Winter Smallmouth Bass In Rivers
July 12, 2016
The river was brown, roily soup surging around the base of each tree at the head of the island. Could I run the trolling motor here, where I've walked in the past -- where I once camped? The current, broken by a fence of oaks and pines, was slower where my tent once stood. After dialing down the speed and ducking under a few branches, I began pitching spinnerbaits into squirrel dens.
Thankfully, smallmouths had evicted the squirrels and came charging out from behind every third or fourth tree to try and demolish and ingest the spinnerbait in the same heartbeat. Which proves the axiom: When smallmouth fishing, expect the unexpected. Conventional wisdom holds that high water pushes smallmouths to the bank. These critters were in the middle of a raging river, albeit hiding behind a "fence" 60 feet high.
Most anglers head elsewhere when rivers rage over the banks, which is the smart thing to do. Things come careening down the river -- trees, telephone poles, Volkswagons, ruined watercraft. The fish, meanwhile, are evicting squirrels and hiding behind real fences, made of barbed wire, hovering just far enough below the surface to make things real sporty. The current makes treacherous business of boat control and anchoring.
So you can stay home or fish lakes. Be safe. Live long and prosper.
Or you can dabble in extremes.
FLOOD LOCATION SAVVY
Cap'n Jack West guides on the rivers of Virginia and eastern Tennessee. Guides can't take the day off when the river floods. If the client says, "Go," you saddle up. "As we guided hardcore smallmouth fishermen throughout last year's long, cold winter, we anticipated great spring fishing and the wonderful weather we knew was just around the corner," West says. "Instead, we endured the wettest spring ever recorded in Tennessee and Virginia. High, muddy, often dangerous rivers became the rule rather than the exception.
"Many of the folks we regularly guide are expert hardcore fishermen, not deterred by the cold or muddy water. They reschedule floats only when weather creates dangerous conditions on the river. Consequently, we fish inclement weather conditions throughout winter and spring on eight rivers spread through upper east Tennessee and Virginia. Last year, extreme winter conditions and a deluge that lasted through early summer forced us to fish a lot of high, muddy water. We were faced with interesting challenges on a daily basis. And we learned a lot.
"Volumes have been written about fishing rivers for smallmouth bass. To my knowledge, little has been committed to print or film describing how to fish for trophy river smallies when weather conditions are horrible. How many TV shows have focused on fishermen going after smallies when rivers are running high and muddy?
"How many writers even suggest fishing for river smallies when water temperatures are near freezing and the ambient temperature is so cold that you have to dunk your rods into the water to thaw the ice from the guides before you can make your next cast, or when the water is so muddy that you can't see the bottom half of a brightly colored 6-inch soft bait as you hold it at the surface of the water."
Uh, not guilty, my friend. We've filmed a piece or two for In-Fisherman TV in high, cold-water conditions. In fact, given a choice between extreme high or low conditions, I'll take flood stage every time. Low water scatters fish into every conceivable locational pattern. High water funnels fish into more predictable spots. The force of the river alone excludes the presence of smallmouths from a much higher percentage of the river's total area in high water. And we've pulled our share of smallmouths through holes in the ice -- which is the only choice we have when Cap'n Jack is guiding on open water in Virginia. But high, cold, muddy water in a river? We'll leave the TV cameras in the office, thank you.
Most river smallmouths need deep water to winter in. In states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, radio-tracking studies reveal that smallmouths migrate up to 70 miles from summer to winter habitat. In many cases, the trip is much shorter, sometimes nonexistent, but a migration of some length is the rule. Most wintering sites on rivers are at least 20 feet deep in the North. Down South, smallmouths tend to migrate shorter distances and sometimes stay in creeks all winter. They seek deeper water, but a wintering site doesn't necessarily have to be 20 feet deep.
Day length tends to cue fall movements. Somewhere around the vernal equinox -- the first day of fall -- shortening days trigger migration toward winter habitat. These movements don't happen all at once. In many systems, the biggest fish move first. Smallmouths begin stacking up around these wintering areas as water temperatures dip below 60F in the South, and the low 50F range in the North. Wintering sites tend to be on straight sections of river, as opposed to bend holes. If available, plunge pools beneath dams make good wintering sites. Smallmouths in riverine habitat above dams often drop down into reservoirs to winter.
Theory has it that wintering sites are selected for protection against environmental extremes. The depth guarantees smallmouths that their winter home remains viable in extreme high or low water conditions, so they won't be forced to move again through miles of frigid water to find a new site. The farther north we travel, the more it seems that smallmouths select sites that (1) are protected from north winds; and (2) have open exposure to the southern sky.
Tracking studies reveal that some northern smallmouths become quiescent during winter in streams, almost to the point of hibernation. In some rivers, smallmouths remain highly active. One radio tracking study on Michigan's Huron River revealed that in winter, smallmouths often held on middepth flats and never used woodcover during winter, preferring the sun on their backs. These fish moved around quite a bit and seemed to feed on a regular basis.
