Understanding Winter Smallies
As the water cools down in late fall, smallmouth bass react accordingly. Throughout the 50s (10 to 15 degrees Celsius) and even well into the 40s (5 to 9 Celsius), bass school up and can be caught very much in the same way as they have been all summer. However, once the temps hit the low 40s and drop into the 30s (1 to 4 Celsius) bass feed in a whole different way.
While soft rubber appeals to them like nothing else in the warmer months, once the temperatures hit the low 40s it seems as if rubber offers too much movement for bass. I find in these cooler temperatures hair, feather, and metal lures are what smallmouth bass key in on.
Here's a couple of cold water techniques (an old one and a new one) that work great for catching bass when they no longer have the energy to chase crankbaits or are attracted by soft plastics.
1. The Float N Fly
Rigging a hair or feather jig under a slip bobber works great for catching lethargic bass. The subtle movements are hard to beat for tempting smallies when their metabolism slows down.
Once you've found a school of cold water smallmouth (see below for how to find cold bass), it's important to determine the depth they are at. If you don't have an accurate fishfinder, try changing the depth of the bobber stop until you start getting bit. For more info on the FNF, check my article from winter of last year here: Fishing the Float N Fly
Even after a few years of perfecting the FNF, I still get shocked by its effectiveness when little else works.
2. Metal Spoons
Both jigging and flutter spoons can be deadly on coldwater smallmouth (and largemouth too). Make sure to have both varieties available when you're heading out. For jigging spoons, I like to go heavy (3/4 or 1 ounce) so I can get to the bottom quick and feel for structure. Delta Tackle's sardine lure is the bait I've had the most experience with and, although I've only been fishing a jigging spoon for a few weeks now, I've had several double-digit bass days on it. This lure was made for fishing in the ocean for rockfish, but smallies love it too. Terminator, Hildebrandt, and Hopkins are all popular brand names for jigging spoons. Check out Bass Pro Shops' variety of jigging spoons here: Jigging Spoons.
Flutter spoons sink slower than jigging spoons, but offer more flash and look a lot like a wounded baitfish. Somedays bass will key in on flutter spoons more than jigging spoons, so make sure to have both rigged up. As far as brands go, I've had some success on the Acme Kamlooper, which was built for trout fishing, but the Strike King Sexy spoon is a lot more popular among bass fishermen. Both vertical jigging and dragging them horizontally along the bottom work well for picking up cold bass.
I like to fish spoons with a baitcasting rod, but many anglers will also use a spinning set-up. I like the power behind a baitcasting rod, and feel the faster gear-ratio on the reel helps bring the fish in quicker decreasing the chance that it will throw the hook. My set-up includes a 7'3" medium-action Abu Garcia Vendetta rod with an Abu Orra reel. I will spool this with 15 pound Trilene generally, but if I'm fishing an area with a lot of ledges and sharp rocks I will switch to 50 pound Spiderwire braid so I'm not breaking off as many lures.
For more info on jigging spoons, check out what some pros have to say here: Pros Weigh In: Jigging Spoons
This chilly bass fell victim to a Delta Tackle sardine jig. Note the snowy banks in the background. Brr...
Finding Winter Bass
Bass school up tight in winter around dropoffs and rocky areas. Offshore humps will also hold fish, but I've had my best success around rocky bottoms and ledges. Once you've found fish on a spot, punch it into your GPS or find a marker so that you won't forget it as bass will stay on the same spots all winter long. Often bass will swim for kilometres to get to a particular holding spot for the winter.
Another thing I've noticed about winter bass is that you can often find the good winter spots by looking at the shoreline. Steep cliffs are a good indicator, as are hillsides without snow on them. If it's been snowing, but there are certain areas still getting enough heat so that the snow won't stick, it means the structure under the lake in these spots will probably also be giving off heat too which will in turn draw fish in.
If you do have a reliable fishfinder, look for schools of bass suspended along cliffs or over humps. Once you've found a school, drop a spoon into them or back off and fish a FNF right through them. Professional bass angler Russ Lane likens fishing this way to playing a video game, where you can set the sensitivity on your fishfinder so that you can see your jigging spoon bouncing up and down right into the school of fish.
Nothing will cut your day short like falling victim to the cold, so make sure to bundle up. Elite series pro Kevin Van Dam recently wrote a great article on keeping warm when fishing cold weather here: Keeping Warm. The best weapon I've found for keeping the cold out though is my outer shell, it's a Mustang Integrity jacket which also has a built in lifejacket. This thing is so impervious to the weather that I can be fishing in -5 degree windy weather with nothing on underneath but a t-shirt. Try one on next time you see one in store and you'll see what I'm talking about. Oh, and a thermos full of hot coffee or soup also helps too.
Thanks for stopping by, hope you picked up some valuable tips if you decide to extend your smallmouth season into the colder months this year.