It’s winter. That means cold weather, cold water and frigid fingers. So why would any fly-fisherman in their right mind leave the comfort of a warm home to sling a fly for winter smallmouth bass?
Aside from the need to break the grip of a serious case of cabin fever, the truth is there are fish to be caught. And not one of them will be caught while being a sofa slug.
Grab that bass gear, and get ready to hit the water.
WINTER FISH HABITAT
Conventional wisdom says that winter river smallmouth bass move from their summer pattern to hunker down in the depths of the deepest pool on any given stretch of the river. The slack water allows the fish to hug the bottom without expending precious energy holding themselves against the current.
If true, fishermen should focus all their effort on locating and fishing those pools.
More recent fisheries research reveals much more variation in winter river bass habitat. In some rivers, the smallies follow convention by going deep and staying there all winter. In others, the fish use a variety of habitat, including some shallow water.
The movement begins one week after the fall equinox, a migration triggered by the diminishing length of daylight.
The only way to know where the bass are in the water you intend to fish is to spend time on that water. The one certainty is that they will be in slack water.
It may be a small patch of foam, a back eddy created by a rock or large woody debris, or an undercut bank. Look for the fish to be in places where they won’t get washed away.
Run weighted flies through the pools, making sure to get the fly down to the deepest section of the pool. Target the soft water edges of current seams also.
Pay attention to the course of each cast so that when a fish hits, you’ll know where the fly was in relation to the current and water depth.
Bass behavior within a given body of water seems to be consistent. Fish will be in the same type of water throughout the river. Paying attention on each cast allows you a better chance of being able to replicate the cast elsewhere on the river.
Lake fish are more predictable as they tend to concentrate in mid-depth areas. Deep lakes are not a good winter fly-fishing choice because mid-depth may mean the fish are holding 60 feet deep.
Instead look for lakes with more modest depths with good smallmouth structure.
Smallmouths remain structure-oriented no matter the water temperature. Rock and smallmouths go together like peanut butter and jelly.
But all rock is not equal in its ability to satisfy smallmouths. Unbroken bedrock rarely holds an active fish.
Instead, look for broken bedrock or cobble in rivers and rock humps and piles in lakes. The rock offers a stable environment and harbors smallmouth foods.
Structure that attracts and holds fish is easier to discern in winter. River flows are at their yearly low, certainly that is true on those subject to irrigation withdrawals. The same holds for irrigation reservoirs drawn down for summer irrigation as they won’t fill again until spring runoff.
Take notes or pictures of the exposed structure. They’ll help your fishing now and next spring when the water rises and covers the obvious landmarks.
EFFECTS OF TEMPERATURE
Winter smallmouth bass are sluggish. The colder the water, the more they avoid current. In their cold-induced lethargy, long gone is their aggressive summertime devil-may-care ambush feeding behavior. Smallmouth metabolism is slowed by the chilly water, so they eat less frequently.
The combination of lethargy and fewer trips to the dinner table requires a change in tactics. Winter steelheaders will understand the need to have the fly pass near the head of a winter bass.
In the heat of summer a single drift can effectively cover a run because the fish will move to intercept the fly.
Not so now. Winter fly-fishermen need to break the pool down into two-foot wide grids and make a cast into each grid. The object is to present the fly so any willing fish doesn’t have to move in order to eat.
Coldwater smallmouth bass tend to bunch up and can be difficult to locate. However, once found, you may catch more than one. In rivers, the game is “stick and move.”
Cover the likely holding spots, then move on to the next good structure. In lakes, electronics, even those portable units that can be strapped to a pontoon boat, help reduce the search time.
Sun is the winter fly-fisherman’s best friend. Several hours of bright sun can warm the water a few degrees, especially over shallow rock structure and soft or slack water.
There is no need to get on the water at first light. Now is the time to fish the warmest, brightest hours of the day.
Pay attention to the weather. Go fish before a cold front hits, then stay home for a few days after it passes because the fish will be off their feed.
When winter smallmouth bass eat, they opt for the full meal deal. They won’t break their quasi-hibernation for anything less than a stomach-filling meal.
The observed preference for a large prey item in the dead of winter may not actually be a preference.
Instead it may be a reflection of what food is available. There are no juvenile crayfish as the last crayfish spawn occurred some months ago and all the surviving crayfish are adults. The young of the year forage fish have grown up.
Insect hatches are non-existent during this time, while hatches of tiny chironomids during the warmest part of the day is common. They are rarely sufficient in size and quantity but provoke coldwater smallmouths into feeding on them.
Smallmouth bass spend the winter oriented toward the bottom. In rivers that may be only ten feet deep, a depth easily reached with a sinking line. It’s possible to go deep — 30 feet and more — for lake fish using a long shooting head of T-14 and mono running line but that concoction is not much fun to cast.
Pick a shallower lake where the fish are less than 20 feet down. A short T-14 head attached to a full sinking line is a better option to get to the fish.
A different yet effective way to catch smallmouths in both lakes and rivers requires a floating line and a bobber, or strike detector.
Trout fishermen who use chironomids will readily grasp the idea of using a strike indicator to suspend a weighted fly at the level where the smallmouths are holding.
In a river, let it float with the current, mending the line as necessary to avoid unnatural drag. In still water, a slow strip followed by a long pause best imitates the natural forage food.
Patience is a winter fly-fisherman’s virtue. The cold water that slows down smallmouths also puts the brakes on all of its cold-blooded prey. Resist the urge to use a fast retrieve that might be effective in triggering an aggression strike in warm water — those chilled smallies are not going to chase.
If you want to hook up, go slow. Cast upstream and let the fly come down, tumbling and slow rolling. Keep contact with fly so you can detect what will be a soft take, more like a soft resistance that a thump.
Summer smallies are a huge numbers event, filled with a mess of willing, frisky youngsters. Don’t expect to catch a ton of coldwater smallmouths.
Do expect that each winter bronzeback will be a quality fish of the size that immediately raises your body temperature and makes you forget cold fingers. It’s the perfect cure for a nasty case of cabin fever.