In fact, he’s confident he can find quality bites in chilly weather, as long as he brings the right baits and the right mindset. For him, it’s all about cranking.
“That’s definitely a go-to of mine because it catches big ones if you have the right weather conditions,” Hays said. “For the wintertime, wind is important. Obviously, the nastier the better and the more aggressive you can be; as opposed to a bright blue day with no wind, it may be more difficult to get a bite.
“This is especially true on the highland reservoirs like Lake Ouachita, which are very clear. If you were on a river system with a lot of color in the water, or a lot of current, you don’t necessarily have to have wind; but with clear water, wind is important.”
Shallow Rock — Could be natural chunk rock or manmade riprap guarding marina shorelines or bridge causeways; either way, running an old-school Storm Wiggle Wart or a Rapala DT-6 or DT-10 down the edges accounts for much of his winter action.
“The rocks warm up quickly on a sunny day, so fish use them to stay warm,” Hays said. “In the wintertime, I like red or orange crankbaits, but if I’m in really clear water, I’ll use a translucent bait.”
Brush — When a colder period pushes the fish off the bank, they’ll typically pull back into adjacent brush. Warmth is the biggest appeal and Hays finds that main lake points with brush are particularly promising. Here, he’ll crank the brush tops with a DT-6 or a DT-10.
Grass Edges — Acknowledging that cranking subsurface vegetation can be a little overwhelming for the uninitiated, Hays said the blanketing presence of hydrilla, milfoil or eel grass makes it well worth the challenge.
“If you find a winter time school in grass, it’s usually the right ones,” he said.
Favoring the DT-6 and DT-10, Hays offers this advice: fish it just like you would fish the bank by targeting turns, points, clumps and anything that would give a fish some feeding advantage.
Hays fishes all of his winter crankbaits on a 7-foot, 7-inch medium fast Stick5 Rods Crank Trap rod with a 6.3:1 Daiwa Tatula Elite reel carrying 12-pound Tufline fluorocarbon. In exceptionally clear water, or if he needs to get his bait deeper, he may downsize to 10-pound fluorocarbon.
Offering encouragement to winter crankers, Hays said: “Sometimes people give up on it too soon, because it’s winter time and you’re normally not going to get a lot of bites unless you just land on a school of fish.
“You have to stay mentally positive and keep going, especially if you’re fishing the bank because you’re normally catching only one at a time. You may only get seven or eight (cranking) bites in a full 8-hour day and you may go two or three hours without getting a bite, but it’s a great way to catch a big one.”
To make sure he capitalizes on every opportunity, Hays retrofits his stock trebles with Mustad KVD Triple Grip trebles. Heightened efficiency, he said, makes this a wise move.
“The benefits of the Triple Grip is that it comes through cover well because the hook points are angled slightly inward so they won’t catch every piece of (cover) you crank over,” Hays said. “Also, because of that inward angle, when you hook a fish, they usually stay hooked.”
Hays notes that when adverse conditions have the fish in a non-committal mood that leads to a lot of missed bites, he’ll use a Mustad round bend treble, which tends to snare more fish.