How to Catch Winter Smallmouth Bass

A bundled-up angler shows of a hefty winter bronzeback. Joe Cermele

Is winter smallmouth fishing the best time to target big bass? Not exactly. But assuming you live near bronzeback water that isn’t completely frozen over, there is opportunity to keep the bass fishing rods bent until spring. You may have to work a little harder for your bites, and you can’t expect double-digit days like you could in June or July, however, there is a benefit to chasing winter smallmouth bass—when you stick one, it’s usually not little.

In both rivers and lakes, smallmouths are very predictable in winter. In moving water, winter smallmouth bass gravitate to deep eddies or areas of slower current where they can hold without expending too much energy. In lakes they’ll often suspend in very deep water near or just below the thermocline, making them pretty difficult to target even from a boat. The good news is they won’t stay in the depths all the time. You just need to figure out when they’ll make a move that lets you get your lures in front of them more easily. Here’s a game plan for successful winter smallmouth fishing.

Best Water Temps for Winter Smallmouth Fishing

No matter how cold it gets, winter smallmouth bass cannot stop feeding entirely. To catch any fish in frigid water, you first have to understand that feeding slows significantly, and even more importantly, when feeding does occur, it’s often during a very short window. Under the worst conditions, that window will usually still open, but if you pay attention to the weather patterns, you can increase your odds of being in the right place when the window opens, and possibly even seeing a longer-than-average feeding period.

During the winter, the difference between 39- and 41-degree water can be highly significant. You may not have the ability to feel it with your finger, but rest assured the fish can, and a bump of just a degree or two can be all it takes to convert them from comatose, suspended fish-cicles to roving predators. Those few degrees can get them to transition from deep winter haunts to the relative shallows where they’re more accessible, though these transitions tend to be fleeting.

Short of an influx of warmer water from rain, the winter sun is often the only heat source that can raise water temperatures a degree or two, and this influence usually occurs in water 3 feet deep or less. Areas with exposed wood or rock can also heat water, as these structures trap more of the sun’s warmth and translate it to the water in the immediate area. This is especially common in lakes where current isn’t constantly whisking heated water away, though backwaters, eddies, and dead spots in rivers can also benefit from these heat sources.

Likewise, any area with a dark mud or gravel bottom will absorb more heat from the sun and can nudge the temperature, so the goal is finding slack or near-slack water near deep winter holding water where bass might slide up to feed during that brief window. In my experience, late afternoon and early evening are the most productive times to fish for winter smallmouth bass, as the area has had maximum to time to heat up and will often be at its warmest just before sundown.

Best Winter Smallmouth Baits (and How to Fish Them)

Even in the ideal scenario where you find bass up shallow for a brief feed, keep in mind it’s not summer and they won’t likely be overly aggressive. In July, you might be able to chug a topwater bass lure or rip a swimbait and have them come out blasting, but not now. The trick in winter smallmouth fishing is being slow and methodical, and a few lures really shine for this approach.

Tube jigs in brown and green are musts in winter for several reason. For starters, they represent crayfish, and during the cold months, smallmouths tend to feed on or very close to the bottom. A soft-plastic tube jig can be finessed very slowly, and in areas with soft bottom it’ll kick out little puffs or sand or mud as it’s hopped along the bottom, attracting the attention of any fish in the area. The most difficult part of fishing one this time of year is working it slow enough. Cast out, let it touch down, impart a slight hop, and wait. The cadence can be downright painful, but you literally want to let it still for up to 30 seconds before moving it again. Just make sure to keep a tight line the entire time, because a chilly bass will often suck it up while it’s just lying on the bottom, and the tap can be very subtle. Hair jigs and feather jigs that naturally “breathe” underwater are also good options.

The winter smallmouth bait worth having in your arsenal is a quality suspending jerkbait like a Megabass Vision ONETEN or Smithwick Suspending Super Rogue. Like the tubes, however, speed is the enemy. Your natural inclination when using a jerkbait is to work it quickly. During warmer months, an aggressive retrieve triggers savage strikes, but in winter, you want to jerk just enough to get the lure down and then do absolutely nothing. Therefore, it’s so critical that you use a jerkbait that truly suspends in place, as many brands claim their lures do this, but they actually float back to the surface.

Assuming your suspender is performing up to task, pause for 10 seconds or more before tapping it again. Be subtle. You don’t want it to advance forward too far or too fast. Assume there is a smallmouth looking at it, and it will only take the slightest flash or pivot or direction change to get it to commit. Even in winter, smallmouths often hit a jerkbait hard, and all those treble hooks increase the odds that your willingness to brave the cold will be rewarded with a fat smallie in the bag.

4 Expert Tips for Winter Smallmouth Fishing in Rivers

There’s a reason why Delaware and Susquehanna rivers guide Blaine Mengel doesn’t stow his rods after fall. Though smallmouth bass may be harder to hook in moving winter water, Mengel catches some of his biggest fish from December through February. “Small bass eat very small forage in winter,” he says. “Big fish may feed less often, but they’ll be looking for larger food that provides lots of energy.” Success comes from tracking the weather, using the sun, and finding ideal bottom structure. Follow Mengel’s strategy, and you’ll stay in the smallmouth game while other anglers lounge on the couch.

Track the weather, use the sun, and find ideal bottom structure. Kevin Hand

1. Look for Smallies in the Transition Areas

“Anywhere there’s a transition from hard to soft bottom is a great place to start,” says Mengel. The reason? Baitfish prefer a soft bottom—something the smallies know. Mengel looks for sandy 7- to 10-foot-deep eddies on west-​facing banks because they get the most sun. During the warmest part of the day you can hook up on a diving twitchbait such as an XCalibur Xt3 worked super slowly with long pauses.

2. Hit Rock Eddies With Soft Plastic Tubes

Mengel targets slack rock eddies with soft bottom during slight warming trends. “With their metabolism slowed, these fish won’t dart into the current to eat,” he says. “But barely twitch a soft-plastic tube in the calm eddy head and you can pick one or two off.”

3. Fish Deep Holes For Smallmouth Bass With Jigs

If all else fails, find a 15- to 20-foot-deep slack hole and have at it. “You’ll mark a ton of fish,” Mengel says. “But these are the hardest to catch.” Here, Mengel uses rabbit-or fox-hair jigs, as the material pulses even when the jig sits motionless on the bottom. Keep the jig still, imparting the slightest occasional twitch. “I call a winter strike a ‘feel funny.’ If something feels funny, set the hook.”

Read Next: How to Catch Winter Catfish Through the Ice

4. Find the Warmest Part of The River

Winter smallmouth bass actually will move around this time of year. West-facing banks get the most sun, so hit them at the warmest point in the day. You might find a few fish searching for food wherever hard bottom meets soft.

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