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Lanier Bass In The Winter Ditches

The “3 Jims” talk details on a great pattern for Lake Lanier spotted bass.

Ronnie Garrison | January 8, 2019

Most bass anglers have heard about the good winter “ditch bite” at Lake Lanier for spotted bass. 

But exactly what is a ditch bite? How do you find good ditches, and how do you catch bass on this pattern?

Three local expert fishermen on Lanier—Jim Farmer, Jimmy “Lanier Jim” Harmon and Jim “Jimbo” Mathley—shared their tips and methods for the ditch bite. All three Jims guide on Lanier, and they all know the lake well and keep up with the patterns the fish are following. And they are friendly competitors, which means they share information and help each other, and all of us, with their skills in catching Lanier bass.

Jim Farmer lives on the lake, paints custom baits and making planer boards that are very popular, offering them through his website www.castawaybaits.com. He fishes Lanier year-round and follows the bass as they move in annual patterns. In December 2016, he won the UGA Fishing Team fundraiser North Georgia Fall Classic on Lanier with 19.6 pounds and had big fish with a 5-lb., 12-oz. spot from ditches.

“A good winter pattern that usually starts in November, hits its peak in late December to early January and lasts through February, is the ditch bite,” Jim said. 

He defines a ditch as a submerged valley between two hills. A defined gully does not have to be present, but any small drop created by a point running out from the sides, creating some contour change, makes an area better.

A ditch is simply a submerged valley between two hills. A defined gully does not have to be present, but any small drop created by a point running out from the sides, creating some contour change, makes a cove or pocket better.

To find the bass, Jim starts at the mouth of the valley in 50 to 60 feet of water and slowly idles up the middle toward the shallows in the back, watching his electronics for baitfish. Baitfish are the key. Bass are following them and are unlikely to be present if no bait is visible.

Bass will show up under or near the bait—which can be either shad or blueback herring at Lake Lanier—at some point in the ditch. Electronics with side scan and down scan helps you find them, since they can cover a wider area of the ditch as you move into a cove.

First thing in the morning, bass will often be in the back of the ditch feeding on bait that has moved to the shallow end during the night. Start in the back if you see bait while idling in. Jim catches these shallower bass on a jerkbait, keeping his boat in water deep enough that he is covering water 10 to 15 feet deep with a Lucky Craft Pointer 100.

Jim always keeps a jigging spoon and underspin ready while throwing his jerkbait. If he spots bait or bass under the boat as he casts a jerkbait, he will quickly drop the spoon straight down to them and bounce it along in small hops through them.

When the bass are showing up at a certain depth, he will cast a 1/4- to 3/8-oz. underspin, let it sink to the depth the fish are feeding, and slowly move it along the bottom at that contour. He cautions that it takes a while for the lighter bait to fall to the bottom, but the fish seem to hit it better.

“Fish the underspin as slowly as you can, and then slow it down even more,” Jim said.  

Crawl your underspin, being careful to keep it right on the bottom. And he will even “deadstick” it, letting it lie on the bottom in one place for several seconds, which sometimes draws a bite. The deeper the water, the harder it is to do this, but slow is the key to catching fish on an underspin.

As the sun gets above the trees, the bait and the bass move deeper, often out to 50 to 60 feet of water. At that depth, the spoon is Jim’s go-to bait, since it can get to the bottom quickly and will draw strikes from the bass. They may hold on a slick bottom, or they may be around brush or standing timber. Hop your spoon at the depth they are holding.

Jimmy “LJ” Harmon lives on the lake, guides, installs electronics and fine tunes them for anglers on the lake, and he sells his “Fruity Worms” and other baits at www.lanierbaits.com. 

LJ says the ditch bite lasts most of the winter, depending on how fast it gets cold in the fall and how fast it warms in the early spring. This year the bite started early in November, and if we have a cold winter, it will last into March when the fish start moving shallow in the prespawn. Not all bass will move at one time, so check out the ditches for concentrations of fish rather than scattered prespawners. And the spots will follow ditches to the spawning flats, so it is a good pattern to start with during the prespawn.

“A good ditch can be very short, just a hundred feet long,” LJ says.  

And it can be either wide or narrow. The key is that it drops into water 50 feet deep or deeper. Standing timber helps hold bass, as do brushpiles. But bait must be present, or the bass will not be there. Bass will be on many different ditches on the lower end of Lake Lanier, you just have to search until you find the ones holding bait and bass that day.

Jimmy “LJ” Harmon sent these pictures showing his sonar, and he made notes about what you are seeing. The sonar shows bass on the bottom, his drop-shot worm, a bass when it hits and is reeled up, and then several other bass following the hooked fish toward the surface.

In this sonar image, you can see the bass following a spoon toward the bottom, and it also shows how the timber and brush look near the bottom. Also, it shows the jigging spoon as the angler makes vertical hops off the bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Look for loons in the mouths of ditches,” LJ says.

Loons push bait into the ditches where bass wait to ambush them. The birds and bass work together to herd the bait up and feed, so finding loons is always a good indication it is a place to stop and look.

LJ agrees that bait and bass will often be in the backs of the ditches early in the morning, so he starts there if he sees bait in a ditch, but he throws a crankbait to start instead of a jerkbait. Work around the back of the cove, but don’t spend much time in one place unless you see the bait. Both bait and bass move a lot this time of year.

When you find the bait and bass, you can follow them as they move up and down the ditch feeding. A good school of fish may produce four or five bites before they stop hitting, and then you can often come back to them later catch more.

“You have to find the baitfish to find the bass,” LJ says.  

