Cold Water Smallies

Part 1 On How To Catch Winter River Smallmouth Bass

by Chris Gorsuch

I recall sitting in on a seminar given by a popular TV personality in the early 90’s. He was offering a seasonal approach to bass fishing. Like many, getting to learn tips from a Bassmaster Pro was a great opportunity. As expected, the place was packed. I sat there with pen and pad in hand waiting for his insight on cold water angling. When it came time, he identified cold water 50°, from that point on, not a single word was penned.  Here in the northeast, cold water is generally somewhere between 34-40°. And it holds fast to those temperatures from Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day. 

   As my guide season comes to an end around the first week of December, my focus is turned to tackle inventory, marine maintenance and a day or two each week to fish.  For the last three decades, I have been spending as much “cold-water-fishing” time as possible. I genuinely tend to fish with friends who are equally crazy about this time of year. Many of whom, I have learned a great deal about targeting bass this time of year. The techniques I will be sharing in Part I & II will focus on their favorite lures and some might surprise you. 

  When many consider fishing winter months for bass and walleye, many automatically start thinking downsizing to micro jigs and slowing down presentations to a snail’s pace. And I for one am right on board with that. However, the next three anglers I wish to introduce in Part 1, have a much different approach and in many cases, had I not witnessed these techniques in person, I may not have believed it. 


  Floyd is a cold-water angler that I truly look forward to sharing time with. We have had many cold-water river adventures chasing bass. The amazing part about these trips is that we fish completely different. Slow fishing a jig on the bottom of the river is something I can do for eight hours, but for Floyd, he needs to be moving. So, the first time I saw him pull a deep diving crankbait out, I thought he was joking. A deep lipped 1.5 or 2.0 sized crankbait in red or brown craw is truly his favorite way to catch cold-water smallmouth. 

    In his words, “I want something with a tight wobble that I can run slow but deep and kind of dredge the soft gravel bottom of my favorite fishing hole.” 

  The water temperature on this particular January trip was 38° and I could not wait to see if this would really work. As he bombed a cast out, he muttered, “Hey, I have caught them on cranks colder than this!” 

  Moments later he was hooked up. I could hardly believe my eyes. That scenario played out all day and while I may have had a few more bass that day on jigs, he certainly had more fun. 

Vibrating Blade Baits

   Darren is perhaps one of the most methodical anglers I have ever fished with. His attention to detail is surgical. Much like me, and to a degree more, Darren likes to log every experience. Date, temperature, wind, water conditions, water type, depth and even stats on every fish caught. Another area we share was making our own lures. His attention to detail has created some of the best cold water soft plastic jigs I have ever used. 

  On one late December trip, he threw a curve ball when arriving at the boat. His usual satchel of sandwich bags full of fresh winter creations had a heavy twist to them.  Here instead, he had some fairly large 1/2oz silver blade baits he had made. Dozens of them and nothing fancy about them. 

   We were in about 7’ of water and I locked the trolling motor into anchor mode and tossed my jig into the water. Seconds later, I could hear the sound of his heavy braided line sing through the guides. “Are you hooked up already?”  and before he could answer, I saw the bass breach water way out from the boat. 

  Now I was no stranger to blade baits, but his approach was quite different. Rather than lifting and dropping the rod tip, he simply held the rod steady and would turn the reel handle twice, stop for a second and turn the reel handle twice. Just fast enough to feel the blades engage and then stop for just a second and repeat the process, landing one bass after another until I was forced to join in. 

  Darren suggested a medium to medium-heavy baitcasting set up and suggested 40 lb test braid to help overpower the bottom (i.e. snags) when needed. 

Spinnerbaits and Alabama Rigs

   JT is known for his affinity for spinnerbaits, both as an angler and for his tackle business, Sick Custom Spinnerbaits. During a cold water outing together in November 2021, he was bound and determined to catch a few bass with spinnerbaits. In general, my comfort level with spinnerbaits is when water temps are near 50° or higher, so I did not give his efforts much of a chance in a late November outing with 40° water. 

  JT prefers Turtle or Colorado blades on his spinnerbaits and says the secret is to slow down the retrieval, so the spinnerbait is just off the bottom. After a few landed, we started discussing Alabama Rigs. In full confession, I often refer to them as cheating, but enjoy the guilty pleasure of throwing them when the bite seems off. Here again, JT suggests using a heavy action rod and baitcaster to manage this massive lure rig. When retrieving the A-Rig, he suggests raising and dropping the tip of the rod as you reel. This yo-yo action adds flash and seems to trigger bites even in the coldest water. 

  So, there you have it– three very different lure techniques to try this December as you head out to your favorite smallmouth destinations. Rest assured though; Part II will cover three angler choices that are more in line with traditional cold water smallmouth lures. 

Author Chris Gorsuch is a licensed charter guide in the state of Pennsylvania. He started the Reel River Adventures guide service in ‘07 and spends 225-250 days on the water annually. His home base is on the Susquehanna River where he operates 20’ jetboats.You can follow his daily fishing reports on Facebook ‘Reel River Adventures-RRA’ & Instagram @Chris_Gorsuch

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