The thermometer in Kyle Mabrey’s truck read 32 degrees when he backed his boat into the water last fall. The Alabama angler was pre-fishing for an upcoming tournament, and he wasn’t exactly sure what he needed to do to catch fish. The answer came soon after he rounded a bend in a creek and spotted a school of bass chasing bait on the surface. Mabrey cut the outboard, dropped the trolling motor and picked up a lure most anglers had already stashed away for the season: A Zara Spook.
Too many anglers base their lure and technique choices on unrelated factors, but Mabrey, a two-time FLW Championship qualifier, caught a chunky largemouth on his first cast. In other words, if the air is cold, don’t automatically assume the fish will be equally cold and sluggish. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What matters most, says Mabrey, is water temperature. He admits that a number of other weather factors play into the fish-catching equation, but cold air isn’t usually one of them.
“Barometric pressure is most important to me in the late fall and winter, especially if I’m considering throwing a topwater,” says Mabrey, a two-time FLW Championship qualifier. “I look for a low-pressure system that is often accompanied by cloudy, drizzly days and cooler temperatures. High-pressure days, which are usually clear and bright, aren’t nearly as good.”
When he gets those ideal conditions, Mabrey is most likely throwing either a Zara Spook or a Super Spook Jr., his two favorite topwaters for just about every situation. That’s because they can be fished in a variety of situations and with different speeds to match the conditions. For instance, Mabrey will work the bait fast when the water temperatures are in the mid-60s or higher, but he’ll slow it down as the water temperature decreases. When it dips into the mid to low 50s, he’ll walk it across the surface at a snail’s pace, pausing the bait every few twitches. That’s often enough to draw an explosive strike.
His rock-bottom water temperature for topwaters is in the 50-degree range, although he admits it starts getting tougher when the water dips below 55. That’s not to say bass can’t be caught on surface baits in colder water.
“A friend of mine will throw a Spook all year long, even in the winter when the water is down into the 40s. He catches fish, too,” says Mabrey. “I think it’s really a matter of confidence, unless the water is down into the 30s. I think a lot of people don’t realize that some bass stay shallow pretty much all year. As long as they can see the bait, there’s a chance they will eat it, even if it’s on the surface.”
Although he favors a Spook, he admits other surface baits can be deadly, even when the water dips into the low 50s or even high 40s. The key is to fish them slow and then slower as the water temperature falls. As a general rule, the colder the water, the slower the lure should be worked. Prop baits like Heddon Torpedoes and twitch baits like floating Rapalas worked slowly across the surface or paused for several seconds at a time can be deadly in the late fall and even into the winter. Even buzzbaits can work in water as cool as 52 degrees. Mabrey favors a Booyah Bayou Buzz, which has two blades, which allows the bait to be worked slower than a single-bladed buzzbait.
“That real slow retrieve is key. I work a buzzbait just fast enough so that it barely stays on the surface,” says Mabrey.
Those lures and techniques will catch smallmouths in lakes and rivers, too. In fact, smallmouths tend to be more active than largemouths in cooler water temperatures, although reservoir-bound smallies tend to migrate to deeper water this time of year. River smallmouths, particularly those in southern and mid-Atlantic rivers, stay shallow throughout the fall and early winter, busting surface lures that cruise above their heads. In other words, it may be cold out, but it’s probably not too cold to throw a topwater.