Nothing kindles my fire like cold water smallmouth fishing. Over the decades however, I have learned that one man’s cold water can mean something completely different depending on your geography. Cold water smallmouth as I define it is when the morning water temp is well into the middle 30’s and may or may not reach the upper 30-degree mark by the end of the day. When I explain that to some anglers, I get the deer in the headlights look. Their cold-water mark is a good 10 degrees or so warmer than my definition.
During the last 20 years, I have fished for smallmouth during that cold water window on a dozen different rivers in six states. I am by no means an expert; along the way I have picked up some solid insight and I can spot locations on new water fairly quickly. I have also been able to put some of my favorite techniques and lures to the test on these new areas.
Generally speaking, cold water arrives sometime in December and holds true through early to mid-March. Depending on the year, the month of December can look and feel completely different at the start than it is by mid-month. The key is when that first real cold blast of winter hits. That first big drop in water temperature can make catching tricky. But this drop in water temperature from this point on will keep the water at or below 39 degrees for the next 6 to 10 weeks. Believe me when I say, smallmouth will adjust and remain active during this time period.
During the winter months, discussions on fishing boards, at the counter of your favorite tackle shop or on any social media platform generally cover the tools, tricks and best lures for targeting smallmouth during this time. Everything from lure types and profiles along with specific areas to target bass based on current flow, depth and bottom composition will be covered. Anglers will share, debate and even argue their ideas and experiences. That old saying, “the proof is in the pudding” has never been more true. Here, an hour of applying these techniques on the water is worth days of discussions behind the keyboard.
One cold December morning a few years back, I hosted Stan Brooks (owner of Fitt Premium Lures) and his favorite fishing partner Ken Sutch. I have known this duo for over a decade and while we never fished together this late into the year, I knew that cold weather fishing was right up their alley. The overnight snow, while unexpected, added to the feel of this cloudy, cold late December day.
We had our own favorite lures but decided to try outside our comfort zone to see what other profiles would work as well. Our rule for the day was no tubes and no hair jigs, so Stan brought an ample supply of Chillee Willees, Undulators, Baby Predator Craws and the G&W Crinkle Worm. While we all had our favorites, I can say that each produced bass on a very frigid day. Perhaps the most surprising profile and lure choice to me was the Predator Craw. While I fish this profile a great deal, I never considered it a top 5 profile for the time of year. Early and often, Ken put my worries to bed on this late December outing. It was a great light-bulb moment for me. Frankly, I did not think it would produce in the low temperatures as it did.
This lure is very similar to an Erie Darter, a lure many of you are probably familiar with. The Chillee Willee is much smaller in length, but the body is thicker. The added thickness helps hold the bait to the jig hook without bunching up the lure. Another big difference is that the paddle tail is shorter, tapered rather than flat. It is also held to the body of the bait with less material than the Erie Darter. This allows the tail to move more freely and with less effort than the larger profiled darter. Fitt Lures makes a Stand-Up Football jig specifically for this application, but the Ned Head works as well on this lure. Bottom line here on this lure, fish it like a tube. Lake or river, the Chillee Willee gets their attention and t iis my go to jig in the winter.
With a very similar body as the Chillee Willee, the Undulator has a long leech-like tail. It is thin and ribbed and nearly identical as it closely resembles the tail of the leech. Overall, the Undulator is to of an inch longer that the Chillee Willee. In the water during early tank tests, the tail undulated slowly. This motion gave the lure its name. The tail on this lure moves with little to no effort making it Stan’s first choice when cold water jigging. While I prefer to fish this lure almost dead stick, Stan likes to twitch the rod tip every few seconds, slowly hopping the Undulator along the bottom. His method and this profile works! Stan landed quite a few big smallmouth on it.
Baby Predator Craw
This lure comes in three different sizes with the “Baby” being in the middle. While about equal in length to the Undulator, the Baby Predator Craw was the largest profile in our group of lures on this day. The claws are thin, which makes them perfect for slow, cold water presentations. In the water on the Stand-Up Football jig, the claws move slowly up and down as the body remains motionless, perhaps this is what triggered so many strikes for Ken. During the warm water season, I prefer to rig the Baby Predator on a Fitt Weedless Flutter Head jig. With the Flutter Head, I can move the bait quickly along the bottom, stopping here and there before moving it through the rocks.
G&W Crinkle Worm
The origin of this simple worm goes back two decades when I was fishing one of the coldest open water years I can recall. Bass were triggering on ultra-small profiles that were fished at a snail’s pace. After such outing, I spent the evening making clay worms that were about 3” long, with a crinkle body just thick enough to hold a jig, then taper to a smaller diameter tail with a small flat paddle at the end. Crinkle cuts were fashioned into the worm to allow motion while the jig sat still on the bottom. This crude flat pour worm was incredibly productive. When Fitt (formerly known as Winco Lures) approached me about making a CNC injection mold I was flattered, and the G&W Crinkle Worm was created. Rigged on either the Stand-Up Football or Ned jig, this is a killer bait when that bite shuts down on those tough days.
Oh, and as for the outing. A great deal of knowledge and bass were gathered that day. Profiles like the Predator Craw, proved to be an effective option during the winter months when worked slow. The Undulator held its own against my two favorites, the Chillee Willee and G&W Crinkle Worm.
Open water fishing during the winter is not for everyone, but should you find yourself on the water this December or January, give small profile jigs a try. Remember to slow everything down to a fraction of the movement used during the warm water season and be careful. Catching bass in the winter is addictive. Find success and you may never hang the fishing gear up for the season.
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. Chasing smallmouth is his specialty, however he enjoys catching walleye and other freshwater gamefish on the upper North Branch. He has written 100’s of articles. You can follow his daily fishing reports on Facebook ‘Reel River Adventures-RRA’ & Instagram @Chris_Gorsuch