March 17, 2020
Lens effect fills the hole with bronze and yellow. Bulging with muscle, a late-winter smallmouth comes in face up—a little 1/8-ounce PK Spoon pinned to its face. I gripped its jaw and raised it toward the TV camera. It twisted free, fell back in the hole, left a treble in my thumb and a foolish grin on my face.
“Cut, please.” Ouch. Sweet revenge for another scaly pugilist. Luckily my partner in crime, smallmouth guide Chris Beeksma, knew the braided-line trick for extracting hooks buried past the barb.
Winter smallmouths are different animals. A roof of ice can transform them into oversized panfish in foraging terms. Smallmouths are centrarchids, after all—the family that includes pumpkinseeds, bluegills, green sunfish, and others. Sometimes, the small jigs and lures that entice those species under the ice are the only things bass hit. Sometimes not. Depends on conditions.
Smallmouths under the ice are transformative in other ways, too, relating to the season differently from one waterway to the next. In some rivers and lakes, smallmouths seem to go comatose—never responding to any tactic at all. In some lakes they scatter to a variety of wintering sites and only bite under certain conditions. Other places, they crowd onto similar spots in basin areas, and every bass on the spot will bite until all are hooked. But, in many lakes, it’s lucky to catch more than two on a spot before having to move on to the next. To discover which Jekyll or Hyde kind of bass exists in a lake, you first have to find them.
Where do smallmouths winter? It depends on the lake. Or river. Climate and latitude of the fishery play roles in determining how deep they go and how consistently smallmouths use the same wintering spots. Up north where lakes freeze, a wintering site might be anywhere from 15 to 50 feet deep.
It was March when Beeksma yanked that spoon off my thumb. Late ice. We were on a shoreline-connected flat about 12 feet deep, not far from a break into the shipping channel of Chequamegon Bay in Wisconsin. Not a typical wintering area. In fact, the smallmouths we were catching had left wintering areas and were beginning to sniff around on the deep edge of areas they use after ice-out. But they weren’t far from winter homes—just a few floors up the elevator.
“In the Bay, smallmouths winter in the shipping channel about 30 feet down,” Beeksma said. “They use the deepest water but near the edge of the shipping channel. Usually a hard-bottom area. Not necessarily rocky. Late ice they begin peeking up over the lip of a sharp break, but tend not to wander far from the edge.”
Minnesota guide Tony Roach says some smallmouths winter deep in his state. “It’s not unusual to find smallmouths on a rockpile, reef, or clay mound in water 40 to 50 feet deep,” he said. “But if they’re deep, I don’t want to show people where those spots are. Overfishing deep bass this time of year could hurt the population. There are some shallow fish early and late in the season, up on rocks in 12 to 15 feet. But a lot of bass are in the 25- to 32-foot range most of the winter.”
In some of the Midwest fisheries he frequents, smallmouths may refuse to show every year on the same classic winter habitat frequented in the past. “The first part of January, we usually find smallmouths deep,” he said. “Bass are in a funk until then. They get goofy. But last year, smallmouths weren’t in the usual wintering areas. I suspect they’ve been harassed and moved off. They’ve been educated on Mille Lacs. When you release them, the others we’ve marked or seen on camera scatter. Once upon a time you could catch every fish on the spot. Now you’re lucky to catch one.”
Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson, a Canadian pro hoping to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic in his first year with BASS, lives near Lake of the Woods in Ontario. “Bass using a few miles of shoreline in summer crowd onto the same hump or flat and spend the winter together,” he said. “Radio-tagged smallmouths in the Woods barely moved all winter. They’ve done the same with largemouths and under the ice they roam weedflats and are more active, surprisingly.
Smallmouths here tend to winter at 25 to 35 feet on offshore structure. Humps and hard-bottom flats on the sides of points are the best spots and you can find them much quicker in the boat in late fall.”
In Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, I’ve found lakes where smallmouths winter around the base of a deep reef or rock hump. When active, they rise up to the edges of the reef in depths ranging from 10 to 18 feet. Those fish can be caught. Bass at the base of the structure tend to be less active.