In systems that don't freeze during winter, active smallmouths tend to rise up and feed in shallower water -- usually between 2 and 10 feet deep. Rock bars, gravel points, boulder fields, and shallow flats immediately adjacent to a wintering hole become activity sites. In high water, smallmouths will be on these same spots where they extend up onto the flood plain. The closer to shore, the slower the current becomes. In high, cold water, slack areas become key.
"Deep" is relative to latitude. "In Virginia and east Tennessee, 'deep' water in smallmouth rivers can vary from 5 feet to over 10 feet," West says. "Just find the deepest water and scout the entire vicinity around it. Some great smallmouth rivers have long stretches of nothing but shallow water. Smallmouth will travel as far as it takes, sometimes miles, to find water deep enough to satisfy their comfort and safety zones. And they remain in these areas for weeks (up north, make that months).
"In winter, deep holes near a shoal or falls are perfect trophy smallmouth areas. In high, muddy water, concentrate on eddies formed by islands that end abruptly. Those ending in a gradual slope are usually too shallow and too swift to be comfortable for larger bass. The holding area for smallies at the ends of these islands is much smaller underwater than they appear to be on the surface. Islands that end abruptly form the bigger, deeper, and slower holding areas trophy bass prefer. They remain in areas like these until river conditions return to normal.
"Drop your anchors just outside the eddy. An anchor on each end of the boat makes river fishing in this setting much easier and more enjoyable. Fancast into and across the eddy. Work the entire area. Then reanchor and repeat the process over and over...and over again. When you think the retrieve is too slow, slow down some more, and you might be close to working the lure slowly enough. When you begin to think there just aren't any fish there, cast again. Trophy smallies will be there because they wouldn't be comfortable anywhere else. They may not be active now, but they will be at some point."
David Fritz, former BASS Angler of The Year and Classic winner, says, "Cut up a piece of structure like slicing up a pie, coming at it from all angles." Never is this so important as it is in cold water. From late fall through early spring, big smallmouths can watch a tube or hair jig pass by 20 times within a few feet of them without moving, then lunch the bait on the 21st cast.
River smallmouths like vertical breaks, so they can "ride the elevator" straight up from resting sites to feeding zones. They often feed right on the lip of these breaks, where it drops from 2 or 6 feet down to 10 or 20. It seems redundant and absurd, but keep casting over and over to this lip, making the occasional toss deeper or shallower. In winter, it's possible to eventually hook double-digit numbers of smallmouths from the same spot -- a spot no larger than a hubcap sometimes.
"Keep in mind that smallmouth bass are fragile when taken from extremely cold water," West cautions. "They become exhausted quickly and are prone to going into shock. They sometimes need a bit more TLC in order to send them on their way to live and fight another day.
"Catching smallies from muddy water in spring requires the same patience and focus as catching smallies in winter. But it can be consistently accomplished. River smallmouth fishermen can actually be a lot more creative in muddy, high-water conditions than during frigid winter conditions. As the muddy water rises, river smallies move to the nearest available 'comfort zones,' which are the smaller eddies and small grass beds along the bank. They also gather at the mouths of small feeder creeks, if they find eddies there.
Trophy smallies won't remain confined in small, shallow areas for long if larger comfort zones are available," West continues. "After a short time of being confined in these small areas, the big smallies move to larger areas where they can be safer and 'stretch their fins,' so to speak. Everything pretty much returns to normal for them, only in a more confined area than they normally enjoy. Baitfish and crawdads also gather in these comfort zones, meaning bass remain on the hunt for a meal. This is good for the fishermen. Anything that tends to isolate feeding fish leads to better fishing success.
"Smallmouths remain in the deep holes during the cold winter months, especially if a shoal or drop is nearby, simply because they aren't as comfortable any where else. Cold, deep water holds oxygen better. It's also a safe haven from marauding ospreys, eagles, and herons. At low temperatures the bass's metabolism is running so extremely slow that either rapidly getting away from danger in shallow water or chasing fast-moving baitfish is a tough call for them. They can often be seen supporting themselves by leaning against structure along the bottom."
Comfort for smallmouths and most baitfish in winter means out of current. Current is to a fish what wind chill is to a human. Bend holes and current breaks tend to cause swirling currents. The best wintering sites tend to be in areas where the river widens out and the gradient flattens. This spreads the current and slows it. Comfort zones also tend to have direct sunlight pouring into them for the longest possible period each day. In spring, smallmouths tolerate more current running across their body.
HIGH HARD TACTICS
"I call my theory for catching trophy smallmouth bass BDS," West says. "It stands for bigger, deeper, slower. My friend, Barry Loupe, worked this theory to perfection one chilly day last February. He loves his jig-n-pigs, and was throwing a dark 1/2-ounce hair jig with a 3-inch soft plastic trailer. The entire lure measured nearly 6 inches.
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"Many fishermen feel safer downsizing their lures in frigid water. Barry prefers bigger baits that trophy smallmouth find worthy of the effort to chase. He allowed his lure to sink straight to bottom, leaving his bail open. He pulled line off the spool to help the lure drop unimpaired. He reeled back into contact with his jig when he was sure it had hit bottom.
