Cold-water smallmouth bass
December 18, 2011
We have been asked by a number anglers who read our blogs how we catch smallmouth bass during the winter in the flatland reservoirs across northeastern Kansas.
Straightaway, we must confess that we have stopped pursuing smallmouth bass in the winter. The winter of 2009-10 was the last time we seriously pursued them. The primary reason for that is the pesky and often brisk winter winds that regularly buffet northeastern Kansas make every outing on our two best smallmouth lakes -- Melvern Lake and Coffey County Lake -- an uncomfortable undertaking. And now that we have achieved a bit of the wisdom that naturally occurs as one fishes well into his eighth decade on this earth we have determined that it wiser to focus on largemouth bass, which often abide in shallow water and in areas that are sheltered from the wind. Moreover, wintertime largemouth bass are normally easier to catch than wintertime smallmouth bass even on the calmest and balmiest winter days.
On every outing of the year, it's our desire and mission to catch vast numbers of bass. In winters past, we struggled on the best and most pleasant of days to catch seven smallmouth bass an hour, and in our minds that is not a fruitful outing.
In sum, those are a few of the reasons why we don't chase wintertime smallmouth bass nowadays.
Several years ago, however, we wrote an article that was printed in "In-Fisherman" magazine, and it described the way we used to catch cold-water smallmouth bass at Coffey County Lake. So to answer the questions of the readers and anglers who want to know how we catch or used to catch cold-water smallmouth, we decided to post an encore edition of that story in today's blog.
Before we get to that story we need to address one question that is not adequately addressed in the article. Several folks asked if we used the float-and-fly rig when we pursued smallmouth bass in the winter. The answer is no. But since we have stopped fishing for wintertime smallmouth bass, several anglers we know have been using it at Table Rock Lake. Instead of using the traditional jig that anglers in Tennessee use with the float-and-fly rig, these anglers are using a jig that the late Leroy Spellman of Mt. Vernon, Missouri, used to make. We call it a Leroy's, and, as you will read below, it was the one that we used for our wintertime pursuits of smallmouth bass at Coffey in years past. We used a 1/32-ounce and 1/16-ounce Leroy's, and our favorite color was a silver one. If we ever decide to pursue wintertime smallmouth bass again, we will experiment with the float and Leroy's.
Below is the encore edition of how we used to fish for wintertime snallmouth bass:
Cold-Water Smallmouth Bass at Hot-Water Reservoirs
All across the nation, scores of anglers spend their winters plying the tepid waters that flow from electric power plants.
For example, wintertime anglers along the northern reaches of the Midwest venture to the Hot Pond atLakePokegamanearGrand Rapids,Minnesota, to catch bass, northern pike, panfish and an occasional muskie. Likewise, around the warm-water effluence from a power plant on the Mississippi River nearMonticello,Minnesota, anglers pursue smallmouth bass and walleye. And the heated waters of Nelson Lake, North Dakota, yield scores of crappie and a number of good-sized largemouth bass during the dead of winter. Even as far south asTexas, anglers spend many winter days afloat atLakeMonticelloand other waters warmed by electric-power plants.
This piscatorial phenomenon even stretches toCalifornia, as well as alongFlorida's coastline, where saltwater anglers occasionally partake in the warm-water bounties.
In the geographical center of the nation, some northeasternKansasanglers spend their winter days pursuing their favorite quarries at La Cygne Lake andCoffeyCountyLake.
La Cygne is a 2,600-acre cooling reservoir for the Kansas City Power and Light Company's coal-burning generating plant, and it is situated in Linn County, about 40 miles south of Kansas City. Coffey's 5,090 acres lies about two miles north ofBurlington,Kansas, and it cools the generators at the Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant.
Both are flatland reservoirs that are bedecked with many miles of riprap jetties and shorelines. Besides the riprap, there are submerged humps, roadbeds, bridges, rock piles, manmade reefs, farm pond dams, stumps, brush piles, and an assortment of aquatic vegetation.
Anglers who have never ventured to Coffey and La Cygne need to be warned that much of the shoreline is an eyesore and boring to fish, and the noise pollution is distracting.
