When it comes to winter fishing — I mean in the depth of winter with surfaces temperatures at their lowest and air temperatures so icy they numb your toes — there isn’t a much better method to attract a few fish than the vertical presentation of a jigging spoon. This seemingly lifeless hunk of metal comes alive on the end of a line and can produce lots of strikes and a wide variety of fish species when presented properly.
It seems they all love it; from the smallest (bass not much bigger than the bait) to the largest (stripers of 10 pounds are more) fish just clobber a jigging spoon when the conditions are right.
Bartletts Ferry, on the Chattahoochee River near Columbus, is no exception when it comes to this type of winter fishing. As the water temperatures drop in December and January, fish of all types stack up in the creeks and feed voraciously on shad. A well-placed jigging spoon near a ball of bait will produce fish virtually 100 percent of the time if you are patient.
I fished Bartletts Ferry on December 13 with Jim Buntin, a Columbus resident and consistent Bartletts Ferry angler. The 61-year-old Buntin has been fishing Bartletts Ferry for about 30 years and spends a lot of time on the water with his friend Jim Pass, also of Columbus. The pair know the lake like the backs of their hands.
I met Buntin at the Idle Hour Ramp at 7:30 on a Monday morning. The forecast was for cold winds, but the day was to be sunny with a high near 50. We were the only people at the ramp, so it looked like we wouldn’t have too much competition in finding good water to fish.
“We’ll be fishing a jigging spoon,” said Jim. “We located some fish yesterday afternoon and caught a few nice stripers.” Jim told me that while he has some specific spots he likes to hit, the fish tend to move a lot this time of year, and we were likely to have to look around a bit to find them.
Heading away from the ramp, we went down river and turned right into Halawakee Creek, a large tributary on the west side of the river not far upstream from the dam. Our first stop was at a hump near the middle of the creek between Long Bridge and the powerlines.
“This is generally a good spot,” said Jim. “This creek usually holds a lot of bait this time of year, and the fish stick pretty close by.”
Jim explained that we would be fishing over humps in about 15 to 20 feet of water with deeper water close by. He also explained that the most important tool in the boat is the depth-finder.
“If you don’t see bait or fish on the flasher (or graph), don’t bother dropping a line,” said Jim. “These fish are only here to feed on the bait, so if you don’t see bait you aren’t likely to have much success.”
That said, one of the most common mistakes novices make, according to Jim, is that they don’t stay on a spot long enough to locate fish. We moved slowly over the first hump with the trolling motor for about 10 minutes, keeping our eyes glued to the electronics, before we even dropped a line overboard. Once Jim spotted a school of fish holding near the top of the hump, we dropped spoons over the side and let them fall to the bottom.
The technique is pretty simple. Let the spoon flutter down on a slack line until it reaches the bottom, then engage the reel. Jerk the bait up vertically about a foot or two, and let it fall back to the bottom on a semi-tight line. Then repeat the process with a steady rhythm. It is important to stay in contact with the bait as it falls and to keep a good watch on the line. Strikes will come on the fall almost every time, and if you aren’t paying close attention, you’ll miss a lot of fish. Once you get the feel of it though, your strike to hook-up ratio will improve dramatically. On a day when the fish are feeding aggressively, you can load the live-well in a hurry.
Jim’s bait of choice is a 3/4-oz. Flex-it spoon in white with silver tape. He prefers a casting reel spooled with 20-lb. test line for offering the bait. The line size is important for two reasons. First, the thicker line slows the fall of the bait, giving it the appearance of a wounded shad. Second, if you have fished a jigging spoon much you’ll know that the jerking motion of the vertical presentation will often cause the bait to flip up, allowing the hook to grab the line and foul itself. The stiffer line doesn’t foul on the hook as much as lighter, more flexible line, so you’ll spend more time fishing and less time un-fouling. Jim likes the Flex-it spoon because he feels that the shape of the spoon more closely resembles the shad in the lake during the winter months than some of the other brands do.
“The spoons also come with excellent hooks, so I don’t need to change them out like I do with other spoons,” said Jim.
