The recent spate of rainy and somewhat dismal days sends many minds toward the grim reality that winter is here to stay.
Sunless, dreary days with bouts of rain in December, January and February give most people the blues. However, desolate winter days bring joy to the heart of a reservoir smallmouth bass angler. These are the days to catch the big ones.
Kentucky is a blessed region for smallmouth bass as the 11-pound, 15-ounce all-tackle world record came to the net of Leitchfield’s David Hayes on a July morning in 1955 on Dale Hollow Lake. The genetics of the upper Cumberland drainage produce some of the largest specimens in the world and winter is arguably the best time to catch them.
Here are five simple tips that will help get more smallmouths in your hand this winter.
1. The uglier the weather, the better: Leaden skies that seem to scrape the tops of the tallest trees bring with them great wintertime smallmouth bass fishing. The falling barometric pressure that usually accompanies such conditions puts predator fish on the prowl. Dark clouds that obliterate the sun limit light penetration into the depths of Kentucky’s better smallmouth lakes such as Laurel River, Dale Hollow, Fishtrap, Green River and Barren River, as well as Lake Cumberland. This creates better conditions for predator fish to ambush prey. A light rain or snow makes this scenario even more conducive to catching large smallmouth bass. Bright, shining days just after a frontal passage often offer comfort, but are the worst days to fish.
2. Find the bait, find the smallmouth bass: Electronic sonar units, commonly called “fish finders,” improve each year. Users can manipulate the sensitivity of even inexpensive units to find schools of baitfish in reservoirs. These resemble cotton balls on the screen. However, astute anglers also look for gulls diving to the surface to discern the location of baitfish. If all else fails, fishing a point near the old river channel on the main lake presents a good chance of an angler intercepting a school of roving baitfish and the smallmouth bass following it. Fishing points, sloping banks or channel ledges near schools of baitfish greatly increases angling efficiency and boost the chances of a large smallmouth striking your lure. Dropping a jigging spoon or blade bait near the baitfish school often produces several fish.
3. Keep lure selection simple: One of the best things about winter smallmouth fishing is you can fit a day’s worth of productive lures in a cigar box. A selection of ½-ounce football jigs for bottom fishing, some 3/16-ounce hair jigs for a swimming retrieve, a few blade baits like the ½-ounce Silver Buddy, a couple of jigging spoons and a bag or two of swimbaits with some ¼-ounce ball heads are all you need. These lures consistently produce reservoir smallmouth bass all winter long. Concentrate on fishing slowly and thoroughly probing likely smallmouth structures instead of changing lures every half-hour. If all else fails, try live shiners or large crappie minnows rigged on a size 1 Octopus-style hook with a few split shots crimped about 18-inches above the hook.
4. Have the right mentality: Winter fishing for smallmouth bass is a big fish game, not a numbers game. You’ll have lulls in the fishing and a lot of empty casts. It is the nature of the game. Boredom and frustration can worm their way into the mind and you’ll find yourself going through the motions. Trophy smallmouth bass often bite when you aren’t mentally prepared. Keep concentration on the task at hand, so you won’t be flatfooted and consequently panicked when the 22-incher hits. This is especially important during that prime time of 3:30 p.m. to dark. Smallmouth anglers in winter often go fishless until this time of day, then land several before dark with the shortest one measuring 19 inches. Keep on your toes and mentally push through the lulls.
5. Big, deep water = big, fat smallmouth bass: Large smallmouth bass use acres and acres of deep water as their sanctuary much like white-tailed deer use heavy thickets. Anglers confused about where to prospect for winter smallmouth bass should stick to the main lake of the lower one-third of a reservoir nearest the dam. This is especially true on Kentucky’s mid-depth hill-land smallmouth reservoirs such as Barren River or Green River lakes. You can’t go wrong fishing main lake points or small covelets just off the main lake nearest the old river channel in winter for smallmouths. Anglers without boats can fish these areas from the bank in winter with just a few lures or some large crappie minnows and do just as well as those in expensive boats.
Texas, Florida and California offer largemouth bass anglers an authentic chance of catching several larger than 10 pounds. Trout anglers fishing the reservoir tailwaters of the Ozarks have an opportunity for the fish of a lifetime.
Kentucky is one of the few places in the world where anglers can routinely catch smallmouth bass heavier than 5 pounds with a chance at much larger fish. Its waters produced the largest smallmouth ever caught and documented and produces world class fish year after year.
Get out this winter and keep these simple tips in mind. A battle with a 5-pound smallmouth bass on a December day sure beats remodeling the basement.
Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.