Whether you’re fishing now or in the coming weeks, it’s a key time to consider lighter line, smaller baits and finesse tactics when the fish aren’t aggressive.

Because of the cold water conditions, the bite can be very subtle. A lot of anglers struggle with that because the bite can be hard to detect. Oftentimes the bass spit out the bait before they realize it. I’ve seen it happen when fishing with less experienced anglers; I’m catching fish and they aren’t. It’s not because they weren’t getting bites, but rather they weren’t recognizing them.

If you’re one of those anglers, I have some suggestions on how you can sharpen those skills.

This may surprise you, but panfishing is a great way to develop a better feel for bites. I panfish with light line through all months of the year. It’s taught me a lot.

Panfish are delicate biters, especially in cold water. They have taught me the importance of line watching my line and how to detect those not-so-obvious bites, knowledge I have parlayed into my finesse bass fishing.

Obviously, when the fish are aggressive you feel the tell-tale taps through your rod. But that isn’t always the case. Lethargic, cold-water fish will suck in a bait and may not move enough to send a signal up your rod. You have to watch for subtle clues before they reject the bait.

I’ve seen that many times when ice fishing. I use a highly sensitive spring bobber (a light wire off the rod tip in which the line threads through). The tiny spring will move before a traditional floating bobber and give you a visual of bites not normally seen.

When panfishing in open water and tiny tube baits, I use the wind to my advantage. I will hold the rod slightly above me and turn a bit into the wind where it puts a slight bow in the line and I can watch it closely. The same strategy applies when fishing a jig on 20-pound line. The bite isn’t always a line jumper. You have to learn to see, or even feel, those delicate bites.

There are spongy bites that occur in vegetation that may feel like weeds but are actually a bite. Or, like when the weight of the bait suddenly vanishes when you pick up slack, an indication a bass has grabbed it and swam at you. Again, line watching can help.

I always set the hook when unsure. That doesn’t mean I use a bone-jarring hookset for finesse baits, but I do a reel/pull set until the rod loads. I reel up slack until I feel what’s at the end of the line and sweep gently the side if I think a fish has it. That’s my favorite way of setting the hook on most finesse plastics.

Rods matter, too. I use a longer, medium action, high modulus Quantum graphite spinning rod, say 7-2 to 7-6, with good backbone but a soft tip. It not only enhances bite detection and hooksets, but I can cast lighter baits farther.

In most finesse situations, I spool my reels with bright yellow, small diameter braid and tie a long, small diameter fluorocarbon leader on the business end. The bright-colored braid makes line detection easier; the longer leader is imperative because of the clear water, but also because it doesn’t hinder the fall or action of a finesse bait.

The braid/fluorocarbon combination has minimal stretch and provides better feel than monofilament. You also get more direct hooksets without having to use a power hookset. Contrary to what some anglers believe, learning to identify bites through line watching can be as important as being able to feel them.

And while we’re all about bass fishing here, don’t underestimate what you can learn from fishing light tackle for panfish and how it will make you a more productive bass angler.

It’s all about the attitude! 

Kevin VanDam’s column appears weekly on Bassmaster.com. You can also find him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.