Winter Smallmouth Bass Parade
July 22, 2015
Change is palpable at the onset of autumn. Colors pop and animals move. Song birds and noisy formations of geese point south. Monarch butterflies from Michigan arrive in Mexico. Dense clouds of bats follow the Mississippi toward the Gulf.
All living things respond to seasonal changes, and the onset of winter is the harshest change of all. Smallmouths can't fly south. They ensure survival through refuge. In some cases, the survivable world within their lake or river condenses from hundreds of square miles to a few thousand square feet.
Smallmouths are extremely adaptive. Their movements through fall, their relationships to structure and prey, and the winter sites they choose form a complex tapestry that changes color in every corner of the continent, yet some aspects of their behavior remain similar at all points of the compass. Summer ends, for them, when waters begin to cool. It happens in August at the northern end of their range, but not until October in Tennessee. Cold water narrows the inhabitable world of warmwater fish. They seek the warmest possible water and they seek stability. Where waters freeze, the warmest water is found near bottom and registers 39°F. Understanding the nature of water leads to a better understanding of what lives in it. Understanding the physical needs of those aquatic species leads to better fishing.
Dr. Mark Ridgeway's studies on smallmouth bass in eastern and central Canada reveal that a smallmouth movement away from classic summer habitat begins, each year, within a week to 10 days of the autumnal equinox in September. This suggests that day length, not water temperature or conditions, triggers fall movements.
Conditions play a role in determining urgency and daily activities. Smallmouth migrations don't proceed like clockwork. Conditions nudge them along. When the weather is stable and unseasonably warm in October, that hot bite you expected to find might not be there. Smallmouths stay where they are and feed randomly. A cold front is like a swift kick in the anal fin, driving them to move and feed. Common, these days, to find smallmouths lingering longer in summer haunts.
But it wasn't always so, according to In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer. "In the 'old days,' which were only a decade ago, smallmouths were more predictable," he says. "Fall location and strong fall patterns began between mid- and late September every year as fish began to group in predictable spots. Now we find September smallmouths scattered with some lingering in late summer positions, some in 'normal' fall positions and others somewhere between."
Climate changes seem less dramatic in southern states, where anglers may experience the same movements at the same time of year — especially since southern smallmouths tend to spend late summer at the same depths they use in winter (30 to 50 feet). If fall movements are triggered by day length in the South, it happens well after the equinox. In Alabama's Pickwick Reservoir, smallmouths may not move from summer sites before late October. Even in the North, where smallmouth fishing in fall may not follow the same progression it once did, they still end up in the same places. Wintering habitats for smallmouths are like elephant burial grounds. They never forget.
One pattern seems precisely the same in all environments, coast-to-coast and north to south. When surface temperatures drop below 60°F, smallmouth activity increases. Migrations begin and winter smallmouths feed heavily. Not all do the same things. Some suspend, some migrate, some remain on structures they used all summer — but they all increase activity and tend to respond positively to aggressive tactics if the water continues to cool. If things stabilize, weather is inclemently warm, and water temperatures actually increase, smallmouth fishing can become problematic.
As the water cools to the low-40°F range, smallmouths tend to hug bottom, concentrate in smaller areas, and gather heaviest in transition areas between hard and soft substrates directly adjacent to or within ancestral wintering sites. Distances smallmouths travel, depths they frequent, and behavior they exhibit along the way between summer and winter depend largely on the waterway itself (lake, river, or reservoir), forage types available, and latitude.
Talking to smallmouth anglers continent-wide reveals that certain dynamics surrounding fall smallmouth movements are constant. Water temperature, while not the cause of movements or seasonal adaptations, acts as a pretty good barometer for establishing where smallmouths are and what they're doing everywhere we go.
