What does it take to catch winter largemouth and smallmouth bass in the Old Dominion? Perhaps these tips will be of service! (Janaury 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
In the classic Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon, and Marilyn Monroe movie Some Like It Hot, a curvaceous Marilyn huskily pronounces that some people prefer jazz when it is played hot. If I were asked to give a movie title, starring wintertime Virginia anglers seeking bass, I would call the film Some Like It Warm, Relatively Speaking. That's when I think the best action is most likely to occur.
Witness the attempts that guide Mike Smith, who operates Greasy Creek Outfitters from his Willis home, co-guide Forest Presnell of Claudville, and I made to go fishing on the Upper New above Claytor Lake just this past winter. First, we planned to do a float on an early January Saturday, but snow ended our thoughts of that excursion. Then cold weather, icy rains, below 38-degree water temperatures or high winds and more snow caused Mike to cancel, in order, a mid-January Sunday outing, an early February Saturday trip, and several mid- and late February weekend floats until the three of us finally were able to go on Sunday, March 5.
That day when we arrived at 10:30 a.m. at the Foster Falls put-in on the New, the air temperature read, according to my fishing log, 45 degrees, the water temperature registered 44 degrees, the water color was green, and the wind no more than 5 mph. Indeed, the only negative for the day at its beginning was that a bluebird sky colored the western Virginia landscape. However, considering all that we had had to endure regarding the weather, the three of us were quite pleased with the conditions, again relatively speaking.
In the winter, and actually this is true anytime of the year on any of our state rivers or lakes, the two Ls, location and lures, demand attention. I asked Mike and Forest what types of areas I should target and with which baits. Both of them decreed that we would work rocky pools and that suspending jerkbaits were the bait of choice. Smith suggested such jerkbaits as the Ugly Duckling and the Smithwick Suspending Rogue in the clown pattern.
I opted for the Smithwick minnow imitation, although I had never had much luck in the winter with suspending hard-plastic artificials. Both guides assured me that that category of lure had been performing best for them the entire winter. The key, Forest detailed, was for me to make long casts, quickly work the bait down, and then bring the bait back with slow, though sharp, jerks of the rod. The two veteran Virginia anglers cautioned that I had better be prepared for a hit, for given the cold front and bluebird sky, we were not likely to receive many strikes.
For the first hour, none of us received even one of those "mushy" hits that wintertime smallmouths are so infamous for making. But at 11:40 a.m., I felt a heavy sensation on my 10-pound-test line and set the hook into what turned out to be a smallmouth. The fish immediately went deep, but thanks to some skillful boat maneuvering by Presnell, I was able to land the 17-inch smallie.
Our trio was very optimistic that the midday period would bring on the best action of the day, which is often true during the winter months. Many times, the period between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. is prime, along with the last hour or so of daylight. As is so often true with late December and early January muzzleloader hunting for whitetails, the morning hours are often unproductive.
However, it was not until 1:20 p.m. that any of us received another strike, at which point I managed to hook up with a 15-inch bronzeback, again one that fell for the Rogue. Like the first bass, this one was very well fed and likewise spent much of its time slugging it out in deep water, foregoing any of the classic smallmouth jumps.
Although we stayed on the water until 3:15 p.m., no more strikes from smallmouths were forthcoming, although Presnell managed to land a walleye. The New, of course, features an outstanding wintertime walleye fishery -- certainly one of the most exciting angling opportunities in the entire Old Dominion.
Was I disappointed with my day on the New River? Not in the least -- although I only had two bites, those strikes did translate into two fair-sized smallmouths. More important, I realize how tough river fishing for smallmouths or lake fishing for largemouths can be in the Commonwealth now.
I have experienced a few winter days when the bass became very active, and I was able to catch -- and release -- a limit of keeper-sized fish. But I have also experienced -- and this type of outing has been more common -- days when I did not catch a single black bass or even garner a lone strike.
Any January through early March excursion when I can land several quality bass is a good one for me -- and I would suspect that is true for many state anglers reading this right now. Yes, we can occasionally come across a pod of lunker bass this time of year, but most of the time, many if not most of us are quite glad to corral a quality fish or two.
