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Late-Winter Tactics for Big-River Smallies

Few eastern anglers give much thought to bass in winter, but now is a great time to target river-dwelling fish.

Late-Winter Tactics for Big-River Smallies

Tube jigs are the lure of choice among winter river bass anglers, though jerkbaits and spinnerbaits can get you into some bigger fish. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

By far, my favorite time to fish for river smallmouths is the summer. To me, few things are more pleasant than drifting down an upland river during that season. But perhaps the best time to catch large river smallies is the late-winter/early-spring period when the fish concentrate in their winter haunts. The keys to success now are understanding how water temperature affects lure choice, knowing what time of day is best to be on the water and understanding how cloud cover affects bass activity.

man holding smallmouth bass
Wintertime river bronzebacks can be willing eaters, especially where there’s a temperature break. Just a couple of degrees can make all the difference. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

CRITICAL CLUES

When I asked guide Brian Kelly of White Fly Outfitters (whiteflyoutfitters.com) what the most important factor is for wintertime success, his answer came without hesitation.

“Water temperature is absolutely crucial,” he says. “Smallmouths obviously are cold-water creatures, and the lower the temperature the more difficult they are to catch. So, the most important tool you can have on your boat is a temperature gauge. Using that gauge, I’ll go back and forth on a river until I find places where the temperature is two degrees higher than the rest. Those two degrees can make all the difference in whether the bass bite or not.”

Kelly relates that he has a basic formula on lure selection. If the water temps are between 35 and 42 degrees, he relies on tubes and jig-and-pigs. Specifically, he pairs a 3 1/2-inch Strike King Coffee Tube and a 1/4-ounce tube jig. Tubes can also be rigged Texas-style with a 3/0 or 4/0 wide-gap hook and 1/4-ounce weight.

This heavier rig works well when the river flow is high, but when the water is lower and clearer, the West Virginia guide downsizes to 1/8-ounce tube jigs and 1/8-ounce weights. Kelly’s other go-to bait for the lower temps is a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Strike King Bitsy Bug, depending on water flow. He adds a crawfish trailer to round out the rig.

When the water temperature tops 42 degrees, Kelly continues to employ tubes and jig-and-pigs, but also adds 3/8- and 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits and 3 1/2-inch Strike King KVD jerkbaits to his arsenal.

Kelly slow-rolls spinnerbaits across rocky bottoms in deep pools well away from the current. Those places are the classic wintering holes for the river smallmouths, and they’re also where savvy cold-water anglers concentrate most of their efforts. What’s more, those locales typically draw the biggest smallmouths a river is likely to offer.

Regarding jerkbaits, Kelly believes smaller models better match the size of the baitfish at this time of year. Crank the jerkbait down and move it in slow jerks with periodic pauses. For all his wintertime baits, Kelly prefers medium-action St. Croix rods. He spools his reels with 10-pound braid and 6-foot-long 12-pound leaders.

THE TIME FACTOR

Britt Stoudenmire, who operates the New River Outdoor Company (icanoethenew.com), says the best time to visit the East’s rivers in winter is in the early afternoon when water and air temperatures are often at their peak. For example, on one of our many cold-water fishing excursions, Stoudenmire told me to meet him at 11 a.m. so we could be on the water before noon. But he also warned that we likely wouldn’t catch any smallmouths until 1 p.m. or so when the fish would, relatively speaking, turn on for a brief period.

The Virginian’s predictions were spot-on, as we caught four quality smallies between 1 and 2 p.m.—a 16-incher and an 18-incher for me and a pair of 20-inch-plus fish for the guide. Just like Kelly, Stoudenmire relies heavily on tubes and jig-and-pigs, as all our bass that day came on that duo. And also like Kelly, Stoudenmire relies almost totally on tubes and jig-and-pigs when the water temps hover in the upper 30s and lower 40s. In short, the warmest part of the day, which is typically the afternoon, is often the best time to be on the water.

Although the early-afternoon hours are often outstanding, they are not always the best time to be on one of our region’s upland rivers. Indeed, Stoudenmire says he has experienced occasions when the early-morning period proved prime.