Fall conditions are first encountered in northern states. Water temperatures begin to cool in August on the northern edge of the smallmouth's natural range. "Ontario Ministry of Natural Resource's Dr. Mark Ridgeway has done extensive research and radio tracking on this subject," Pyzer says. "According to Ridgeway, the trigger for fall movement is the length of days dwindling to a certain point. Fish have a light-sensitive structure in their brains called the pineal gland that secretes melatonin and likely plays a major role in the timing of the various seasonal movements of bass. He discovered that smallmouths start their fall movements one week after the fall equinox. And it appears to begin at this same time right across the northern range, regardless of latitude, water temperature, moon phase, or anything else. Even in the same lake, the water temperature can vary significantly from one year to the next, yet the fall movements were occurring like clockwork around the fall equinox."
As many researchers and anglers have noted, migrations begin as water temperatures drop to about 60°F. Binge feeding occurs from that point down to 50°F. Movements of baitfish are key directional indicators everywhere. At all points of the compass, reservoir smallmouths follow baitfish into creek arms as surface temperatures reach 60°F. In natural lakes with pelagic baitfish such as alewives, smelt, shad, or ciscoes, smallmouths often suspend during this period. As water temperatures reach about 48°F, most of the population will be near or associated with wintering habitat. When the water cools into the low-40°F range, all smallmouths everywhere tend to be pinned to structure.
Southern smallmouths live in reservoirs, rivers, and creeks. Most of the creeks they inhabit are connected to larger rivers or reservoirs. In some cases, smallmouths stay in creeks all winter long, pointing out the importance of latitude. Where the climate is warm enough, smallmouths don't require the stability of deep water for ultimate survival.
Which does not mean they don't seek it. The classic locational pattern in hill-land reservoirs seems the same throughout the South. Over the years, testimony from such notables as Billy Westmoreland, Bill Dance, Tony Bean, Fred McClintock, and Steve Hacker drew this picture: Smallmouths spend late summer near the mouth of major creek arms and main-lake points in depths of 40 to 50 feet. As the water begins to cool below 60°F in fall, baitfish are drawn into the creek arms and smallmouths follow. Smallmouths generally locate closer to the back end of the creek arm than to the mouth, and spend the winter in depths of 30 to 50 feet where 45-degree banks drop directly into the creek channel in those depths.
Fred McClintock formerly guided for smallmouth bass on Dale Hollow in Tennessee, a calling that spanned three decades. "The only major change I've ever seen in the typical fall scenario involved the introduction of alewives about 30 years ago," he says. "Before that, bass were easier to catch and stayed closer to 30-foot depths all winter. Alewives move deeper during the day than shad through the winter. This made winter fishing much tougher. It takes a lot more patience to fish jigs and spoons another 20 feet deeper.
"Bass spend the summer on primary points and main-lake structures 40 to 50 feet down," McClintock says. "Shad and alewives begin moving up into the creek arms when the water begins to cool off in October and smallmouths follow. Every year, shad die off in December, bringing smallmouths up top briefly. Otherwise, I fish 50 feet deep for them from late October until spring."
East to West
Terry Battisti, avid smallmouth angler on waters in Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and Utah, confirms that smallmouths are smallmouths everywhere. "It's a coupling of factors," he says. "As days start getting noticeably shorter, smallmouths move. But the drop in water temperature drives the foraging binge. The last 3 years I've gone to Erie, I've seen similar phenomena. That 10-degree drop in water temp can happen in 10 days or less, and smallmouths go nuts. Out here, they come to the banks and feed like no tomorrow. The binge happens as waters cool from 60°F to 50°F every year.
"In summer, they're fairly deep on main-lake structures and primary points. When the temperature drops, they move right to the banks and secondary points, and begin to follow forage fish into the creek arms. They don't go way back, but they might go 5 miles up a creek arm 10 miles long. On Lake Powell it's shad, and they might follow them to the very back of the arm. Farther north the main forage is shiners, chubs, and crawdads.
"But as soon as it starts getting cold, smallmouths head back to the main lake," Battisti says. "They move back to the primary points on the main lake just as ice starts fringing the shorelines. They winter 35 to 80 feet down, feeding on ledges and shelves because they have no deep flats."
Here we see the same dynamics displayed in southern reservoirs with a surprising reversal: Smallmouths leave the creek arms to winter in the main lake. Differences like that are almost always driven by differences in the habits of baitfish. Know the water, know the invertebrates, know the baitfish, and you know your target.