Besides the suspending jerkbait pattern, Mike Smith relies on two other lures.
"When the water temperature is below 50 degrees, I like to work a jig-and-pig or a Charlie Case tube in deep pools with ledges," he said. "I will do that in contrast to slowly retrieving a suspending jerkbait through relatively shallow sandy or cobblestone banks.
"Of course, the jerkbait will do great in deep, rocky pools, too. And the tube and jig-and-pig will also work along the shoreline at times."
WHERE TO GO ON THE UPPER NEW RIVER
Twelve possible float trips exist on the New River above Claytor Lake. The one my group took, Foster Falls to Allisonia, covers a distance of 13 1/2 miles, although we did take out part way through our excursion on private land where Smith has permission to do so. However, I do not recommend this junket in the wintertime if you are afloat in a canoe or johnboat. Smith and Presnell are professional guides who use a raft, and the Foster Falls float sports a number of significant rapids that can easily capsize a lesser craft -- especially in the winter.
For that matter, any excursion on any Virginia river in the wintertime demands that the float-fisherman exercise caution. Independence to Baywood (12 miles), Riverside to Oldtown (6 miles), and Oldtown to Fries (2 1/2 miles) are some of the milder floats on the upper New, but even they feature some tricky sections -- again, especially, during the coldwater period. Always wear a lifejacket when on any wintertime fishing expedition and portage any section that looks even remotely challenging.
For guided trips with Mike Smith, call (5
40) 789-7811, or visit his Web site at www.greasycreekoutfitters. com. Smith is a full-service outfitter offering lures for sale and rooms to rent for his overnight clients.
A WINTERTIME LARGEMOUTH HOTSPOT
I asked long-time Richmond guide Roger Jones, who operates Hook, Line and Sinker Guide Service, that if he were restricted to just one place to largemouth bass fish in the winter, where would it be and why. Apparently, Jones operates on the Marilyn Monroe "some like it hot" theory as well.
"The Tidal James, no question," was his immediate reply. "The big reason why is the warmwater discharge of the Dominion Power Plant at Dutch Gap, which is east of Richmond. The water downstream from the plant is always warmer, sometimes as much as 5 to 10 degrees, than the water out on the main river, which is usually in the mid- to upper 30s to the lower 40s. Below the plant, the water temperature might be as much as 50 degrees."
Of course, there are other reasons why the Dutch Gap area excels as a wintertime bass fishery. When the water is released behind the power plant, that inflow proceeds into what is known locally as the barge pit. This area is so-named because years ago, the lords of commerce for river transportation made the switch from wooden to metal barges. Needing a place to dump the outmoded boats, the businesses unceremoniously deposed of the fleet in the now aptly named barge pit.
Jones said that he has no idea if the companies placed the barges where they did in order to benefit bass fishing, but regardless of their motives, better bass fishing was the result. In any event, this area is now a wintertime hotspot. And the guide readily admits that it is not a secret to anyone who fishes for coldwater largemouths that it has become quite a community fishing hole.
Nevertheless, he continued, the barge pit receives very little fishing pressure during January.
"At the first of January, some of the fishermen are still deer hunting," Jones explained. "The rest of the month, some of the guys prefer small-game hunting over bass fishing. And a lot of sportsmen just don't like to put up with the cold this time of year; they hibernate just like a bear does.
"But I tell you this -- that if you spend eight hours in the barge pit on a January day, you should catch some quality bass. And several of them should be between 2 and 3 pounds."
The guide added that the positive effect from the warmwater release lingers downstream to the Interstate 295 bridge, also known as the Varina/Enon Bridge, about 1 1/2 miles downstream from the power plant. Besides the old barges, the pit also contains ample amounts of rocks, sunken trees, brushpiles and a host of other flotsam. The barge pit is indeed a backwater hotspot on the Tidal James.
Although the barge pit area is Roger Jones' number one wintertime hotspot, the guide sometimes ventures forth onto the main river. He said from Osborne Landing to the 295 bridge, a distance of approximately four miles, is where he prefers to concentrate.
