January winds howl, but the weather is mild. Long lines extend out behind a rocking boat adorned with a sock to slow the drift. One big split shot carries hook and live shad down to 20-odd feet. The structure is a series of humps topping out at 25 feet in the river channel. Let out too much line and the rig snags. Too little line and the bait passes out of reach for the biggest smallmouths, content to let dinner come to them in the heart of winter on Pickwick Lake in Alabama.
Mark Davis, senior manager of public relations for Shakespeare, has a lot of experience -- tournament and otherwise -- fishing reservoir smallmouths in the South during winter. "Smallmouths take the first opportunity they get to move shallow. In January and February, we have 45F days for long stretches at a time. But we eventually get a stretch of two or three unseasonably warm days in the high 70F to 80F range. On Pickwick, smallmouths move into 8 to 10 feet of water with surface temperatures of maybe 58F during those warm spells.
"The first opportunity smallmouths have to move up, they move. The biggest mistake anglers make is to keep focusing on deep water during warm, stable winter weather. On Pickwick, smallmouths move as vertically as they can out of wintering habitat, straight up bluff banks or deep bends in river and creek channels to short little pea-gravel points. Lake Pickwick and Wilson rarely register colder than 55F in winter. As for air temperature, a 50F swing from a high of 30F to 80F is not all that uncommon in January and February. It happens fast. When it does, I'm hunting big bass in 8 to 10 feet of water or less. Lots of skipjacks and other big baitfish move shallow during these really warm days. I don't catch a lot of fish, but they're big. The first fish -- the earliest fish to move shallow in winter -- are big specimens.
"Time of day doesn't really matter," Davis added. "The bite is on from about 7 a.m. through evening. Bass move up and back down periodically. They're moving up into small areas. They move up for flashes of activity, probably not more than two hours at a time. This is milk-run fishin'. Hit a spot and move on. Come back later if it's a key spot for giants. The bass that come up are active; the inactive fish stay deep. It's not uncommon to have a 5-pounder hooked and have two other five-pounders come up to the boat with him. It's common sense to believe, once you find these fish, that two 5-pounders caught on a point with active baits means it's time to slow down and see if you can finesse a few more. Don't waste your time. They won't come up on top, either. They're actively feeding, but there won't be any sign.
"A suspending jerkbait is my first go-to bait," Davis says. "The key is to move the bait quickly. Don't slow down. These are active fish. Medium- to deep-running cranks are next, like a Down-Deep Rattling Fat Rap. I tell you what, it's different every day. There will be a sweet spot. If they're coming up behind it and not eating it, it's speed or color. Color can be a really big deal with smallmouth. Worst thing you can do is go out there with a preconceived notion. Knowing what you're going to start with is one thing, but convincing yourself that it's the only color, size, or style of bait that's going to work is a mistake."
But shallow fishing with suspending jerkbaits is only one winter pattern. Even on Pickwick, other patterns exist. Some populations within the same system can behave differently than others. This was graphically demonstrated to me by Tim Horton, past B.A.S.S. Angler of The Year. The paragraph that begins this article describes Horton's pattern. The difference is, Davis is looking in the lower third of the reservoir, where the main river channel is deep -- probably too deep for smallmouths. In the upper third of the reservoir, active smallmouths use the river channel where it maxes out at 30 to 40 feet. Active fish rise to the tops of humps in the 25- to 28-foot range, and Horton plies these spots with live shad he nets himself, hooked through the nostrils with a #4 to #2 baitholder or octopus-style hook. The rig is weighted 18 inches up the line with one or two large split shot in the 3/32- to 1/8-ounce range, depending on wind and drift speed.
"Line is critical," Horton says. "I spool up with clear 8-pound-test ReaLine on spinning gear. I'm striking a balance. It takes 10-pound line too long to sink, and it's too visible to the fish, but 6-pound line is too thin to handle a bass in the 8-pound range, which is a real possibility on Pickwick."
These two different patterns on Pickwick reveal that, no matter where you live, finding winter smallmouths can be the most challenging fishing of the year. In Texas, all the smallmouths might be shallow all winter, while Alabama bass can exhibit shallow and deep patterns in the same lake. And, until somebody fishes for them, it's impossible to know if the population tends to be sedentary all winter, on-and-off, or actively, feeding every day.