Theory has it that wintering sites are selected for protection against environmental extremes. The depth guarantees smallmouths that their winter home remains viable in extreme high or low water conditions, so they won’t be forced to move again through miles of frigid water to find a new site. The farther north we travel, the more it seems that smallmouths select sites that (1) are protected from north winds; and (2) have open exposure to the southern sky.
Tracking studies reveal that some northern smallmouths become quiescent during winter in streams, almost to the point of hibernation. In some rivers, smallmouths remain highly active. One radio tracking study on Michigan’s Huron River revealed that in winter, smallmouths often held on middepth flats and never used woodcover during winter, preferring the sun on their backs. These fish moved around quite a bit and seemed to feed on a regular basis.
In systems that don’t freeze during winter, active smallmouths tend to rise up and feed in shallower water — usually between 2 and 10 feet deep. Rock bars, gravel points, boulder fields, and shallow flats immediately adjacent to a wintering hole become activity sites. In high water, smallmouths will be on these same spots where they extend up onto the flood plain. The closer to shore, the slower the current becomes. In high, cold water, slack areas become key.
“Deep” is relative to latitude. “In Virginia and east Tennessee, ‘deep’ water in smallmouth rivers can vary from 5 feet to over 10 feet,” West says. “Just find the deepest water and scout the entire vicinity around it. Some great smallmouth rivers have long stretches of nothing but shallow water. Smallmouth will travel as far as it takes, sometimes miles, to find water deep enough to satisfy their comfort and safety zones. And they remain in these areas for weeks (up north, make that months).
“In winter, deep holes near a shoal or falls are perfect trophy smallmouth areas. In high, muddy water, concentrate on eddies formed by islands that end abruptly. Those ending in a gradual slope are usually too shallow and too swift to be comfortable for larger bass. The holding area for smallies at the ends of these islands is much smaller underwater than they appear to be on the surface. Islands that end abruptly form the bigger, deeper, and slower holding areas trophy bass prefer. They remain in areas like these until river conditions return to normal.
“Drop your anchors just outside the eddy. An anchor on each end of the boat makes river fishing in this setting much easier and more enjoyable. Fancast into and across the eddy. Work the entire area. Then reanchor and repeat the process over and over…and over again. When you think the retrieve is too slow, slow down some more, and you might be close to working the lure slowly enough. When you begin to think there just aren’t any fish there, cast again. Trophy smallies will be there because they wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere else. They may not be active now, but they will be at some point.”
David Fritz, former BASS Angler of The Year and Classic winner, says, “Cut up a piece of structure like slicing up a pie, coming at it from all angles.” Never is this so important as it is in cold water. From late fall through early spring, big smallmouths can watch a tube or hair jig pass by 20 times within a few feet of them without moving, then lunch the bait on the 21st cast.
River smallmouths like vertical breaks, so they can “ride the elevator” straight up from resting sites to feeding zones. They often feed right on the lip of these breaks, where it drops from 2 or 6 feet down to 10 or 20. It seems redundant and absurd, but keep casting over and over to this lip, making the occasional toss deeper or shallower. In winter, it’s possible to eventually hook double-digit numbers of smallmouths from the same spot — a spot no larger than a hubcap sometimes.
“Keep in mind that smallmouth bass are fragile when taken from extremely cold water,” West cautions. “They become exhausted quickly and are prone to going into shock. They sometimes need a bit more TLC in order to send them on their way to live and fight another day.
“Catching smallies from muddy water in spring requires the same patience and focus as catching smallies in winter. But it can be consistently accomplished. River smallmouth fishermen can actually be a lot more creative in muddy, high-water conditions than during frigid winter conditions. As the muddy water rises, river smallies move to the nearest available ‘comfort zones,’ which are the smaller eddies and small grass beds along the bank. They also gather at the mouths of small feeder creeks, if they find eddies there.
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