Everybody knows smallmouth are summer fish — that they just hunker down during the cold water of winter, barely surviving until spring heats up that water and thaws out the fish and the food they eat. What ‘everybody’ knows reminds me of how football referees view the world: 50 percent of the fans agree with the call, half disagree and 90 percent don’t know the rules. That’s the way it is with winter smallmouth in the river. Forget what everybody knows. Winter is big fish time.
Let’s take this from the top. First you have to find the fish. If you look for winter smallmouth in all the usual summer places, you’ll spend the day making cast after cast without a scintilla of results other than a modest amount of exercise. That’s because smallies, like the great herds of African wildebeest, migrate from their summer range to their winter range. In some river systems, that migration has been documented to be 70 miles. In most rivers, it will be much less, perhaps only a few miles or less.
The urge to move begins around the autumnal equinox and is most likely triggered by diminishing hours of daylight. The fish look for deep river pools (where deep is a relative term). In small feeder streams, deep may be only 5 feet. In mainstem rivers, deep may mean 30 feet or more. Deep pools are the preferred habitat as they offer the best combination of protection from energy-robbing current, security from predators and access to a supply of winter food.
If you can, spend time on the stream or river during summer low water. Take note of structure like rock or gravel humps, ledges, buckets and cuts. Look for all the subtle and not-so-subtle water features that create macro diversions of current flows. Mark them on your GPS or record them in your notebook. Come wintertime, you’ll fish those diversions.
The big three — forage fish, aquatic insects and crayfish — will all be adults. Most forage fish are spring spawners; crayfish usually produce their young in the spring as well. Dragonfly nymphs spend three or four years underwater and damselflies have a shorted one or two year underwater cycle. At first blush, knowing that all the winter forage will be full-sized, you’d reach for a big bait or fly in order to best match the adult. Here’s where winter fishing takes a bit of a turn: It pays to downsize in cold water. Instead of tossing a 4-inch tube, drop down to a 3-inch. Same goes for a paddletail plastic. Knock off an inch or two.
Put 10 winter smallmouth fishermen in a room (assuming you could roundup that many) and ask them their favorite winter baits, and two choices would emerge as clear favorites. Some say hair jigs, some say tubes. All agree both work. All agree a key to success is downsizing from summer weights. Use the lightest weight that will get the tube down to the bottom yet still allow it to move like food. The same goes for the hair jigs.
Color for each depends on personal preference and preference usually follows confidence. For those just starting out, it’s hard to go wrong with watermelon and motor-oil colored tubes. Bass fishermen see white bucktail when they think of hair jigs. If you tie you own, try olive, brown or black rabbit fur or the same colors of marabou. Rabbit and marabou provide much more lifelike action than even the most supple but more durable bucktail. In fishing, action that best imitates food that fish eat trumps durability every time. Who cares if the bait is durable if no fish will eat it?
As thrilling as it is to get smallmouth to smash enticing spun deerhair bugs like The Hamster, winter’s cold water means those bugs need to stay in the box and wait for warmer water. Winter fishing is down and dirty. That means sculpin patterns and other forage fish streamers. Rabbit Buggers — Woolly Buggers that sport rabbit tails instead of marabou — should be added to the mix as they are excellent winter fly choices. The color palette is the same as for the bucktail jigs. To effectively fish these flies, we are talking weight on the flies, full sinking or sinking-tip lines and short leaders. All this gear serves one purpose and that’s to get the fly down to the bottom where the winter fish spend most of their day.
One of the best pleasures in life is that first cup of knockout-strong coffee in the morning that gets the body revving at redline rpms. Go with that pleasure when getting gear ready for the day but put the brakes on when fishing winter smallmouth. The watchword now is to fish slowly — and if that doesn’t work, go slower.
The bait or fly needs to be in contact with the bottom. You want to let the current do the work of enticing that fish to bite (yet another reason for using soft hair and feather fibers). The offering, be it bait or fly, needs to be resting on the bottom, with only occasional added movement by the fisherman. Winter fishing is a test of patience. Go slow and you’ll catch fish.
To avoid getting hung up on the bottom structure, fishermen need to ensure the hook point is buried in the tube. Fly-fishermen can minimize the snagging problem by using jig hooks or laying strips of lead-free wire on top of the hook shank as a counterbalance forcing the hook to ride point up.
Lighten up on the gear and you’ll catch more fish. Rarely does a winter smallmouth smash the bait or fly. Instead, the take is subtle, more like the line momentarily catching on a weed or leaf, leaving you to wonder was it a fish or not. Light, sensitive rods allow the fisherman to detect the gentle take. Equally light lines sink faster than heavier lines due to their slim profile. That means you can use less weight to get the lure into the fishing zone. The lure acts more like natural food and when the smallie mouths it, the light line readily transmits the message to the fisherman.
Summertime river fishing can be run-and-gun where one person is on the oars running the boat downstream while his buddy pounds the banks. Winter fishing is just the opposite. If you are fishing from any kind of watercraft, it needs to be stationary. You can make the perfect cast to the perfect spot, but if the boat is moving, that movement is dragging your bait away from the fish-holding area. Smallmouth are very reluctant to chase in cold water. A boat-holding anchor is your friend.
BECOME A WEATHER JUNKIE
Smallmouth respond to weather changes and fishermen should as well. Cold fronts put the bass in a funk and drive them deep. A nice warm (again a relative term) winter rain will raise the water temperature and spur the fish into eating. A few days of sunshine and no wind will spike the water temperature a few degrees and bring the fish into the shallows. Target shallows that are close to the deep-water holding areas, because the smallies won’t travel far. When noting temperature changes, the trend is more important than the actual temperature. Increasing temperature is good for catching. Decreasing will send the fish back into the doldrums.
BE NICE TO YOURSELF
Protect yourself against cold, rainy and maybe even snowy conditions. Waders with a relief zipper means you don’t have to remove your PFD, rain jacket and drop your waders. Women’s versions have a drop seat. If you are fishing from a kayak or pontoon, consider going with a dry suit and add plenty of layers of fleece underneath. A hat with earmuffs and waterproof gloves complete the winter ensemble. Have a complete set of dry clothes in a dry bag on the boat. If they are miles away in the car, they are worthless.
Like that old television ad with the line “Try it, you’ll like it,” winter smallmouth on the river of your choice is the way to beat the cabin fever blues.