The cold weather much of our country has been experiencing lately has moved most of the smallies out of the shallows and off the bottom. They’re starting to suspend which is what they’ll be doing for the rest of the winter.
There are a lot of theories about why they do this. My best guess it that they’re chasing the baitfish. When the water starts to get cold the baitfish tend to ball-up into tight schools and head out into open water. The smallies follow.
A lot of guys say it’s because they’re looking for more oxygen or that they’re looking for warmer water. Neither one of those explanations make sense to me. The thermocline is gone so I’m guessing the oxygen content of the water is about the same at every depth. And, after it’s been cold for a couple of weeks the water temperature doesn’t vary much from the surface down to the bottom — at first.
I say “at first” because that changes a little as the winter goes along. Once we get into late January or early February the cold water gets so cold and heavy that it forces the warmer water up towards the surface. Or, the warm water might be lighter so it rises. Either way, the water closest to the surface will be warmer. The temperature difference might only be a degree or two but it’s enough to move the baitfish. That, in turn, will move the smallmouth.
You can see this happening if you pay attention to how deep the fish are suspended. Early in the year most of them will be fairly deep. Exactly how deep depends upon where you’re fishing. But, as the year goes along and it gets to be late January or early February they can be found shallower.
While all this is going on there will be slight and short-lived changes in water temperature caused by the weather. If there’s a few days where it’s unusually warm, and especially if there’s a strong sun, the surface water will warm up a little. The reverse is true if it gets cold and windy. Snow makes the drop worse.
This creates a short-term version of the same thing that happens late in the winter. The baitfish move a little — in this case up or down — and so do the smallmouth.
The reason that this is so important is that too many anglers think about structure and cover when they’re chasing winter smallies. That’s the wrong approach. They aren’t relating to anything except baitfish location. They want an easy meal, one they don’t have to work for or chase.
That doesn’t mean they’re all that hard to catch, however. I know a lot of anglers will tell you that suspended bass are the hardest of all to catch. I respectfully disagree, at least as far as smallmouth are concerned. They may not be aggressive but that doesn’t mean they won’t grab something if it falls in front of their nose. Our job as smallmouth anglers is to make that happen.