Winter Smallmouth Hotspots

Yellow pines, sycamores, Spanish moss, and open water beckon. If you’re in the Ice Belt, consider a trip to more southerly waters. That’s where the hottest winter travel options are for smallmouths right now, according to some of the best anglers on the planet. Smallmouth fishing is expanding in new places. We began discussing this explosion over a decade ago and it continues. Several factors are at work. As sight-feeders, smallmouths benefit when waters get clearer, due to anti-pollution efforts as well as zebra and quagga mussels. In many waters, vegetation is increasing, which also tends to enhance clarity. Growing seasons are longer, too. And diseases that set back some largemouth populations have given the upper hand to smallmouths.

Photo: Rick Adair

Ozark Renaissance
Rugged oak groves and stands of hardwoods blanket the rolling Ozark Mountain region, split by dendridic arms of water snaking through the hills. The mountains, hot springs, and wide rivers attract millions of visitors every year.

Smallmouths are another attraction. “They’re the dominant species in some Ozark lakes, right now,” says B.A.S.S. pro, Kevin VanDam. “The largemouth bass virus passed through these lakes 10 years ago, and that’s when the smallie population took off in Table Rock and Bull Shoals reservoirs. Those lakes are the clearest they’ve ever been, which benefits smallmouths as well. They’re most efficient at feeding in clear water. Three years of high water didn’t hurt those lakes, either. Populations at Table Rock and Bull Shoals have boomed. At last year’s Bassmaster Elite tournament on Bull Shoals in April, smallmouths dominated the catch.”

VanDam considers swimming a grub a universal tactic for winter smallmouths in open water. “A 1/4- to 5/16-ounce ballhead jig with a curl-tail grub like Strike King’s Rage Tail catches smallmouths everywhere,” he says. “I use 10-pound braid or 6-pound fluorocarbon. In the clearest conditions, I tie fluoro leaders to braid. In most southern waters, smoke or bluegill colors dominate.

“Count it down to where the shad are and start a slow, steady retrieve. It’s efficient for covering mid-depth zones. Sometimes I let it fall to the bottom and slowly work it back. I graph points and look for shad. If they’re 15 feet down, count your grub down into that zone.”

Why else might VanDam visit the Ozarks? “The trout fishery in the White River below Bull Shoals should be on everybody’s bucket list,” he says. “I tried it last year and it’s incredible.”

The bass sage of the Ozarks is bass pro, guide, and lure designer Guido Hibdon. “Smallmouth fishing is great on Bull Shoals, but Table Rock, from Highway 13 downstream has the big ones,” he says. “They’ve caught a few 6-pounders recently. It always had a few big smallmouths, but you seldom caught one. You’d think that increasing pressure would make fishing tougher, but it’s doing the opposite. Anglers are releasing more bass than ever, and tournaments are taking better care of fish. Anglers are getting smarter, too. Drop-shotting and finesse techniques have caught on, with great success.”

In winter, Hibdon likes a ballhead jig with a tube. “A football jig with a twin-tail is another good choice. Crawfish colors are best,” he adds. “Most fish are in the creek arms, where the channel cuts in close to shore. It doesn’t matter how cold it gets, you can always catch smallmouths in winter here.” Contact Hibdon at 573/230-3065,

Oklahoma Arrives
In the past, the national discussion on smallmouth bass generally bypassed Oklahoma. “Lake Tenkiller is dynamite for big smallies right now,” VanDam reports. “It’s in eastern Oklahoma, part of that Ozark region that’s hot right now.”

Speaking of hot, bass pro Jason Christie of Oklahoma has been chalking up wins and high finishes on several top-level tours. “I live on Tenkiller,” he says. “I’d put it up against any fishery in the South. Lake Eufaula has big ones but not numbers. Tenkiller has both.

“It’s not a trophy largemouth lake,” he adds, “but it offers excellent fishing for both species. Prior to the ‘90s, if you caught a smallmouth on Tenkiller it was an accident. Now I target them a lot in winter. No matter how bad the weather is, you’re going to catch fish. In fact, the colder and nastier the day, the better the fishing. We see a lot of license plates from Missouri and Arkansas during winter now, and it’s common to see a 22–pound five-fish limit in a tournament. Last winter we had a 28-pound bag here. Two years ago, my daughter caught a 7-pound 4-ounce smallmouth on Tenkiller that would have broken the state record, but we let her go.”

Mitch Looper, lure designer and promotional expert for PRADCO, also relishes Tenkiller’s smallies. “You often see water above 50°F water in January, and you can catch bass on windy points with crankbaits,” he says. “Tube baits on bluff points take fish under any conditions.”

According to Christie, it’s not unusual to catch 60 to 70 fish in a day from late fall through April. “And 20 of those may top 4 pounds,” he says. “There’s no wrong way to go about it. Jerkbaits like Smithwick’s Suspending Rogues or swimming grubs take fish every day, but the biggest ones are caught cranking bluff banks at 8 to 10 feet. A Bomber 6A or a 10A are two of the best.”

Looper finds big ones deeper. “The deepest I’ve caught one over 4 pounds was 35 feet,” he says. “They feed where the creek channel turns away from a bluff and heads back into the middle of a creek arm. Key spots are the base of the drop, at transitions from rock to gravel, where the creek channel hits a bluff bank. And look for areas where your sonar can’t read bottom because of all the shad. Also check main lake spots, along sharp drops on bends in the main river channel.”


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