Perhaps the most classic location is a hard-bottom or rocky area somewhere between 20 and 50 feet deep on a main-lake point leading into the main basin. On Lake Michigan, we’ve found smallmouths on rockpiles or deep reefs that rise 2 to 10 feet off a 50-foot flat, usually within five miles of a spawning flat. Smallmouths use similar areas on Lake of the Woods, where former Ontario resource manager Gord Pyzer raises concerns about targeting winter smallmouths.
“Based on Dr. Mark Ridgway’s (Research Scientist & Director, Harkness Laboratory of Fisheries Research) work, northern range smallmouths (in lakes that freeze) do not eat during the winter,” Pyzer said. “Which is why they suffer up to 35-percent overwinter mortality. They have to go into the winter starvation period in top shape. Of course, as soon as you say to people that they don’t eat, they tell you that they catch them all the time. That is not the same thing—when you drop something on their noses they will eat it. But they don’t ‘forage’ per se, like they do in open water.”
Pyzer agrees that in some lakes smallmouths are Dr. Jekyll, and in other lakes they’re Mr. Hyde. “I can put you on spots where you can catch smallmouths all day long,” he said. “When I was an Ontario MNR District Manager here in Kenora, and we were studying winter bass in Lake of the Woods, I was with the biologist one day when we lowered down an underwater camera and Barry counted 65 smallmouths swimming below us. I proceeded to catch 64 fish with a white fluke. Frightening. Yet, on Simcoe, the most intensively ice-fished lake on the continent probably (6,000 permanent shelters at one time) no one ever catches them. Ridgway says it’s because anglers haven’t found the wintering areas.
“I have several locations where thousands of bass stack up in winter,” Pyzer said. “But I don’t fish them because it represents miles and miles of bass that spread out along shorelines in the summer, stacked up on one or two small areas. It’s Ridgway’s greatest fear. He says he worries as much or more about anglers finding these wintering areas as he does bed-fishing for smallmouth during the spawn. It‘s like shooting ducks in a barrel.”
I thought it was “fish in a barrel,” but I’m not Canadian. I replied that it seems the only time I can catch smallmouths in winter is during a warming trend of three days or more, and we have to travel around to six or more spots to do well even then. On days below zero, bass rarely seem to bite. On some nearby lakes and reservoirs, they never bite. Ever. We can see them on cameras, but they just hover on bottom as if hibernating. When the water drops below 38°F in fall, it becomes nearly impossible to catch a smallmouth from those waters.
On Chequamegon Bay, we’ve had 20-fish days and we’ve been skunked on days when we can watch them circle around without biting at all. Personally, I’ve never seen 60 or more on one spot in any of those environments. We do have days on the Bay where it seems every fish on the spot bites, but rarely more than 5 or 6 before we have to move on. Lots of people fish for bass in the winter there, yet Beeksma says the fishing is better than ever. I don’t think winter pressure has hurt those fish. Everyone releases them, and they’re rarely deeper than 22 feet when actively biting.
But other anglers registered concerns, too. “I’m with Gord,” Gustafson said. “Growing up here in Kenora, I’ve heard his spiel many times and agree with him. In our lakes up here, we see mega-schools of smallmouths group up and winter together, as Gord says. We run into smallmouths quite often around many of our spots on the Woods and other lakes in Northwest Ontario and if you hang a bait in their face (a spoon, Jigging Rap, crappie bait), they eat it. But you can be 20 feet away from them and never catch one. Especially in the early midwinter period. I am not a fan of catching them early or during the heart of the winter because I believe that burns a lot of their energy they rely on to get them through the season.”
Beeksma tries to reduce his bronzeback footprint in winter, too. “I don’t fish for them a lot through the ice,” he said. “We harass them all summer and I think they could use a rest.” Spoken like a true guide that requires that summer income, but the point is well taken.