Throughout the Northeast, expect smallmouths to move and behave like those in the North. In North and South Carolina, expect them to react to fall change as they do in the South. Smallies start gorging as the water hits 60°F and hold near wintering areas in main-lake basins as water temperatures descend to about 48°F. Smallmouths suspend on bait in those basins wherever pelagic baitfish are present, relating loosely to deep off-shore humps and steep sides of mid-lake rock structures. Gobies (pinned to bottom by their lack of an air bladder) are changing this tendency for smallmouths to suspend during mid fall in many areas of the Great Lakes.
As the water dips below 48°F, the majority of the smallmouth population relates to wintering areas and is still active at midday. Once water temps plummet to the mid 40s, smallies condense into smaller, isolated portions of the lake or reservoir. In most of the country, bank on those perimeter temperatures as a basic guideline through fall. Weather is a main factor, as multiple fronts and cooler air temperatures can trigger earlier migrations. When warm or hot weather won't go away, expect smallmouths to linger in summer patterns.
In a study of seasonal migration of smallmouth bass in the Embarrass and Wolf rivers in Wisconsin by Ross Langhurst and Dean Schenike of the Wisconsin DNR, smallmouth migrations began as water temperature fell to 16°C (61°F) in autumn. This tracking study is famous for proving smallmouths move over 70 miles from summer to fall habitats in that system.
Most migrations are much shorter. Throughout the country, smallmouths tend to leave summer areas in rivers to find deeper, more stable habitat for winter. In some cases they migrate upstream to a plunge pool beneath a dam. Sometimes they migrate downstream to a reservoir above a dam. In other cases they migrate up creeks into lakes or downstream into larger rivers with deeper pools. Common characteristics found in the average wintering spot are: reduced current; ample supplies of crayfish or forage fish; depths of 20-plus feet; protection from north winds; and rocky substrates or transitions from a harder bottom to a softer one.
River smallmouths can be relatively easy or damnably complicated to follow in fall. But they're easy to find again because they chew. Crankbaits, topwaters, plastics, bait — what do you want to work with? If they don't bite, you're probably not on 'em.
In Minnesota, tracking studies on the Mississippi River proved that smallmouths move an average of 12 to 20 miles between summer and fall habitats. Anglers attest that movements begin as waters cool to about 60°F and between that point and temperatures dropping to 50°F the fishing is exceptional, strikes are aggressive, and crankbaits are in order. Smallmouths use the path of least resistance when moving upstream, migrating along the inside of bends and utilizing current breaks like fallen trees and wing dams. They collect on those features, some of which vary year-to-year. Smallmouths moving downstream collect on the best foraging sites, as they are not concerned about fighting current. High- and low-water conditions greatly affect timing and location during migrations.
Renaud Pelletier is a renowned smallmouth angler on the Columbia River where it borders Oregon and Washington. "We fish for smallmouths into November," he says. "When water temperatures drop to 40°F, smallmouths become almost impossible to catch." (The same is true on the Mississippi River, but not on surrounding lakes and reservoirs, where they may bite all winter.) "In early October, smallmouths are aggressive as they feed up for winter. We find them along shallower current breaks of hard rock in 5- to 10-foot depths, using crankbaits, swimbaits, tubes, and jigs. These areas tend to be adjacent to deeper current summer holding spots of 10 to 25 feet.
"By late October, smallmouths have moved to deeper areas in the main river, but not back to summer spots. These areas are 20 to 40 feet deep and out of the main current. In the Columbia, this kind of water is found in big eddy areas around major current breaks like islands, bluffs, and solid rock formations," he says.
The more environments vary, the more similar smallmouths seem to be. Physiological requirements for species don't change much from region-to-region. What changes most are the primary sources of food. The more an angler knows about what smallmouths prey upon in the systems they fish, the more successful they are during the period of rapid change we call autumn. Knowing which baitfish are abundant, what they eat, when they spawn, where they spawn, and how they orient to structure is half the game in fall.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw lives in Brainerd, Minnesota, and has been writing for In-Fisherman publications for two decades.