For decades, countless numbers of well-informed easternKansasanglers possessed the mistaken notion that the best lairs to ply for black and temperate basses at these two reservoirs during the winter resided within the plume of the warm water that the power plants created.
But several winters ago, a loose cadre of anglers began probing a variety of cold-water lairs at La Cygne and Coffey, and to their delight, these cold-water areas yielded a surprising number of largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, white bass and wipers. In fact, the cold-water areas often proved to be better than the warm-water ones — especially on those days when the lakes were crowded with anglers who were wedded to the notion that most of the catchable fish resided in the warm water.
What's more, the size of the black bass that anglers normally catch in the coldwater at Coffey are bigger and healthier looking than the ones they catch in the warm water. According to Leonard Jirak, a fisheries biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks who helps manage Coffey's denizens, the reason for this phenomenon, is that the shad population at Coffey is small. He notes that it is the intentions of the Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation to minimize the shad population in order to keep them from clogging the power plant's cool-water-intake screen. Jirak concludes: "Since there are no surplus of forage-size shad '¦, the fish have an increased metabolism in the hot water without any way to feed it. So as a matter of retaining their mass they are better off in the cold water."
Because Coffey's winter shad population is so minuscule, its black bass forage primarily on invertebrates such as crayfish and immature aquatic insects, and when the black bass turn piscivorous, they feed upon bluegill and sunfish. During the winter when the surface temperature hovers around 40 degrees, nearly one out of five cold-water smallmouth bass that anglers catch will have crayfish antennas protruding from their gullets. But cold-water anglers seldom find a sunfish or shad tail jutting out of a smallmouth bass' stomach.
At Coffey, there is more cold water than warm water for anglers to ply during the winter. Within the confines of the cold water lie the reservoir's deepest water and finest smallmouth bass lairs, which are situated in the lower portions of the lake.
Coffey's average depth is 21 feet. Its deepest spot plunges into about 90 feet of water.
There are a number of offshore humps, points and drop offs, where Coffey's smallmouth bass might gather, but it's a rare winter day that the wind allows anglers to deftly probe such haunts.
Moreover, because Coffey's smallmouth bass spend most of their days subsisting upon small invertebrates, anglers have determined that in order to elicit a goodly number of strikes that it's imperative to fish with small and lightweight lures and to retrieve them slowly and precisely. But since 1996 when Coffey was first opened to angling, the virtually incessant winter winds have prevented anglers from perfecting their finesse tactics at the smallmouth bass' offshore haunts.
The wind, in fact, is often an angler's greatest nemesis at Coffey.
If a north wind reaches 20 mph, anglers aren't allowed to be afloat, and when a 25 mph wind angles from the south, anglers are prohibited from being on the lake. From the experience of someKansasanglers, Coffey's wind and waves almost rivals the rollers and white caps that regularly bedevil the anglers who ply theGreat Lakes.
Because the wind makes fishing so difficult at Coffey, most anglers wisely avoid it. Nevertheless, the many obstacles created by the wind make Coffey an excellent case study for In-Fisherman readers to ponder and eventually to use at more tranquil and productive venues.
Coffey is bedecked with miles and miles of riprap, and significant portions of the riprap quickly extend into 20 and 30 feet of water and provide some deep-water coverts for the smallmouth bass to frequent. The rather deep and steep sections of riprap are similar to rock slides that occur along the bluffy shorelines of the reservoirs in the Ozarks. Some areas of the riprap are also graced with shallow-water ledges that plummet into deep water.
During the winter, anglers can occasionally hide from the wind along certain sections of riprap, where they can use small lures and finesse tactics to plumb a variety of depths.
When Coffey's smallmouth bass are feeding tentatively, anglers have found that employing a 1/16-ounce marabou jig in a grayish-silver hue elicits more strikes than any other lure. Besides a grayish-silver jig, anglers also use a black one and an olive one, and when anglers rework an area that was productive with the grayish-silver jig, they often find it's profitable to use the black and olive models on the second and third passages. In the eyes of the anglers, these jigs are as near as bass anglers can get to replicating the size of the small invertebrates that the smallmouth bass often forage upon.