“During the winter and early-spring periods, there have been times when I went fishing several straight days in the afternoons and, for whatever reasons, I couldn’t buy a bite,” he says. “And on a number of occasions when that has happened, I’ve gone fishing at first light the next morning and done extremely well, even though the night before had been brutally cold.

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“The way those morning trips went were pretty much the same. There was no action at dawn, but as soon as the sun hit the water, the smallmouths immediately turned on. It was as if those bass were so cold that when a little bit of sunlight came into their lives, they instinctively had to feed.”

On those occasions, Stoudenmire notes, he also noticed pods of baitfish swirling about in the water, and that prey activity definitely had something to do with the smallmouths’ aggression.

fishermen in boat
Deep pools outside the current are smallmouth magnets in cold water. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

SUN AND SHADE FACTOR

Another time when Stoudenmire and I went fishing during the later-winter/early-spring period, the afternoon forecast called for an air temperature in the lower 40s. Again, we met before noon and the best action occurred for several hours during the afternoon.

From my experiences, the best days have been when the sky is overcast, and even a little bit of rain seems to help. If an overcast sky is likely to occur in the afternoon when the water temp is higher, my chances for success dramatically improve. But, as with all things fishing-related at any time of year, numerous exceptions to rules seem to exist.

“I’ve had winter afternoons where nothing much happened until the sun started to set,” Stoudenmire says, “The way those days played out is the fish started to become active about 30 minutes before sunset. One side of a river always gets more sunlight in the afternoon than the other side does. So, when there was about 80 yards of sunlit water left, the smallmouths started to feed. Twenty or so minutes later, when there was about 40 yards of sunny water left, the bass were feeding even harder in that sunlit area. And just when the sun was about to set and there was sunlight only on about 10 feet of water next to the bank, all the fish were in that area and feeding like crazy, even on a cold day.”

Stoudenmire sometimes takes advantage of these active smallmouths by hurling 4-inch Lucky Craft Pointer suspending jerkbaits into the melee. The thin profile, the guide feels, is key. Jackall jerkbaits also perform well.

“Every time I’m on the water in the late-winter and early-spring period, I’ll check to see if a jerkbait bite is possible, especially if the water temperature has topped 42 degrees,” Stoudenmire explains. “A big reason why I try a jerkbait is that it’s often easier for clients—really for just about anybody—to catch smallmouths on minnow plugs than tubes or jig-and-pigs. But if the smallmouths don’t hit a jerkbait the first hour or so I work it, then it goes back in the tackle box.”

Cold-water river bassing in the East can be exceptional, or it can be miserable when bites, let alone landed fish, are nonexistent. But on those glorious days when the factors align, we can catch our biggest smallies of the year.

5 FAB FLOWS

  • Hit these rivers for the region’s best winter smallmouth bites
angler holding fish
Popular smallmouth rivers in the Mid-Atlantic region can produce as well in winter as they do in spring and summer. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

Jamie Gold lives in Northern Virginia and travels all over the East in search of river bronzebacks. He recommends two Pennsylvania rivers, the Susquehanna and Juniata, for cold-water action.

“The Susquehanna has great numbers of quality smallmouths and good numbers of really big smallmouths,” he says. “The solid population of forage fish is part of the reason why. The other reason, especially in the winter, is the bank-to-bank rock cover.

“The Juniata is basically just a smaller version of the Susky. Because of that, it’s great for canoe and kayak anglers, is easier to fish and has less pressure.” Gold recommends guide Tom Spacht (spachtscustomflies.com), who takes clients on both rivers.

Brian Kelly recommends the Upper Potomac in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia.

“February and March is a great time to fish for the Potomac’s smallmouths,” he says. “Seek out the deeper holes out of the main current and have patience.”

Guide Britt Stoudenmire favors Virginia and West Virginia’s New River because it has superior winter habitat in the form of deep-water ledges, big slow-water sections with ample bank cover and protected eddies with plenty of food.

Finally, guide Tracy Asbury (wvoutdooradventures.com) advocates for West Virginia’s Greenbrier River, the longest undammed river in the East. The Greenbrier’s many large, rocky pools are where the action is.





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