The Smallmouth King: Winter Smallmouth

by Chris Gorsuch

I’ve been drawn to river smallmouth like iron to a magnet. The pull to be on the water, chasing them daily is surely written in my DNA. Those who know me well, have long stopped asking why and now accept it. Hot or cold, rain or shine, the boat is on the water over 250 days a year.

For more than half of those 40 or so years, the winter months were always the toughest to get through. Once the river water temperatures dropped firmly into the 30’s, my boat was winterized and set aside until mid-March. As cabin fever set in, I would do my best to cure it with other outdoor activities. Hunting big game surely helped. However even with all the success and harvests over the years, I found myself asking this question; “When is it too cold to target smallmouth bass in these eastern rivers?”

That first year and every year since, the practice of winterizing the boat and putting the finishing equipment away once the water temps fell into the 30’s, came to a halt. And for clarity’s sake, cold water fishing for this article is when the river temperature is 38 degrees and lower. This needs to be stated as to some, the cold-water mark is in the 40’s. From one river angler to another, there is a world of difference between 35- and 45-degree water.

My early success while targeting smallmouth in cold water varied, however the lessons learned without the winter hiatus were priceless. The more time spent in these less-than-ideal cold-water conditions, the more knowledge and success was gained. A better understanding of their seasonal movement and their feeding patterns was eye-opening. So how cold is too cold? To be  100% honest, if ice is not preventing anglers access to the river, smallmouth can be caught in any water temperature. There are, however, advantages to selecting the mildest winter weather days of any given week when targeting bass.  More on that later.

Targeting bass December through early March will require anglers to make some conscious changes to their approach. One of the first objectives is to dress accordingly. It is near impossible to concentrate, let alone enjoy the fishing if you are cold. One could write an entire article on how to dress in the winter, but for this piece let us keep it simple.

Dress in three main layers. A base layer with moisture wicking attributes is first. Stay away from cotton and select a poly blend base layer designed to keep moisture away from your body. Middle layer is the insulating / warming layer. For my grandfather it was wool, for me it is fleece. Fleece is lighter, less expensive and like the base layer it works to wick moisture away from the body. The third and final layer is the outer shell. It is designed to battle the elements. Most prefer insulated outerwear, but the main goal is to keep the elements out. Wind, rain and even snow on some occasions.

While it may sound odd and a bit cliché, once your body is ready for the cold, the next step is mental. To have success fishing cold water, anglers must learn to slow down.  Being cold blooded, bass move slower in 36-degree water than they do in 46-degree water. Their reaction time is slower, and their range is smaller. Anglers must learn to pick areas apart and leave enough time for the bass to react. Slowing down a presentation sounds much easier than it is. A good friend once gave this advice; “When you think you are moving the lure slow enough… slow it down some more!” While funny, there is a lot of truth there.  

One approach to winter angling is that less is more. It is easy to understand why. During the winter, bass are generally relegated to the bottom few feet of the river. Surface activity is extremely rare, and anglers will find that 99% of the strikes will come close to the bottom. Knowing that the bass are staged near the bottom and their reaction time is slowed due to the icy water temperatures, anglers can eliminate a portion of their tackle that utilizes the upper half of the water column. Here are some lures I’ve found catch most of my winter smallies.

In cold clear water, micro jigs just seem to work better than larger soft plastics. The Chillee Willee and G&W Crinkle Worm from Fitt Premium Lures are among my all-time favorites. Rigged on a 3/32 or 5/32oz Midwest jig, the paddle tails on these two Fitt Lures move like no other. The tail reacts to the slightest rod twitch and triggers strikes. As a general rule, select the lightest jig weight for the conditions. Wind and depth can often dictate how heavy the jig needs to be. Work light and move to heavier jigs as needed.  The lighter the jig, the easier it is to feel the fish pick it up.

Adding to the list of micro jigs, most any Ned type lure is a solid choice for targeting winter smallmouth. I would add that sub 3 inch creature baits and Teaser Tubes need to be considered as part of the cold water arsenal. The key is to fish these micro jigs slowly. Make bottom contact, and slowly lift the rod tip just enough to allow the jig to move inches at a time. In cold water it is more of a drag, than a hop as you would use in warmer water.

No cold water smallmouth article is complete without mention of the tried and true hair jig. Deer, bear, fox, rabbit, marabou or synthetic, it is dealer’s choice. Arguments for why one is better than the other could fill pages. Each have their place and the only argument worth debating is that hair needs to be in your tackle bag for cold water.

Tipping the hair jig is one trick most anglers use. Tipping is simply adding a soft plastic tail to the hair. Once again, Fitt Lures offer hair jigs, and a tiny jig trailer called a Willee Wannabe. This miniature version of the Chillee Willee is the perfect size.

Working hair properly can be a lesson in patience. They tend to be quite a bit more sticky on rocky bottoms than Ned rigs. The advantage with hair, however, is that the strike tends to be more deliberate. With soft plastics, the bite will often feel mushy or just weight. With the hair, the angler will feel a “tick” when the bass picks up the hair. That “tick” from a hair jig can be addicting.

With any luck, Targeting Winter Smallmouth Part I has been a teaser for some of you smallmouth anglers who have been thinking about giving open water fishing a try this winter. In next month’s issue, Targeting Winter Smallmouth Part II, we will add more winter lures and presentations, along with how to locate and fish wintering areas on your home river.

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

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