Try these tips to catch winter fish for the frying pan

Beaver Lake fishing guide Brad Wiegmann of Springdale used a jigging spoon to nab this jumbo white bass in the dead of winter.
Beaver Lake fishing guide Brad Wiegmann of Springdale used a jigging spoon to nab this jumbo white bass in the dead of winter.

Using the right techniques under the right conditions, Arkansas panfish such as bream, bullheads, crappie, rock bass and white bass can be caught year-round. The spring spawning season certainly is one of the most productive fishing times, but panfish can also provide exciting action throughout the winter.

Unfortunately, many cold-weather outings end in failure because winter anglers use the same tactics they use during the spawn, and these tactics rarely entice cold-water panfish. Success comes only to those who know specific methods for catching these often-scattered, sometimes finicky sport fish.

Toward that end, here are some tips to help you zero in on panfish this season. Employ these tips, and enjoy the winter bounty.

White Bass Hot spots

In big deep reservoirs such as Lake Maumelle or Lake Ouachita, winter white bass may be down 40 feet or more, usually holding near open-water humps, points and other structures near tributary mouths. The same behavior is observed on big rivers; look for white bass near deep river-channel edges and plummeting holes at the mouths of tributaries. Sand bars and flats are especially attractive; hence the common white-bass nickname “sandies.” Rarely will whites be found where brush and big rocks cover the bottom. Look instead for smooth-bottomed, open-water areas where whites usually school.

Spoon-Fed Whites

Small jigging spoons work great on deep-water winter white bass. Fish the spoon vertically. Jerk it hard, raising it 4 to 5 feet, and let it flutter back down on slack line. Most strikes come while the spoon is falling, but you probably won’t feel the strike. That’s OK. When you jerk the spoon again, you’ll set the hook. That’s the reason for jerking it hard.

Rocks for Rock Bass

Fishing for rock bass in a cool mountain stream is a great way to spend a winter day. Rock bass inhabit lakes, too, but can be difficult to find in these waters during prespawn. In streams, however, you can quickly find winter fish by bottom-bouncing a 1/8-ounce jig around big rocks in deep pools. Rock bass like rocks, just as their name suggests.

Crayfish Baits

Rock bass are also suckers for crayfish. Catch live bait by turning rocks in shallow water. Store the bait in a container with a little wet moss. Tail-hook the crayfish, cast it upstream, and crawl the bait past boulders and ledges, or try working a small crayfish-imitation crankbait such as Rebel’s Wee Crawfish.

Troll a Dropper Rig

If it’s crappie you’re after, try trolling a dropper rig along bottom channels. Make the rig by tying a barrel swivel to the main line. To this, attach a 5-foot mono leader with a 1-ounce bell sinker on the end. Make two 12-inch-long dropper lines spaced a foot apart between the sinker and swivel. Add a No. 1 Aberdeen hook to each. Impale a minnow on each hook, and fish the rig vertically beneath the boat as you troll slowly along the channel.

Fish Deep for Bigger Bluegills

If you’re after cold-weather bluegills, and all you’re catching are little bait-stealers, move to deeper water nearby. Small bluegills aren’t particularly angler shy, but heavyweight fish prefer deep sanctuaries where they feel secure from surface disturbances.

Fish on Bottom

Big winter bluegills also tend to stay on or very near the bottom, even in shallow water. A tightline bait setup is the best choice for taking these bottom dwellers. Thread a small egg sinker on your line, and below it, tie on a barrel swivel. To the swivel’s lower eye, tie a 2-foot leader of light line tipped with a small, light-wire hook. Add your favorite live bait; then cast the rig and allow it to settle to the bottom. When a bluegill takes the bait, the line moves freely through the sinker with no resistance to alert fish to a possible threat.

Flies for Deep ’Gills

Fly fishermen can also score heavily on deep winter bream, and many do by using wet flies that closely resemble insect larvae and nymphs. The lure is tied on a sinking fly line that’s ideal for carrying it to the depths where big ’gills are feeding. Work the flies in short hops. When a bluegill sees one flipped about, the fish is almost certain to strike.

Soft Strikes

The strikes of winter crappie and bream are usually “soft.” You may barely feel them tap, or it might feel like your hook has snagged a leaf. It’s important to be ready to set the hook when anything feels out of the ordinary. If your line goes slack, or your bait feels funny, strike. Hook the fish; then make a mental note of the depth at which it struck. There may be a dozen more still down there.

Sonic Spinners

If a slower retrieve is needed to entice finicky panfish in cold water, try using a sonic-type in-line spinner such as Worden’s Rooster Tail or a Panther Martin. These have a blade that is concave on one end and convex on the other, so the blade turns very easily and will spin at a very slow retrieve speed.

Jig Addition

A tiny piece of minnow added to a jig hook maintains the jig’s action while adding scent. Use a sharp knife to cut a fillet from the baitfish’s side, then divide it lengthwise into two or more pieces. The added smell/taste increases your catch when finicky panfish avoid larger offerings.

Troll a Crankbait

To catch crappie and white bass suspended in open water near tributary mouths, watch for boomerangs on your sonar, then try trolling a crankbait through the area. Use a 1/4- to 1/8-ounce diver. Silver works great on sunny days and in clear water. If the sky is overcast or the water is murky, switch to hot colors such as chartreuse.

Winter Fishing for Bullheads

Bullheads can be caught year-round, but my favorite months to fish for them are January and February. When the water temperature is between 40 and 55 degrees, bullheads congregate in the deepest water. I drop a rig baited with chicken liver to the bottom of a hole, then crank the bait up a foot above the substrate. The cats usually strike quickly. In a couple hours, it’s not unusual to catch 15 to 20. It’s a great way to liven up a dreary winter day, and bullheads never taste better than when fresh-caught from icy-cold water.

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