Initially many anglers are reluctant to employ a 1/16-ounce jig, saying that it is too tedious of an endeavor to cast and retrieve such a light jig into 15 to 18 feet of water. But when these anglers attempt to cast and retrieve a heavier jig, it quickly become snagged in the crevices between the big boulders and rocks that form the riprap, and after enduring the constant frustrations with becoming incessantly snagged in the crevices of the riprap, these anglers soon discover the manifold virtues of wielding a lightweight jig . In fact, when the wintertime smallmouth bass periodically gambol about in areas shallower than 10 feet of water, a 1/32-ounce marabou jig is frequently a better option than the 1/16-ouncer.
There is some debate among anglers about what it the best length and action of a spinning rod for properly casting and retrieving a 1/16- and 1/32-ounce jig. For instance, Gord Pyzer, In-Fisherman field editor from Kenora, Ontario, prefers to work with a seven-foot, medium-light-action Shimano drop-shot rod, noting that the waters that he usually plies "are usually very clear and the bass typically spooky, so extra long casts are often essential." On the other hand, I am a disciple of the legendary Charlie Brewer of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, and Billy Westmorland of Celina, Tennessee, who used short rods, and in that vein, I am fond of a six-foot, medium-action Shakespeare Synergy spinning rod that is fitted with a 1970s Garcia Cardinal Four and spooled with six-pound-test Berkeley FireLine and a five-foot piece of six-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
When an angler casts and retrieves light jigs along the steep and deep sections of riprap, the boat often floats on top of 25 feet of water. The cast is executed so that the jig falls into about eight feet of water. A second before the jig reaches the bottom, the retrieve is begun by slowly swimming the jig, allowing it slowly glide down the slope of the riprap. In the lingo of angling, this is called a "do-nothing" retrieve, which was developed by Charlie Brewer years ago. At times, anglers have found that by delicately twitching the rod as the jig slowly swims and glides down the riprap that the twitching jig will entice more strikes than the "do-nothing" motif. Some anglers like to allow the jig to occasionally ricochet off a boulder as it glides down the contour of the riprap. Moreover, it is common for a smallmouth bass to pick up a jig that is snagged in the riprap as an angler is vigorously banjoing his line and rod in an attempt to free the jig from the snag.
There will be winter days, however, when the smallmouth bass aren't gamboling about along the sloping portions of the riprap in 10 to 18 feet of water. Instead, they will be hanging around the bottom edge of the riprap, where it meets the floor of the reservoir. Some of these edges are in about 30 feet of water. When the smallmouth bass inhabit these deeper confines, some anglers have fared well by using bait-casting outfits that are spooled with 10-pound-test monofilament and sport either a 3/16-ounce green-pumpkin BOOYAH Baby Boo Jig and Yum Chunk or a 3/8-ounce green-pumpkin Strike-King jig and 3X Jr. Chunk. The anglers cast the jigs so that they will plummet directly into 25 feet of water. Then they will employ a slow bottom-bouncing and dragging retrieve, allowing the jig to eventually hop from the riprap to the floor of the reservoir. Some days, the smallmouth bass will inhabit a fairly large swath of the reservoir's floor that is immediately adjacent to the riprap edge; therefore, anglers find that it is essential to hop and drag the jig several yards beyond the edge of the riprap. From these anglers' perspective, retrieving a jig and chunk this way replicates the crayfish that make up a portion of the diet of Coffey's smallmouth bass.
But day in and day out, the most fruitful tactic to allure the smallmouth bass that are abiding along the deep-water edge of the riprap has been to utilize a vertical presentation rather than casting and retrieving a jig-and-chunk combination, and an 1/8-ounce grayish-silver, black or olive marabou jig has been the most productive one to use. And if the wind becomes testy, an angler might opt for a quarter-ounce marabou jig.
