in the water, the added weight of heavy clothes will fatigue you and make it hard to reach the shore or get back on your kayak. The modern inflatable style PFDs are easy to wear and fish in, with the added security if anything should happen.

I also like to pack a dry bag with a change of clothes, even when I am fishing from my boat in winter. If you do end up in the water, a dry set of clothes will warm you up quickly compared to a long paddle back to your vehicle. Some extra items that will make your trip a little more enjoyable are things like a thermos with a hot meal, coffee or tea. Having a short break on the shore to recharge and warm up will get you keen again to get back out there.

Another item I feel is a must-have is a pair of wetsuit boots. It is almost inevitable that you are going to get your feet wet while launching your kayak. A set of thick diving or wetsuit boots can help keep your feet dry, and the snug fitting material traps the body heat in to prevent your feet from getting cold. Some fingerless gloves and hand warmers in the pockets can keep the feeling in your fingertips too.

Most modern-day weather apps and forecasts are quite accurate these days. Having winds forecast by the hour and being able to track storm fronts and rain makes it easier than ever to plan fishing trips in the open waters of a lake. Fishing with a friend is always advised, or at least tell someone your expected return time as an added insurance.

Adding a couple of extra items to your existing kayaking gear can help you enjoy the excellent winter bass fishing that the NSW impoundments have to offer. Bass fishing doesn’t always have to be a spring and summer option. I think you will be pleasantly surprised!