At our first spot, it didn’t take us long to connect. Within about a minute of the first spoon hitting the bottom we had a fish on. We caught some small white bass initially, but in a few minutes we got into some hybrid bass. The fish were visible on the flasher hovering just off the bottom, so we knew when we were about to get a strike. Double hook-ups were common, so we knew there were a lot of fish in the area. This action continued for about half an hour, and we boated about 20 fish (many of which were too small to keep) before things slowed down. Then the fish were gone. Not a sign of a fish on the flasher and not a strike on any of our lines.
“Looks like they’ve left here. Let’s move on,” said Jim.
We moved up the creek a little to a hump near Chambley’s Marina and went through the same routine. We passed over the hump in a criss-cross pattern watching the flasher until we spotted fish. Once we found them, we dropped the spoons over the side and started our jigging action. This time we boated a nice striper and a few spots and largemouths. The small whites were present again as well, so the action was pretty constant.
After working this point for a while, Jim suggested that we head down to the dam. He and his partner had caught some seven- to 10-lb. stripers in the raceway leading to the turbines a few days earlier.
“We often catch our biggest fish in the deeper water near the dam this time of year,” said Jim.
By the time we got down to the dam the wind was howling across the open water and was helping a strong current caused by the draw of the generators. We tried valiantly but could hardly keep the boat in place, let alone get a spoon to the bottom. After a few struggling attempts we aborted the idea and headed for calmer water.
“I am sure there are big stripers in that area,” said Jim. “But with all this wind and current we’ll never be able to catch them.”
I didn’t say it at the time but getting out of the cold wind seemed like a good idea to me.
At virtually every hump where we spotted fish on the flasher, we were successful. And we caught five species (stripers, hybrids, white bass, largemouth and spots) during the day, often back to back on the same hump. The fish seemed to be all schooled together, feeding on the plentiful bait.
For this type of fishing you need to have several locations to try. Jim says that the fish move around so much that he will make a circuit, hitting as many as 10 locations several times during the day.
“You have to stay on the spot long enough to work it thoroughly before moving on, but if you haven’t spotted bait or fish on the electronics within 10 to 15 minutes, move on to the next spot and come back later,” said Jim.
The areas we fished in Halawkee Creek are usually a good bet. Jim also mentioned the Bird House Point in Boat Club Slough as a productive location. Generally, any hump or point in a larger feeder creek that tops out at about 15 feet of water is likely to produce fish. So mark your map before you go, move around on the lake and experiment. It is highly likely that you will find fish on several locations.
Once you find fish, it is a good idea to throw a marker buoy out to mark the spot, especially if there is a good wind blowing. The marker buoy will help you keep your bearings and stay in contact with the school. It is amazing how far off you can drift from a spot and not realize it. Of course, the fish will eventually move on, but the more you stay in the area where you first spotted them, the more likely you are to keep your bait in front of them and produce more strikes.
If you are struggling to find fish with the vertical presentation, Jim advises that you can sometimes locate fish in a likely spot by casting the spoon out and yo-yoing it back.
“You can cover a lot of water by casting the spoon,” says Jim. “But this can be a difficult way to fish because the spoon will hang up often if there are stumps or brush on the bottom. And you can lose a lot of spoons.”
It is best to try the yo-yo technique in areas where you know that the bottom is relatively sandy and brush free. Again, watch your line carefully on the fall each time you lift the bait during the retrieve because you may not feel the strike and miss the fish.
Whether you fish it vertically or horizontally, the jigging spoon is a very effective weapon for winter fishing. Jim tells us that on Bartletts Ferry, stripers in the 7- to 10-lb. range are not uncommon and hybrids of two to four pounds are plentiful. But you have to stick with the spoon and build your confidence in the bait. Use your electronics carefully, look over your selected spots thoroughly and move around a lot. You’ll be amazed at the quantity and variety of different fish that you’ll lift over the side and into the boat.
Jim tells us that this pattern will last through the winter and well into February. As the water starts to warm up in the late winter and early spring, the linesides will begin to move up the river on their spawning run. But until they do you’ll find them chasing deep bait on the humps in the creeks. Stick with the jigging spoon, and you’ll have a good winter of fishing ahead of you.