"Barry intended to cover the entire high-percentage strike zone. Then it seemed as if he fell asleep when he was actually slowing his retrieve to a near standstill and concentrating harder. I timed several of Barry's retrieves that day. The longest took nine minutes. Most were at least several minutes in duration. His 'citation' smallie -- a fish over 20 inches -- hit during one of these long, slow retrieves. And she hit after he had already worked the jig through the same spot several times.
"It's not uncommon with late fall and winter smallmouths to trigger on the third or fourth pass. The colder the water, the more important it becomes to anchor, which frees you to concentrate entirely on making slow retrieves, and allows you to deadstick the lure for several minutes on each spot on the spot."
"As if finding and fishing these quiet, deep pools I've described isn't challenging enough, in frigid water the bite is so light you often miss it. Successful wintertime trophy smallie hunters need infinite patience, the ability to stay focused and remain alert for the slightest tick. To call contact with a river smallie in 35F water a 'strike' is an exaggeration. The slightest tap or resistance during a retrieve should trigger a hookset.
"Waiting for a solid strike could cost you the biggest smallmouth of the year. Be prepared to set the hook into underwater twigs or rocks many times before finally connecting with the real thing. But chances are good that it will be a huge one. We catch very few small fish in those conditions at this time of year.
"Adding rattles and scents or experimenting with anything that might influence smallies to hit a little harder and hang on just a little longer definitely ups the odds in your favor. Since fish can hear far better underwater than we can through the air, rattles make sense. Even if the bass's metabolism is so slow that they won't run after your lure, at least they know it's coming. The same applies to scents. In quiet water, the scent obviously lingers in and permeates the surrounding area. That just might be the difference that turns an indifferent smallmouth into a hunter.
"My favorite, year-round, is a tube bait. I prefer natural colors at all times. To make my tube appear as natural as possible in the water, I insert in the tube the lightest bullet-head sinker that allows it to sink fairly swiftly to the bottom." The Lindy-Little Joe EZ Tube Weight with attached rattle is another good choice. The swiftness of the current dictates the amount of weight.
"When the bite is light and current is slight, a 1/8-ounce insert sinker should feel and appear more natural to bass than one with a 1/4-ounce sinker, which moves in an abrupt up-down, motion. A 1/8-ounce sinker allows more side-to-side movement. For a 3-inch tube, use a 1/0 wide-gap hook. The wider the better, so long as it still passes through the meat of the tube, just ahead of the skirt.
"In most rivers, crawfish are the mainstays of a smallmouth bass' diet. A tube bait is to a smallmouth bass just another crawdad, which makes a dark pumpkin tube dynamite, year-round. Frigid water affects crawfish the same way it affects bass. The smallmouth's aquatic world runs in slow motion in extreme conditions such as these. Picture in your mind a numb but alive crayfish moving slowly along the bottom. Re-create this movement with your tube. Think BDS.
"All successful river smallmouth fishermen fine-tune the art of skipping tubes and other softbaits. Skipping a tube across a quiet eddy or into the grass is like ringing the dinner bell. The fish hear it, quickly home in, and will be waiting for it as it drops to their level. Skipping a tube a couple feet into the grass is an exciting recipe for success in spring. In high water, you need all the attention-grabbing ruckus you can come up with. Since the tube is rigged weedless, it can be worked slowly back out through the grass, pulling leaves and stems and creating an even bigger ruckus. Smallies simply cannot resist this tactic.
"Oversized single-bladed spinnerbaits, slow rolled near the surface, often result in vicious strikes. Strikes in muddy water will be far more vicious than those in clearer water. Apparently the bass feels it has one chance. But, in my experience, the water temperature has to reach at least the mid-60F range before smallies chase anything.
"We've had little success throwing jerkbaits and crankbaits in cold, muddy water. One exception to this occurred one morning on the James River. We decided to throw weedless, crawdad-imitating crankbaits a foot or so into the grass as we floated down the swollen, muddy river. In two hours, we boated 26 river smallies ranging from 2 to 4 pounds. The big smallmouths were stacked up in the current-reducing weeds and brush.
"Whenever I go fishing for extreme-weather smallies, I live and die by the BDS slash 'comfort zone' philosophy. It's a must in near-freezing, high, muddy water, and continues making better trophy river smallmouth fishermen out of my clients and myself.
"But address your own comfort and safety zones, first. Fish only where you're confident that your boat handling skills will keep you safe. Wear clothes to fit the conditions. Bring rain gear, hand warmers, foot warmers, face and nose protectors, a cushion to sit on, a flashlight and, yes, sun screen.
"Wear your PFD. Accidents on rivers happen unexpectedly and swiftly. Hypothermia can set in within minutes at low temperatures. Carry a cell phone. Be sure to advise a friend or family member where you will be fishing and when they should expect you to return home. You will encounter few, if any, fishermen on the river this time of the year. That can be a good thing, so long as your float goes smoothly."