You see them on social media, especially on Mondays when you are back at work wishing you were fishing. You might also have a buddy text you a pic and ask, “Did you see this?” referring to another amazing limit catch of big winter bass by a consistently productive team.
Every lake around the state has them – the few anglers that catch the biggest fish, often in the winter months when everyone else is watching football or on vacation someplace warm.
The question is, how do they catch all these big bass, right? Do they know a lure or lures that others don’t? Do they know a secret spot everyone else has overlooked? Do they have knowledge of a timed feed that is the produce of years of experience?
It’s probably all of the above. The best big bass anglers and most consistent tournament winners on Virginia’s lakes and rivers know something you don’t. That coupled with experience permits them to figure out when, where and how to consistently catch big bass.
One such example is the tournament team of Nate Sullivan and Eric Johnson. They are again on their way to winning the title of Winter Kings of Lake Anna (they’ve won it half a dozen times) this year and recently put an exclamation point on their season with a five bass limit weighing 30.11 pounds – the modern day heaviest for Anna. They had bass of 6.73, 6.70, 6.45, 6.28 and 3.95 pounds. The closest competitor was 11 pounds behind!
Sullivan and Johnson are predictably tight-lipped about what they do but we caught up recently with Sullivan and asked him about his secrets to success. His answers to our interview questions reveal an outline for catching big bass you can learn from and use on your home water or on theirs – Lake Anna.
“The first and most productive big bass tactic in the wintertime, is using a jerkbait around some type of structure,” the lifelong Spotsylvania County resident told W2. He added, “In every winter article you read there is a mention about a jerkbait and for good reason. A jerkbait worked slow around structure will entice those overweight fish to come up and eat. Lake Anna has good clarity from upper mid-lake on down to the dam and it is surprising how far these fish will come and eat a jerkbait. Working them slow around key lake contours will definitely pull some heavyweights out of the depths.”
Jerkbait afficionados call the tactic snakecharming because of the specific cadences of jerks and pauses necessary to coax a big, lethargic winter mailbox up from their deep water haunt.
Sullivan’s second winter big bass tactic might surprise some young anglers but not old school anglers. He likes a swimbait.
“The second tactic is to slow roll a swimbait across points and humps. When you need to cover water and the jerkbait bite seems to be slow, the next best thing is to slow roll a swimbait. You can build a lot of confidence in the wintertime with a swimbait because it is so natural in the water and any fish halfway willing to bite will slurp it in when it comes creeping past. The swimbait is also a better hook-up to land ratio than the jerkbait. This is key in the winter because you usually do not get very many bites in the wintertime because the fish’s metabolism is slow.”
Another tactic Sullivan relies on in the wintertime is jigging a spoon or blade bait on some of the same structure as he fishes the jerkbait.
“Jigging a spoon or blade bait will get you that reaction bite in the winter. There are times when you can locate fish but cannot seem to get them to bite anything. This is where this tactic comes into play. Let the spoon or blade sink to the bottom and hop it in front of their face; you will know pretty quick if the fish are willing to bite.”
While his next tactic is not as consistent a producer, it does have its winter moments.
“In certain conditions a jig dragged slowly on the bottom can be dynamite. A jig slowly dragged across hard bottom can get you the biggest bite of the day. The biggest deal with the jig is it does not work every day. There are days when it’s the best thing to have in your hand and other days it seems you cannot get a bite,” Sullivan notes.
The Panic Button
The successful tournament angler says he uses one more tactic in the winter when things are really tough – he’ll downsize and employ a shakey head worm.
“When everything else fails you have to go with confidence and on Lake Anna that is a shakey head. The key in the winter time with the shakey head is to work it extremely slow. You need your bait to look natural and move ever so slightly on the bottom.”
So now you know four tactics and lures the masters are using. Where do you target bass with them?
According to Sullivan: “The biggest key in the wintertime is proximity to deep water. The bass need a place to get comfortable (as well as the baitfish) when we get an arctic blast from the north. One of the primary forages in Lake Anna is threadfin shad and they do not do well when the water temperatures plummet. These baitfish are going to be close to deep water throughout the winter.”
Sullivan says generally, in the wintertime, the bites are few and far between, but when you get bit it is the right quality. He says when the water temperatures drop into the 40’s a good day on the water will consist of seven or eight bites, and the fish this time of year are close to if not the biggest they will be all the year.
So, what’s his key to producing consistently when money is on the line?
“The biggest key to catching the bag on Sunday was years of experience on the lake and 18 years tournament fishing on the lake. Knowing when to leave or stay and being able to key in on exactly what type of structure the fish are using that day was key. Once we were able to key in on where these fish were setting up, we were able to run with it effectively throughout the lake. Also, a little luck never hurts and to get four fish over six pounds to commit and bite. Luck had to play a little roll in it as well.”