5 Tips for Catching Big Reservoir Smallmouth in Winter

If a trophy-size smallmouth is on the bucket list, then look for the cold, adverse weather in the coming months to heat up the odds for success

5 Tips for Catching Big Reservoir Smallmouth in Winter
5 Tips for Catching Big Reservoir Smallmouth in Winter

The recent spate of rainy and somewhat dismal days sends many minds toward the grim reality that winter is here to stay.

Sunless, dreary days with bouts of rain in December, January and February give most people the blues. However, desolate winter days bring joy to the heart of a reservoir smallmouth bass angler. These are the days to catch the big ones.

Kentucky is a blessed region for smallmouth bass as the 11-pound, 15-ounce all-tackle world record came to the net of Leitchfield’s David Hayes on a July morning in 1955 on Dale Hollow Lake. The genetics of the upper Cumberland drainage produce some of the largest specimens in the world and winter is arguably the best time to catch them.

Here are five simple tips that will help get more smallmouths in your hand this winter.


  1. The uglier the weather, the better: Leaden skies that seem to scrape the tops of the tallest trees bring with them great wintertime smallmouth bass fishing. The falling barometric pressure that usually accompanies such conditions puts predator fish on the prowl. Dark clouds that obliterate the sun limit light penetration into the depths of Kentucky’s better smallmouth lakes such as Laurel River, Dale Hollow, Fishtrap, Green River and Barren River, as well as Lake Cumberland. This creates better conditions for predator fish to ambush prey. A light rain or snow makes this scenario even more conducive to catching large smallmouth bass. Bright, shining days just after a frontal passage often offer comfort, but are the worst days to fish.
  1. Find the bait, find the smallmouth bass: Electronic sonar units, commonly called “fish finders,” improve each year. Users can manipulate the sensitivity of even inexpensive units to find schools of baitfish in reservoirs. These resemble cotton balls on the screen. However, astute anglers also look for gulls diving to the surface to discern the location of baitfish. If all else fails, fishing a point near the old river channel on the main lake presents a good chance of an angler intercepting a school of roving baitfish and the smallmouth bass following it. Fishing points, sloping banks or channel ledges near schools of baitfish greatly increases angling efficiency and boost the chances of a large smallmouth striking your lure. Dropping a jigging spoon or blade bait near the baitfish school often produces several fish.
  1. Keep lure selection simple: One of the best things about winter smallmouth fishing is you can fit a day’s worth of productive lures in a cigar box. A selection of ½-ounce football jigs for bottom fishing, some 3/16-ounce hair jigs for a swimming retrieve, a few blade baits like the ½-ounce Silver Buddy, a couple of jigging spoons and a bag or two of swimbaits with some ¼-ounce ball heads are all you need. These lures consistently produce reservoir smallmouth bass all winter long. Concentrate on fishing slowly and thoroughly probing likely smallmouth structures instead of changing lures every half-hour. If all else fails, try live shiners or large crappie minnows rigged on a size 1 Octopus-style hook with a few split shots crimped about 18-inches above the hook.
  1. Have the right mentality: Winter fishing for smallmouth bass is a big fish game, not a numbers game. You’ll have lulls in the fishing and a lot of empty casts. It is the nature of the game. Boredom and frustration can worm their way into the mind and you’ll find yourself going through the motions. Trophy smallmouth bass often bite when you aren’t mentally prepared. Keep concentration on the task at hand, so you won’t be flatfooted and consequently panicked when the 22-incher hits. This is especially important during that prime time of 3:30 p.m. to dark. Smallmouth anglers in winter often go fishless until this time of day, then land several before dark with the shortest one measuring 19 inches. Keep on your toes and mentally push through the lulls.
  1. Big, deep water = big, fat smallmouth bass: Large smallmouth bass use acres and acres of deep water as their sanctuary much like white-tailed deer use heavy thickets. Anglers confused about where to prospect for winter smallmouth bass should stick to the main lake of the lower one-third of a reservoir nearest the dam. This is especially true on Kentucky’s mid-depth hill-land smallmouth reservoirs such as Barren River or Green River lakes. You can’t go wrong fishing main lake points or small covelets just off the main lake nearest the old river channel in winter for smallmouths. Anglers without boats can fish these areas from the bank in winter with just a few lures or some large crappie minnows and do just as well as those in expensive boats.