Normally, when anglers fish vertically along a drop-off or deep-water edge, they opt for 1/4-ounce and even heavier jigs. But even though Coffey's smallmouth bass consume numerous crayfish that are as big or bigger than most 3/8-ounce jigs, anglers have discovered that they catch more smallmouth bass by vertically fishing a lighter jig than a heavy one, which illustrates once again that the foraging focus of Coffey's smallmouth bass are upon small invertebrates.
The vertical presentation is accomplished by moving the boat into the wind with an electric trolling motor at a snail's pace. As the boat moves, the angler monitors his sonar to keep the boat moving along the bottom edge of the riprap, which allows his jig to follow that edge. At times, the sonar will pinpoint the whereabouts of the smallmouth bass, and at other times, they will so flush to the bottom that the sonar cannot distinguish the smallmouth bass from the bottom.
Some days, the smallmouth bass prefer the vertically presented jig to glide slowly along the bottom in a do-nothing motif; then there will be spells, when they prefer it to be shaking and twitching; then there will be periods, when they want it dropping off the edge of the rocks on to the floor of the reservoir. Thus, it pays significant dividends to vary the jig presentation throughout an outing.
Even when the water temperature is 45 degrees or a tad cooler, Coffey's smallmouth bass will periodically inhabit water along the riprap that is as shallow as six feet. When Coffey's smallmouth bass are moseying along in six to 12 feet of cold water, anglers have beguiled a significant number smallmouth bass by casting and slowly retrieving either a 1/32-ounce or a 1/16-ounce marabou jig. In addition, anglers have found that either a 1/32-ounce or a 1/16-ounce Gopher Mushroom Jig Head affixed to either a three-inch Yum Dinger or a five-inch Strike King Zero that has been trimmed so that it is 2 ½ inches long is an exceedingly effective combo to employ. Traditionally, the most potent colors for this jig and soft-plastic combination have been a redheaded jig with a green-pumpkin Zero, a watermelon-red flake Zero, a green-pumpkin-chartreuse Dinger, and a Carolina-pumpkin-chartreuse Dinger. Throughout a day, anglers need to continually experiment with the size of the jig and the color of the Zero and Dinger in order to determine which one is the most effective at the moment. Consequently, most anglers have four or five spinning outfits rigged with various options at the ready, and the same spinning outfits that are used with the marabou jigs are used with the Zeros and Dingers.
During the first three weeks of March, Coffey's smallmouth bass continue to forage on a variety of invertebrates, but they also exhibit some piscivorous tendencies and are occasionally allured by a such jerkbaits as a Smithwick Suspending Rattlin' Rogue or a Rapala Husky Jerk, and jerkbaits that resemble the hues of bluegill and sunfish are normally the best ones.
At times in March, some smallmouth bass wander around the shallow rocky and gravel flats that are adjacent to the riprap shorelines, and a jerkbait is a useful tool to utilize when the smallmouth bass are gamboling rather pell-mell across a flat.
The jerkbait also elicits the attentions of some of the smallmouth bass along the riprap, where anglers cast the jerkbait to the shoreline and commence retrieving it back to the boat.
The style of retrieve of the jerkbait that beguiles the smallmouth bass can vary from day to day. Therefore, a trial-and-error motif is an essential ingredient to determining the most effective retrieve. Sometimes the smallmouth bass prefer delicate twitches punctuated by long pauses; other times, they are attracted by a series of double and even triple jerks followed by short pauses. Day in and day out, however, a subtle approach is the standard-bearer during the winter months.
On the best of winter outings at Coffey, which are rare because of the incessant wind, a pair of knowledgeable anglers, during a four-hour outing, can tangle with as many as 30 smallmouth bass, ranging in size from 1 ½ pounds to 3 ½ pounds.
And if finesse anglers can occasionally catch bass in the devilish winter conditions that prevail at Coffey, it seems likely that their tactics will work for largemouth and smallmouth bass in the cold waters at other hot-water reservoirs across the Heartland where angling conditions aren't as onerous.
This story couldn't have been written without the immense help of Terry Bivins of Lebo, Kansas, and Dick Bessey of Lawrence, Kansas.