And, as Roach says, if bass are deep, “I don’t want to show people where those spots are.” Barotrauma—the result of bringing bass up too quickly from deep water from too many atmospheres of pressure—can kill bass caught deeper than about 25 feet. It seems like Canadian smallmouths winter deeper, and find fewer habitable areas. Crowded into relatively small areas all winter, bass probably don’t find much to eat by midwinter. And bass seem to crowd more there than here for some reason. At -60°F—fairly common in Northwest Ontario, but a temperature not seen in Central Minnesota for 100 years or more—bands of cold water are pushed deep. Could that be the difference?
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange thinks the risk of barotrauma is reduced in cold water. “We catch them all the time on deep reefs, incidental to walleye fishing, without ever targeting them,” he said. “I’ve never seen barotrauma as a factor if fish are released quickly. They’re hard as a rock during winter and never seem to blow up.”
I would never suggest purposely fishing for smallmouths any deeper than about 24 feet. If we can’t find them shallower than that, we fish for something else. We sometimes catch smallmouths in 10- to 12-foot depths, especially late in winter. Even in midwinter, smallmouths in some lakes can be caught in 18 feet of water or less on the days they bite. They come up on top of rocky structures and that’s how we know we might be in for a good day.
Beeksma uses 1/2- to 3/4-ounce spoons and #7 Jigging Rapalas when bass are up and active. “Work aggressively to start, but sometimes they barely want it twitching when it comes to triggering strikes,” he said. “They’re not in an eating mood. When they’re less active, we use an Automatic Fisherman with a fathead minnow on a single hook below a split shot, or smaller 1/8-ounce spoons. A lot of bass are caught by guys fishing for perch. But sometimes you can see a pile of smallmouths below you with a camera and they won’t bite. Sometimes a panfish jig with a stout hook is the only way to catch a few.”
Stange said the same thing. “Bass come in and look at all the typical smaller walleye lures, but won’t bite,” he said. “They refused my longtime favorite ice smallmouth lures, the Acme Kastmaster and #5 Jigging Rap, and would only bite a small tungsten jig tipped with maggots, or, as proven this year, tiny Berkley PowerBait bodies along with a maggot or two. We used 3-pound line to fish. It’s easy to land fish and probably required because of the small jigs.”
Stange and In-Fisherman Digital Editor Jeff Simpson both fished with Christian Hoffman, who showed them a few panfish tricks for smallmouths through the ice. “We caught them using spring bobbers and VMC Tungsten Mongo Jigs on light line,” Simpson said. “Christian had it dialed in. Took me a half-day to catch on, but I eventually figured out the best cadence.”
Roach likes small spoons with a couple maggots on the treble, or the little #3 Rapala Jigging Rap. “I catch a lot of smallmouths that way,” he said. “Fish it slow—not active jigging. Winter bass can be lethargic. After big cold fronts in January, they’re interested in the camera, but when you drop a lure down there they become comatose.”
Gustafson likes plastics. “When they get active, a 3- or 4-inch fluke-style bait, like a 4-inch Z-Man Scented Jerk ShadZ rigged on a 1/4-ounce jig is a great bait,” he said. “I like the life-like Northland Slurp! Jig the best. It’s wire collar holds the ElaZtech plastic on well also. Spoons such as a 3/8-ounce Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon catch them as well. During this late-ice period, you don’t need ultra-finesse “crappie baits” to catch them.
But, perhaps more important than the “what” is the “when,” Gustafson says. Once the snow melts in March and more light starts penetrating the depths, smallmouths seems to get more active and they are evidently eating again. You can see their activity increase on your electronics. They start to swim up and meet your bait as you drop it and they bite more quickly. So if anglers want to fish for smallmouths under the ice, especially up north here in the upper part of their range, I recommend waiting until late winter to fish for them.”
Pick your times carefully for smallmouths through the ice. Early and midwinter can be tough. After a cold front? Forget about it. Focus on warming trends, especially late ice. But expect smallmouths to be smallmouths. “This is how you know it’s a bass on your line,” Gustafson says. “When reeling them in, they swim up like they want to jump, just like open water. Makes me laugh. Gotta love smallmouths.”
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw has been writing about smallmouths, one of his favorite species, for over three decades.