December 20, 2022
We launched at 9 o'clock in the morning with a hint of breeze to push us downriver. At the end of the second set of rapids, we slid the drift boat into an eddy. I cast the float-and-fly combination into slack water while my buddy on the oars back-ferried to gain time.
The bite ticked the line as bronze scales flashed below the surface. Moments later, I lifted my prize—a 13-inch smallmouth that was not nearly as happy to see me as I was to see it. The next was 16 1/2 inches and the third was 14 inches—great fish for a river where 90 percent of the bass are 9 inches or smaller. Winter is big-fish time, but it is a finesse fishery that requires a focus on fundamentals.
As the day progressed, the sun slipped toward the horizon and the temperature dropped. Soon, the landing was in view. While my buddies loaded the boat on the trailer, I jogged downstream, remembering a spot where the water slowed over a couple of submerged humps.
I made an upstream cast, keeping the rod tip up, the line almost tight and my hand on the reel. Tick. I set the hook into something solid but alive. The fish surged, ripping line into the main current. After the end of the first run, I turned the big smallmouth and got my first look. After two more runs, I guided the bass into slow water, where I reached down the line to take hold of an 18-inch bronzed beauty.
Winter fishing for bass is about managing expectations. It’s about understanding and working the conditions with the hopes of catching a few big fish, not numbers of smaller fish that won't be as active as larger bass this time of year. Put it all together, however, and you can experience epic days on winter waters when other anglers are at home dreaming about warmer spring days to come.
Smallmouth bass anglers know the optimum temperature for fish activity starts at 52 degrees. When water temps run in the mid- to high 40s, it is hard to tempt anything but bigger bass to the bait. Light penetration and midday sun can raise the water temps a degree or two, and that's when a bite can turn on.
David Swendseid is a lure designer for Duo Realis, and a professional bass angler with two top-five finishes in 2022. When fishing smallmouth rivers in December, Swendseid watches for runoff, which can happen several times per winter.
"When the snow cap melts, you get a colder and dirtier flow," Swendseid says, which makes it harder to catch a bass. "Smallmouths tend to stay close to bait schools. They have to, to stay alive. That dirty, super-cold type of dispersion is difficult for those fish. If you are fishing a river with cold inflows, you want to fish as far away from that movement or turbidity as possible."
On the other hand, lowland creeks might bring in warmer water, which can attract baitfish and the bass that follow them. "In that case," Swendseid says, "fish tight to the bank and also down the middle, parallel to the bank. If the warmer water does attract baitfish, bass will go to the banks to feed."
In really cold water, yellow perch can hold right next to smallmouth bass and the bass won't try to eat them. Then, when the sun breaks through, the wind starts blowing and the water warms a degree or two, the school of smallmouths will start eating those perch. Swendseid watches wind charts in hopes of divining such a change in bass behavior.
"Highland reservoirs turn on when the wind starts pounding those banks, creating a mud line," he says. "These can be good days, especially for smallmouths and spotted bass, which are more nomadic. They really turn on. An angler can get bit on reaction baits like spinnerbaits or spy baits."
Lakes and large reservoirs have currents created by submerged streams, the wind and other factors. Swendseid recommends anglers find the deepest, darkest holes and gradually work their way out of them. The bass' tendency in cold, slow-moving water is to find a place where the current is slowest.
"Start deep and go up the slopes," he says. "Blade baits are good. A long-lining, drag-bait technique like old-school split-shotting [with a soft-plastic worm or grub] can work. But baits should be small, and grubs should have a reflective finish like metal flake."
If there is a mud line, try to fish just past the undercurrent. Swendseid regularly sees fish that have been holding in 18 feet of water come up into the stirred-up shallows to feed where wave action dislodges bait.
A deep-running crankbait on a slow retrieve in open water can sometimes draw a strike, and blade baits fished deep can also be good for a fish or two.
"Fish uphill," Swendseid says. "And soak the baits [by fishing slowly and keeping the lures in the water as long as possible]."
Get the boat in two feet of water and cast out over a slope or along a point and then drag the bait uphill. Swendseid calls it "counting rock." Use a Senko, a grub, a tube or a creature bait. "Throw the bait down the slope, make it touch down, bang it around. Working it back uphill makes your job easier versus cranking downhill or cranking parallel. I want to keep in contact with the rocks the whole time," he says.
It's a technique that works year-round, but deeper is better in winter. In lowland lakes, shallow bays and flood areas, the deepest, densest cover will hold fish. The fish seek out the warmest spots. Rocks can capture heat, and if the water is clear enough and the sun penetrates, an outcrop can hold several fish.
A finesse bait that works equally well on fly gear or conventional tackle is a duck feather creation called a Float 'n Fly jig from Dale Hollow Tackle (dalehollowtackle.com).
The Float 'n Fly jig is made from craft hair and a couple of feathers from the underside of a drake mallard's wing. The markings approximate the barring found on small salmon and trout parr. Collars are tied with blood-red thread, which is a proven strike trigger. Under a float, the feathered jig rides point-up and can be presented anywhere from 15 inches to 15 feet or more beneath the surface.
If bass are chowing on a particular type of baitfish, a feathered jig can mimic it. The Float ’n Fly comes in five patterns: Original Duck, Blue/Chartreuse, Red/Chartreuse, Rainbow Trout and Threadfin Shad. In cold, muddy water, chartreuse is a great choice. In clear water, purple, pink and red are good accent colors.
Start with a 6- or 8-pound-test main line and a float that rides on the main line. Smaller Styrofoam slip bobbers and adjustable floats, like those made by Beau Mac and Thill, keep the jigs suspended and are sensitive strike indicators that react to a subtle take. Tie on a swivel and 18 inches of 6-pound fluorocarbon. At the terminal end, knot on a 1/16-ounce duck feather jig.
In deeper water, use a threaded bobber stop, a small bead and a sliding bobber to allow for easier casting and a consistent presentation.
Tip the odds by adding scent. Pro-Cure's Bass Sauce masks human scent and exudes an enticing odor that can attract fish in muddy water. Apply the scent to the head and collar only to keep from altering the action of the feathers.
At its heart, the float-and-jig or float-and-fly technique is a good way to suspend a feathered bait beneath a float and tease lethargic bass that are reluctant to expend the energy required to bash fast-moving baits.
TWITCH IT AND FORGET IT
Conventional thinking says in the wintertime you have to drop a lure on a fish's head, and that’s not far off the mark. This can be a good time to pull a jerkbait out of the tackle box, but it should be a suspending bait that runs 4 to 8 feet down.
Swendseid describes his cast-and-sink technique as "piercing the water." The bait drops in its initial dive, but doesn't drift. Give it a couple of twitches and leave it for 30 seconds. Twitch it again and wait 30 seconds more.
In the summer, a bass might move 15 feet to grab a bait. With its metabolism slowed in winter, a bass is more likely to make a series of short moves to get there. Each twitch is erratic. The bait cuts and darts. It wobbles. But it should not run or drift out of the area. That's why a suspending bait is a good choice in December.
Year-round, many people fish too fast. For some, it’s even more difficult to slow down when fishing cold water. As soon as the angler slows the presentation and stops moving the bait, the chances of hooking a big fish go up dramatically. Fish the slack water, the back eddies and the deep-water holes. Soak baits. Count rocks. Fish past the mud lines. A December day might only be good for a few bites, but they can result in some of the best fish of the year.