Texas, Florida and California offer largemouth bass anglers an authentic chance of catching several larger than 10 pounds. Trout anglers fishing the reservoir tailwaters of the Ozarks have an opportunity for the fish of a lifetime.


Kentucky is one of the few places in the world where anglers can routinely catch smallmouth bass heavier than 5 pounds with a chance at much larger fish. Its waters produced the largest smallmouth ever caught and documented and produces world-class fish year after year.

Get out this winter and keep these simple tips in mind. A battle with a 5-pound smallmouth bass on a December day sure beats remodeling the basement.

Editor’s Note: Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Humminbird CoastMaster - A Closer Look

Humminbird CoastMaster - A Closer Look

Patterned after Humminbird's LakeMaster charts for freshwater anglers, CoastMaster charts bring the same features for salt anglers. CoastMaster delivers unrivaled nearshore and offshore fishing performance.

New Gloves from Fish Monkey

New Gloves from Fish Monkey

Quick look at Stealth, Half-Fingered & Stubby gloves; 2020 ICAST New Fishing Gear Guide.

Strike King Ned Rage Craw

Strike King Ned Rage Craw

In-Fisherman's Todd Ceisner sits down with Mark Zona to discuss the new Ned Rage Craw to hear all about how this little finesse bait, is going to get you those extra couple bites when times get tough.

Simms Flyweight Wader

Simms Flyweight Wader

Constructed of three different kinds of Gore-Tex fabric, the Simms Flyweight Wader is durable, breathable, and features stretch in key areas of movement and stress that happen during a day of wade fishing out on a fast flowing trout stream.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? There's more to successful long-range Ammo

10 Best Long-Range Cartridges Ever Made

David Hart - January 14, 2015

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? There's more to successful long-range

Here are the 10 most common spinning and baitcaster reel performance problems and how to fix them. Fishing How-To

10 Most Common Reel Performance Problems

Anietra Hamper

Here are the 10 most common spinning and baitcaster reel performance problems and how to fix...

New gear for kids and beginners from the annual fishing trade show. ICAST

New Fishing Gear for Young Anglers — ICAST 2020

Game & Fish Staff - July 16, 2020

New gear for kids and beginners from the annual fishing trade show.

We found 10 secret (and proven) catfish baits that have the staying power to attract catfish time after time. Catfish

10 Secret Catfish Baits You Didn't Know About

Anietra Hamper

We found 10 secret (and proven) catfish baits that have the staying power to attract catfish...

See More Trending Articles

More Bass

Few summer fishing experiences in the Midwest can match targeting predators herding baitfish. Use these techniques to get in on the action. Playbook

Summer Schooling: Join the Feeding Frenzy

Mike Pehanich - June 16, 2020

Few summer fishing experiences in the Midwest can match targeting predators herding baitfish....

A quick look at offerings from SPRO for 2020-21. Baits & Lures

New from ICAST: Rattle Little John; Essential Series

Game & Fish Staff - July 13, 2020

A quick look at offerings from SPRO for 2020-21.

Game & Fish went to Lake Picachos, Mexico, to determine the best new spinning gear. Bass

Tackle Test 2020: Best Spinning Rods & Reels

Dr. Todd A. Kuhn

Game & Fish went to Lake Picachos, Mexico, to determine the best new spinning gear.

Try Rainy River, Lake of the Woods, for a mid-summer dream trip. Playbook

Summer Family Fishing in Midwest: A Minnesota Mixed Bag

Mike Pehanich - July 27, 2020

Try Rainy River, Lake of the Woods, for a mid-summer dream trip.

See More Bass

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now