Each winter, as temperature and day length decrease, life shifts to the stability of deeper water in our local reservoirs.
On Stillhouse, the lush hydrilla in which bass thrived during the warm season diminishes in both height and coverage, thus sending some portion of the largemouth bass population looking for other forms of cover to relate to. On both lakes, threadfin shad, the primary forage fish, consistently hold at depths of 40 feet or more over even deeper bottoms.
When bass move deep, they also tend to group together more heavily. So, when one bass is located and caught in deep water, it is likely that other bass are using the same cover and are nearby.
Although I do not focus on catching largemouth bass as a part of my fishing guide business, I keep meticulous records of my catch for every single trip I take, and have done so for over 25 years now, thus compiling a telling history of the fishery on both Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes.
There is always a very definite uptick in the percentage of largemouth bass that show up as by-catch, along with crappie and freshwater drum, in my catch of white bass (the primary species I focus on) between the months of November and March.
Whenever I pursue white bass in or near deep, submerged timber, the percentage of winter largemouth bass in my by-catch increases even more.
My single most effective wintertime bait is a no-frills slab in 3/8-ounce and ¾-ounce. A slab is simply a shad-shaped piece of lead with a line tie at one end and a treble hook at the other. I prefer bright white for a color choice. I add a stinger hook of my own design, called the Hazy Eye Stinger hook, to the line tie, which greatly increases the hooking efficiency and decreases the number of hooked fish that escape as they thrash their heads at the surface.
I use three different tactics when presenting a slab in the winter: smoking, easing and snap-jigging. Of these, snap-jigging accounts for the most largemouth bass.
The most critical element of snap-jigging is properly adjusting the distance at which the slab comes to rest above the bottom of the lake when in the resting position between upward “snaps.”
To properly adjust the slab’s position above the bottom to my preferred distance of 8 inches, I instruct my clients to be disciplined about keeping the rod tip at the water’s surface as the slab is descending to the bottom. Once the slab strikes the bottom the angler must prevent any more line from coming off the reel. On a spinning rod, this is accomplished by closing the bail. On a baitcaster, this is accomplished by thumbing the spool, then turning the handle to disengage the freespool button.
Now comes the time for fine-tuning in which the rod tip will be used as a gauge of sorts to indicate how far off the bottom the slab is. With the slab on the bottom, and a taut line between the slab and the rod tip which is still positioned at the water’s surface, I then instruct my clients to raise the rod tip 8-10 inches off the water’s surface, thus raising the slab an identical 8-10 inches off the bottom of the lake.
This is the start/stop position for the snap-jigging action.
With a quick snap of the wrist, the slab is pulled sharply upward 18-24 inches and the rod tip is then quickly returned to the start/stop position 8-10 inches off the water. When this is done correctly, the rod tip will return to the start/stop position before the slab reaches the end of its “tether” and comes to a stop. This allows the slab to freefall briefly and to flutter attractively back to its resting position 8-10 inches off bottom.
Nearly 100 percent of the strikes will come an instant after the slab reaches the end of its tether and comes to rest. I normally wait a full 2 seconds for the lure to remain motionless before repeating this process and pulling the slab sharply upward 18-24 inches once again.
To accomplish all of this, I use Sufix 832 braid in neon lime color and in 30-pound test. I also tie an 18- to 24-inch fluorocarbon leader to the end of the braid using a back-to-back Uni-Knot.
The zero-stretch braid will handily transmit the distinct “thump” of a largemouth bass vacuuming in a slab, even in water over 50 feet deep. This thump must be met with an immediate hookset or the opportunity will be lost. Bass anglers with enough skill to detect a strike on a Texas-rigged worm or a Carolina-rigged bait will have no problem detecting a bass striking a slab.
When used in conjunction with traditional “2-D” colored sonar to see fish before they strike and watch their reactions (or lack thereof) to your presentation, slabs can make catching winter largemouth an uncomplicated matter.