Good electronics are critical, and they need to be fine-tuned to see the bait from 20 to 60 feet deep. A good GPS map will let you focus on the depth they are holding. As the sun rises higher, he expects the fish to move out to 40 to 50 feet deep. He sets his Lakemaster Map Chip to highlight 15 to 40 feet in green then follows that path with his Humminbird Side and Down Imaging scan to locate them.

Bass like to hold on drops, and even a quick 1-foot change in depth on a clean bottom will hold fish. They will suspend around brushpiles, and in standing timber from the bottom to the top. To catch them, you have to get your bait right in front of them.

A Georgia Blade Spoon will catch them, and he likes the way they fall when jigging them. He tries different sizes, from 1/2- to 1-oz. to see what the fish want that day but also depending on water depth. Spoons can be fished on wood cover since they shake off when hung up fairly easily if you don’t set the hook too hard.

LJ’s favorite bait is a drop-shot worm. He can control it at the depth the fish are holding and fish it right in front of them. And he says most days he catches bigger fish on them. 

You can watch your bait fall on your sonar and stop it right in front of the fish. That is easy when you see them right on the bottom or see bait so thick on the bottom that they hide the bass. Drop your weight to the bottom, and keep your line tight, keeping your worm 6 to 10 inches off the bottom. 

If the fish are on brush or timber, watch your bait fall until it is right in front of them, and stop it there. LJ loves to watch as the bass comes over to hit his bait. Sometimes they will come up and meet it when they are aggressive. 

In timber, the fish may be suspended anywhere. He says he may be fishing in timber where the bottom is 50 to 60 feet deep, but the bass are only 20 feet below the surface in the timber, way off the bottom. That is an ideal time to drop a Fruity Worm to them, since you can keep it at any depth you need and keep it there. 

Jim “Jimbo” Mathley lives in Cumming and has been guiding on Lanier full-time for about eight years at Jimbo’s Lake Lanier Spotted Bass Guide Service (www.jimboonlanier.com.) He, like the other two Jims, is great at helping fishermen learn to catch spots on his trips and through seminars.

“Ditches are the highways spots follow in Lanier,” Jimbo said.

The bass seem to make a morning commute to the shallows for breakfast and then follow the baitfish buffet back to deeper water where they hold and spend the day eating. You can catch them all day long if you find and follow the schools as they move.

Jimbo agrees the ditch bite lasts from November to the spawn in March each winter. During this time both bait and bass move a lot, and you have to find them to catch them. He sticks to the lower lake, mostly below Browns Bridge, since that’s where the bigger spots live and the ditch pattern is more consistent. 

“The ditch bite is gold for a guide,” Jimbo says.

It is consistent for several months, easy to pattern and follow day to day. But you must be flexible since the schools of bait and bass move so much. 

A good ditch today may not hold fish tomorrow, but in three or four days it may be good again. Don’t get stuck fishing places where you caught fish in the past, look for them every day with electronics to catch fish consistently.  

A ditch to Jimbo is a creek arm or some kind of channel going from deep water to shallow. Standing timber in the ditch makes it better. Any drop or irregularity in the ditch is a key spot for them to feed, so he concentrates on tight contour changes in the ditch if it holds bait.

Jim Farmer with two of the fish caught in the ditch pictured on the bottom right during a tournament in December 2016. Jim’s five bass weighed 19-lbs., 6-ozs. They had big fish with the 5-lb, 12-oz. spot shown here.

He also likes to start in the backs of the ditches throwing a Spro McStick jerkbait and goes straight to the back first thing in the morning.  If he does not catch fish quickly, he moves to another ditch since this bite does not last long.

As the day proceeds and the bait and bass move deeper, he follows them out, looking for timber, brush and even docks in 40 to 50 feet of water where the bass hold. If he sees bait in an area, he will cast a Super Spin underspin with a Keitech 3-inch swimbait on it, let it sink to the contour line or wood cover and fish it very slowly along the bottom.

When the bait and bass are set up later in the morning on timber or brush 40 to 50 feet deep, he gets on top of them and fishes straight down with a spoon or drop shot. A chrome or white spoon works well for this, and he rigs his drop shot on a 1/4-oz. weight about 18 inches below a shad- or dark-colored Fruity Worm.

The bass are eating both threadfin shad and blueback herring on the ditch bite, so sometimes a small bait is better than a bigger one. Flexibility is the key, both in finding bass and catching them, so be willing to change places as well as baits often.

When you find fish on deep timber or brush, drop your spoon or drop shot to them, watching your sonar to keep it

This was hole No. 5 in February 2018’s Lanier Map of the Month article with Jim Farmer. This ditch at Shadburn Ferry is where Jim caught four of his five bass for a 19-lb. sack to win a UGA benefit tournament in December a few years ago. Note the points coming off the side, forming small drops where the bass hold.

in front of them. The bass may be anywhere from 20 to 50 feet deep under bait and can be around wood cover or contour lines. But they will be under the bait.

All three Jims agree on the ways to find and catch ditch fish right now. Be flexible, check a lot of places, find the bait. Then catch bass on a jerkbait, crankbait, drop shot or spoon. You must be willing to move around a lot to find the fish each day, but when you do, you will catch good spotted bass from the ditches.

The ditch bite is wide open right now. Use these tips and tactics to learn how to catch big spots for the next two months.

Jimbo is hosting a seminar on Jan. 5 where all three Jims will share their tips. You can meet them and talk with them about the ditch pattern and about very specific information on how they fish Lake Lanier year-round. 

Visit Jimbo’s website at www.jimboonlanier.com.

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