On a broad expanse of Great Lakes ice, wind snapped the sides of our shelters like flags left out in a hurricane. A thick layer of clouds dimmed midday to create a late-evening atmosphere. But over the din of flapping tents came the constant hoot-and-holler of fishermen hooking up. First to my left, then my right, and suddenly my Thorne Brothers Professional doubled over.
Everybody was catching bass. Big ones. Most were over 4 pounds. I remember thinking, this is easier than bluegills. We should be able to duplicate action like this every year. But in the 15 or so winters that have passed since, bites like that have been few and far between. Unlike crappies, walleyes, pike, and other northern fish, bass have a metabolism that doesn't demand regular feeding during winter.
Chris Beeksma operates Get Bit Guide Service in northern Wisconsin. One of his favorite destinations is Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior—one of those "bucket list" smallmouth fisheries every bass fisherman needs to visit. And one of the few places where ice fishing for smallmouths is, well, almost consistently good.
"Early ice—not so good," Beeksma says. "It's better late in the season. Smallmouths start getting more active in March and April. It seems like the best days are cloudy with a few days of stable weather preceding, but stable weather is the key. When it's stable and sunny, we sometimes find smallies up on shallow flats, cruising and biting. When it's -20°F, it's not a good idea to go out there. Not for bass, anyway."
Some have postulated that it's not a good idea to pull bass through the ice at all. Wintering sites tend to be deep—often in the 25- to 50-foot range. Barotrauma—the negative consequences that can result from pulling fish up from deep water—can take a toll on the population. Releasing fish immediately, without pulling them out of the water, can mitigate the damage, but we never know which follows: Survival or a slow death.
Gord Pyzer, In-Fisherman Field Editor and former Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources fishery manager, has concerns. "I don't think ice fishing for smallmouths on an immediate catch-and-release basis is as bad as fishing them on beds," Pyzer says. "Populations are more vulnerable during the spawn. Research by Dr. Mark Ridgway, Dr. Dave Philipp, and others has shown that fishing for northern-range nesting smallmouth bass can have negative consequences on brood survival."
But when we catch them 30 feet or deeper, what's the prognosis? "They may swim away but do they survive and what are the impacts?" Pyzer wonders. "Of greater concern is that smallmouth bass 'home' to wintering areas and will not leave them no matter what amount of pressure you put on them. So what happens when someone tweets GPS coordinates and scores of anglers show up and catch them repeatedly? The bass don't move. They home for life and to the same spots that their parents and grandparents wintered before them.
So, all the bass that were spread out along 10 miles of shoreline in the open-water season are now crammed onto a 20-foot square wintering shoal. Talk about shooting ducks in a barrel. Now, you tell me, is that good or bad?"
Pyzer says recent research also has raised questions about fishing for prespawn fish. "Dr. John Casselman, fishery expert, adjunct professor with Queens University, and retired senior scientist with Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, has discovered that most lake trout caught in September, prior to the season closing at the end of the month, in advance of the October spawn, are egg-laden females feeding heavily to finish off the egg maturation process. But he's found some of these caught-and-released prespawn female lakers are subsequently not laying their eggs.
It's cause enough for Casselman to wonder what happens to huge, old female muskies caught in December? Anglers tend to think that the eggs appear in fish a few weeks before they lay them. Most of the process, however, is accomplished months in advance. So bass that are going to spawn next spring developed their eggs this summer and fall. They only 'finish them off' the few weeks after ice out, immediately prior to nesting."
Smallmouth tournament angler Jeff Gustafson echoes Pyzer's concerns. "Smallmouths aren't hard to catch under the ice," he says. "My feelings on fishing for them are based on what I've heard from Pyzer and biologists who have tracked smallmouths throughout the year. Anglers may be harming bass during the ice season. Smallmouths don't eat much during the winter, so the loss of energy during the fight could potentially be harmful later in winter.
"We try not to target them. But up here on Lake of the Woods, it's common to run into smallmouths while walleye fishing in winter. They seem to like the same areas—structure with flats on them—that walleyes do. Most of the fish are in the 30-foot range for much of the winter. Like smallmouths in most places, they group up significantly at this point, and they bite a variety of baits. Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons and Puppet Minnows, or jigs tipped with a soft-plastic minnow can work well."
Once the snow melts off the ice, smallmouths become more active, perhaps responding to more light penetration as spring approaches," Gustafson says. "They move off bottom more and get more aggressive. Since they're higher in the water column or even shallower on structure, I feel like catching them late in the season is probably not nearly as harmful as it might be in January. More work needs to be done to see how we should approach ice fishing for them."
Look Shallow Late
Beeksma prefers not to target smallmouths when they're deep under the ice. Most of the spots where we target them are 20 feet deep or less. Sometimes we find them as shallow as 8 to 10 feet, especially after the snow melts.
Smallmouth bass populations certainly vary in their responses to the ice season. In some lakes, bass can be caught almost any day. In other lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, smallmouths seem dormant until ice-out—seldom if ever rising off bottom to bite, as years of camera work suggest.
Unlike the smallmouths in big natural lakes at the far northern end of their natural range that Pyzer and Gustafson have observed, smallmouths in Chequamegon Bay don't seem to sit on one hump or rockpile all winter right up to ice-out. Last winter, scanning those spots where we found them in big numbers in the past, our cameras found only one lonely smallmouth.
We've observed them in natural lakes in Minnesota, rising up to depths of 12 to 17 feet, cruising over the tops of reefs when active from mid-winter on. And our cameras recorded them swimming well off bottom, often more than 6 feet up, covering a lot of distance.