"This area also has warmer water because of the power plant," the Richmonder explained. "But this stretch also features some wing dams or jetties that are great wintertime structure. The jetties are designed to direct water away from the banks, so as to prevent erosion. The eddies those dams create really concentrate wintertime bass."
The guide likes to work 1/4- or 3/8-ounce jigs, tipped with 2-inch plastic crayfish, through those eddies. I found Roger's use of plastic crayfish as a trailer interesting because the conventional wisdom is to employ pork at this time of year, and I questioned him on that.
"The truth is that I just couldn't stand to fish with real pork anymore, it was always gunking up everything and making a mess," Jones sheepishly admitted. "And I know that pork is supposed to give off a lot more scent than plastic, especially in the winter and to be so much more durable and lifelike.
"But, you know, after making the switch to plastic, I can't say that I am catching fewer largemouths, even in the wintertime. The action of the plastic trailer looks pretty good to me. I can tell you one way where I have followed the conventional wisdom for wintertime bassing -- my use of hair jigs. I do believe that hair jigs, as advertised, have more buoyancy and flair and behave more lifelike in the cold water than rubber jigs."
Another favorite off-season bait of Jones' is the Bandit 200 series crankbait, specifically in a crayfish pattern. The guide said that he is well aware that cranks are not considered to be wintertime lures because obviously they are relatively fast-moving baits and are designed to attract reaction strikes from warmwater bass.
But remember, he continued, that he is only targeting places on the James that offer warmer water than the nearby environs. Another reason why the guide is successful with a crankbait now is that he employs a reel with a 5-to-1 ratio. Avoid high-speed reels he urged. And with the slow-speed reel, Jones is able to barely nudge a crank along at a slow, steady pace with plenty of pauses. The largemouths are very lethargic and don't seem to respond well to erratic motions and jerks.
Yet another go-to bait now is a 1/4-ounce single blade (size 5 in nickel) spinnerbait with a twin tail grub affixed as a trailer. The Richmonder prefers the single blade because he likes for this lure to helicopter down to wood cover and then he retrieves the spinnerbait in the slow, rolling fashion. His next choice once more fits into the unconventional category.
"I really like a 6-inch plastic worm in red shad now," Jones proclaimed. "I like to experiment with my lures, and the worm has really performed well in the wintertime for me. I know a lot of fishermen don't use worms anymore, particularly in the wintertime, but worms are just as effective now as they were years ago when everybody was using them.
"On the James, I like to let the worm sink to the bottom and then just drag it along. Sometimes, I will lift it slightly or make it twitch or maybe even shake it in place. But most of the time, I am just dragging the worm very, very slowly. A cast could take as long as one to two minutes to complete."
A key to the guide's worm success is his use of 1/8- or 3/16-ounce tungsten bullet sinkers, made by True Tungsten. Jones is not just using tungsten weights to be more environmentally conscious. Tungsten weights are more compact than lead ones are, which the guide believes results in fewer snags. The largemouths are also less likely to detect a smaller weight he speculates.
Finally, Jones has had some wintertime success on a lure that goes well beyond conventional wisdom.
"Some years, January can be quite mild and the water temperature can warm up quite a bit, especially if we have three or four days in the mid-50s," he said. "About four or five years ago, that was the case, and on one trip I caught two or three really nice largemouths
on a buzzbait. Now I know this is a once-in-a-blue-moon pattern.
"But my point is that you never know what the fish will want in January. Experiment, be open-minded, and see what happens. The James was a little off at the beginning of this decade because of some poor spawns. But the fishing really picked up last winter, and I am very optimistic about this January."
For guided trips with Roger Jones, contact him at (800) 597-1708, HookLineAndSinkerGuides.com.
Wintertime bass fishing in Virginia and Marilyn Monroe aren't often paired in the same magazine article. But some of us do like it hot, or at least warm, relatively speaking.
(Editor's note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost in parentheses): The James River Guide ($15), The New River Guide ($15), and The Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18.25). To obtain a copy, send a check to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.)
Find more about Virginia fishing and hunting at: VirginiaGameandFish.com