Swimbaits for Cold Water Chaos

Editor’s Note: This submission comes from TFO ambassador Burnie Haney, who offers some interesting strategies for targeting open-water smallmouth, walleye, pike, and more during the winter.

The cold water swimbait bite has been crazy, and the fish keep biting: smallmouth, walleye, perch, pickerel, and pike. My bait size and weight vary depending on the depth I’m fishing, but the one constant this fall and early winter season, unlike in previous years, is these NY fish want a swimbait. The usual Blade Baits and Football jigs just aren’t matching the number of bites I’m generating with swimbaits. I’m also not going to question it.      

I’ve yet to go into detail on the total setup, so here’s a review of how I’ve caught these fish on darn near every trip out over the past 30- to 45- days. First and foremost is matching the hook to the gear you’re using. Previous years I’ve been rigging my Keitech swimbaits on a VMC Screw-lock Hybrid jig head, 3/16- or 1/4- oz (for 9- to 15-foot), and 5/16 to 3/8-oz (for 16- to 35-foot) using the Fat Swing Impact in 2.8, 3.3 or 3.8 sizes fishing them on 10- to 15-lb. Cortland Masterbraid. I’d land 85% to 90% of the strikes, which was pretty good.   

However, this year, I started committing to the VMC Mooneye jig because this jig head works very well when presenting the 4″ Easy Shiner, and the thin, light wire hook ensures a positive hookup at the 98% rate. You must appreciate that the sticky, sharp light wire hook will not stand up to crazy pressure from using overpowered equipment. Therefore, the right rod, reel, and line combo is critical to your success rate.

I fish this finesse swimbait combination on a medium light or medium power rod, either 7’3″ or 7’6″ in casting and spinning with TFO’s OPTION Bass or their Professional Walleye series rods. Reels are KastKing’s Royale Legend spinning model (5.2:1 ratio) or their Zephyr BFS bait caster (7.2:1 ratio). I spool these reels with 5 lb. Masterbraid and use a 36-40″ section of 8.4 or 10.9 lb. Cortland Top Secret Fluorocarbon. I prefer to use baitcasting gear as long as possible, but once the air temperature drops below freezing, I use the spinning gear. I recently used Cortland’s tie-able steel leader (10- lb.) to prevent pike and pickerel bite-offs, which is fantastic. So, I’ll be adding that to my toothy critter arsenal.   

The key to the presentation is reeling the bait slow enough that it periodically taps the bottom. The depth and gear ratio of the reel only matters if you pay attention and feel the bait periodically tap the bottom. Reel too fast, and you won’t feel that periodic tap; reel too slow, and you’ll crank up weeds or bottom muck. Two things that helped me achieve the correct speed are the Cortland Masterbraid and these TFO Rods. As the bait touches anything during the retrieve, the Masterbraid transmits that signal up the line, through the rod, to the blank through the handle, and you’ll feel it.   

This same process occurs on the bite, and often, you’ll see the line jump just a mere second before you feel the fish strike, but don’t get excited and set the hook; continue your steady retrieve until you feel the weight of the fish. Once you feel the fish, continue reeling and execute a deliberate sweep hookset. In my experience, this slow, deliberate sweep hookset will result in a 98% hookup success rate. The no-stretch braid, along with the light wire hook of the VMC Mooneye jig combined with the longer rods, makes the entire sequence darn near automatic. 

For the past month, this has been my presentation of choice, be it on the Eastern Basin of Lake Ontario or Oneida Lake; I’m using the same swimbait presentation and boating 25- to 35 fish on an average trip and 45- to 55 fish on a great trip. I can’t stress this enough, but don’t overpower the swimbait jig head combo by fishing it on anything over medium light or medium power tackle. Find a quality 7- to 7-foot 6-inch rod that’ll act as a good shock absorber once you hook up. The best rods for this presentation will provide solid backbone, with decent parabolic action in the upper 1/3 of the rod blank, and forget about rods with those micro guides; the icing up alone will make you want to stop fishing before your trip begins.   

Finesse swimbait fishing in 32- to 37-degree water temps is a specialty fishing style. You must dress accordingly, which usually means in layers, wearing suitable gloves that will keep your hands dry yet provide the manual dexterity needed to operate the rod & reel, and bringing a towel along so you can dry your hands off after you unhook a fish (that is if you took your gloves off).  

Be sure to let others know where you’re going and how long you expect to be out there; provide them with your cell phone number and keep it handy. This cold water fishing isn’t for everyone, no question about that, but if you can endure the elements, you’re in for some of the best rod action of the entire season.

When you purchase Keitech Baits here enter discount code HANEY during checkout for great savings.

Here’s a look at a few fish we’ve been catching.

About the Author

Burnie Haney is a Licensed U.S. Coast Guard Captain owner & operator of New York Fishing Adventures based out of Henderson Harbor NY on Lake Ontario.  He’s a member of the Jefferson County Sports Fishery Advisory Board to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NY DEC) Region 6 Fisheries Chief and he serves as the Jefferson County Sportsman’s Representative to the NY DEC Region 6 Fish and Wildlife Management Board.  Haney holds two International Game Fish Association (IGFA) New York State line class records (smallmouth bass and walleye) and the IGFA All-Tackle Length World Record for Chain Pickerel. You can find out more about Burnie here.

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