Finding them when they start wandering away from those wintering sites becomes a matter of moving along breaks and scanning both sides, shallow and deep, and everything between with sonar and a camera. When smallmouths lie right on bottom and won't move, look for walleyes, perch, crappies—almost any other species.
"When bass move up on shallow flats to feed late in the season, that's the time to chase them," Beeksma says. "Their appetites are up and that's when they're most aggressive. On sunny days they go shallow sometimes, especially during late-ice. The later it gets, the more active they become. Rattling spoons like Northland's Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon are used in fall in open water, casting it way out and snap-jigging it back to the boat. But ice-fishing is far different. Some days smallmouths want a subtle lift-drop, and when they're active, the best size is a 1/2 ounce, worked by lifting the spoon 6 inches and shaking and bouncing it in place. If you see with your camera bass swimming around, you're going to catch fish. If they're all sulking, you're in for a tough day."
Hunting the edges of the shipping channel in Chequamegon Bay with cameras and sonar seldom helps contact bass where you found them last year. Or any other year. It's about where the food is now, just like it is in summer. And these areas have nothing to do with eventual prespawn foraging zones or spawning sites. If the camera spies big pods of baitfish, stick around.
"Most smallmouth bass spawn in shallow areas with wood, not necessarily near shore," Beeksma says. "Around ice-out they travel about 10 miles from where they winter, near Ashland. Before ice-out, they spend a lot of time in 20 feet of water right on the channel edge laying tight against cover. Usually that cover is a cement block or a rock. When they get active, they cruise around a foot or more off bottom and rise into spots 15 feet deep or even shallower at times. The later it gets, the shallower they go."
Beeksma uses St. Croix 32M ice rods and reels filled with 14-pound Sufix 832 braid with a 6-foot leader of Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon. "I don't know if bass spook from braided line, so why take the chance," he says. "The water's clear in winter most of the time. I use 6- to 8-pound test. Fluoro stretches less than mono, so hook-sets are secure."
My choice is either a Thorne Brothers Professional or Wright McGill Tony Roach Signature Power Ice 48-incher coupled with an Abu Garcia spinning reel, and 6- to 8-pound Seaguar AbrazX fluorocarbon on the reel. As Guide Frank Campbell says, "Fluorocarbon lasts for years without needing to be replaced because, unlike mono, it's unaffected by UV or heat produced by sunlight and tight storage places."
Most of the time, we fish with spoons. Quiet little 1/16-ouncers up to heavy, rattling 1/2-ouncers. "Solid-silver or perch patterns tend to work," Beeksma says. "Anything with orange is good. A #5 Rapala Jigging Shad Rap or Jigging Rap are other great options. We never need to tip with bait when bass are active. A deadstick is rarely effective in that case, even when the most fired-up bass stare a lot. You need to make the spoon twitch and dance, working it with small little up-and-down strokes, keeping it on a tight line. I seldom lift more than 6 inches. You have to be more subtle in terms of size and action than in fall.
Toward the end of the open-water season we cast 3/4-ounce spoons and jump them off bottom. Bass seldom hit a spoon that big under the ice."
When smallmouths aren't active, Beeksma downsizes. "That's when we use panfish spoons, like Custom Jigs & Spins Demon," he says. "Tipping with waxworms or minnow heads becomes a must. If bass are lying tight to bottom, it's going to be tough, but you can entice a few to strike smaller, 1/16- to 1/8-ounce lures. The new VMC Tumbler is a good one.
A flutter spoon like the Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon works because the drop is slower. A PK Lures 1/16-ounce Predator with its tantalizing flicker blade, or a PK Spoon in the 1/8-ounce size, can produce when bass are pegged to bottom.
"I use a camera a lot. It's the best way find fish on channel edges. They don't always have a consistent pattern as to where and when they come up on those edges. Start looking for them where you found them last fall. I think the crayfish are thicker on those spots and those spots change. The camera is invaluable."
The Automatic Fisherman is another good tool when smallmouth bass are pressured or become picky under the ice. Bass may sit and stare at a small minnow working against the weight of a fixed, single-hook spoon like the JB Lures Micro Weasel for a long time, but once a bass is visually engaged it eventually strikes about 60 percent of the time. Fixed-hook spoons twist and turn with every motion the minnow makes, sending flash everywhere. It's hard to be patient enough to wait them out without moving the bait too much, though. Working a small spoon subtly nearby may catch more fish, or it may attract pressured bass that rarely strike, but that small livebait struggling a few feet away provides a second chance with great odds.
If a bass touches the minnow, the Automatic Fisherman sets the hook immediately, giving smallmouths no opportunity to swallow it. They're not legal in Minnesota, though I consider it a conservation tool. Better yet, the tussle is carried out on rod and reel. The metabolism of a smallmouth bass is much slower than it was in fall, when a big 5-inch sucker minnow worked so well. Stick with crappie minnows and small fatheads skin-hooked along the dorsal in winter, especially when bass are inactive.
Wait to "set traps" when bass roam a little shallower. The general consensus among smallmouth bass enthusiasts we admire most: Unless bass are shallower than 20 feet, leave them alone. Under that windy expanse of ice, anywhere you go, other species can fill in until bass rise to feed on shallower flats during a stretch of stable weather. You're more likely at that point to hear exclamations from hooked-up companions.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an astute multispecies angler and smallmouth expert, and contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.