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.
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, hibdonsschooloffishing.com.
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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“Pickwick is real good,” says fishing icon and TV star Bill Dance. “We’re blessed in Tennessee. We’ve got the southernmost smallmouths and the northernmost threadfin shad, which boost their growth. We have a long growing season and excellent water quality. Pickwick offers amazing variety—fast water, shallow patterns, and deep water, all in a lake that doesn’t stratify. Another key is water quality. Many spring-fed creeks feed it.”
Dance recommends mid-January to mid-March. “But for the giants, consider mid-March to mid-April. They get on what I call ‘housekeeping banks.’ You find these banks through trial-and error, but they all have clay, pea gravel, and rock.
“Look for these spots in coves, about one-third to one-half-way out of the creek, close to channel bends where shale, clay, and gravel come together,” he adds. “That’s where I caught my biggest, an 8-pound 3-ounce fish. I was using spinning gear with 8-pound mono and a 1/8-ounce jig. During the last 6 years or so, we’ve had milder winters, often finding 48°F water on the surface. And I always check it 4 feet deep. If I can find 48°F to 50°F water 4 feet down, I know I can whack ‘em on a Smithwick Rogue off channel points.”
Pickwick is seeing an expansion of vegetation. “Agency budgets were cut during recent years and aquatic weed control was one of the projects that was reduced,“ he says. “From an angler’s standpoint, that’s great. Vegetation is one of the finest forms of habitat. When weed control was done regularly, I remember tournaments being won with 5-fish limits of 9 to 12 pounds. After vegetation reclaimed the lakes, it can take 25 to 32 pounds to win.
“In addition to Pickwick, we have Norris, Dale Hollow, Center Hill, Woods Reservoir (where I caught my second biggest smallmouth), and Kentucky Lake.” Bobby Wilson, Chief of Fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, thinks Dale Hollow, site of the all-tackle world-record catch, is the best smallmouth lake in Tennessee right now. “Fishing was tougher there this summer, but our samples show the population is doing fine,” he says. “Sometimes populations are strong but people aren’t catching them. That’s not necessarily a bad sign, since it often means preyfish are abundant.
“Winter fishing was great last year, but anglers had an off spring,” he adds. “Fishing here is typically better in winter than any other time of year. On Dale Hollow, we have a slot limit protecting fish between 16 to 21 inches. Anglers can only keep one over and one under, so release rates are high.”
For Tennessee’s second-best winter smallmouth venue, Wilson chose Norris Lake. “Anglers can keep five on Norris, but they have to be over 18 inches. South Holston Lake would be my third choice.”
“Kentucky Lake has a good smallmouth population and you can catch them all winter,” says Captain Kirk Weber (Captain Kirk’s Guide Service, 270/354-6017). “Right now I think the largemouth population is a little better, but November through January are very good months for smallmouths. I’ve caught my biggest bass in December.”
Winter is time for jerkbaits, homemade hair jigs, and Alabama rigs, Weber says. “Sometimes we use livebait. Some clients are opposed to using live minnows, but that’s okay. We catch plenty on artificials, but as you know, some days you catch more fish with livebait.”
Location is primarily the same for all southern reservoirs: Smallmouths winter near bluff banks half way to two thirds of the way into creek channels, or wherever you find a bend in the channel where maximum depths are 20 to 35 feet. “During winter, smallmouths want to be where shallow and deep water come close together,” Weber says. “They nestle into bends where the creek channel swings up against bluffs. Most fish are caught in 8 to 22 feet.”
He says a typical day is 15 to 25 fish, but you can catch 50 on a great day. “Expect one over 5 pounds and we catch 6-pounders that time of year. The dead of winter can be the best time for lunkers, and smallmouths aren’t much bothered by cold fronts then, either.”
Captain Kirk is beaming them up to the mother ship all winter. Come down and experience a new sort of southern hospitality, smallie-style.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, has written on smallmouth topics for more than two decades.