Winter is winding down throughout the South, but I’m still in winter-fishing mode here in eastern Tennessee. Winter fishing back home, for me, means working shallow. I know that may not sound like a normal strategy for some, but it can definitely get the job done where I’m from.
If you’re on one of the reservoirs along the Tennessee River—Lake Chickamauga, Watts Barr Reservoir or Fort Loudoun, for example—it doesn’t really matter how cold it gets, you can always catch bass shallow.
I like tight-wobbling crankbaits this time of the year while focusing on rock. You target rock because it’s just able to hold heat better. I try to work the crankbait at around 5 to 6 feet deep, just deep enough to not skim along the bottom. I cast parallel to the rocky bank or at a 45-degree angle. The heat coming from those rocks doesn’t radiate very far, so you’ll need to be casting pretty close to them because the bass won’t stray far from that heat.
There’s rock in the Ozark lakes like Table Rock Lake, but those bluffs are a little steeper than what we see in Tennessee. Ozark anglers like to use a SPRO RkCrawler to get to about 8 to 10 feet of depth because they need it with steeper bluffs. In East Tennessee, we can get away with more shallow depths and something like a Rapala Shad Rap or a homemade version to stay a couple of feet closer to the surface.
Every great angler I know from East Tennessee throws these shallow-running balsa crankbaits on a spinning rod. There’s something about the action a spinning rod imparts on that bait that a baitcasting reel just can’t imitate. I like 8-pound test, but you can get away with 10-pound if you’re in a pinch. I would always try to go with 8-pound whenever you can, though.
I had a guy tell me one time that when it’s cold out, a bass can eat a gizzard shad and that shad would decay in the bass’ belly before it has time to digest. That’s because the bass just aren’t active and their bodies aren’t working as hard. That’s why I think the smaller the better when it comes to this technique.
In terms of color, I think of the holy trinity. It either has an orange belly, it has to be red in body color, or gold. One of those three things always needs to be present in order to have success. I’m not mimicking shad with these baits, it’s mostly crawfish. I don’t need that silver in the winter usually.
You may not catch a ton of bass working this technique, but I can promise you that you will be impressed with the quality of bass you bring in. I’m talking about 16 to 20 pounds for your best five you catch. Almost every bite is a good one if you can be patient and find the right structure, location and color of your bait.