Ice-cold smallmouth

If you live in the North, your water’s probably hard right now. But here in East Tennessee and the surrounding area it’s between 45 and 50 degrees. That’s just about right for some winter smallmouth fishing.

The winter brown bass bite is better than a lot of warm weather anglers think. You’ll almost never have to share a spot except when the weather is unusually warm. You will have to wear extra clothes, though. 

Assuming normal weather — cold nights with warmer afternoons — I start my smallmouth search with a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce football head jig. I add a Yamamoto Double Tail Grub as my trailer. I like the subtle movement it gives me when I’m barely moving my jig.

Winter smallies are hard to predict so I’ll make my first few casts anywhere that looks good. That might be a bluff wall with a straight drop, or it might be one that goes out in steps towards deep water. Then again, I might bypass the bluffs and fish gravel banks and points, especially if the weather’s warm and the wind is blowing. I keep moving until I get a couple of bites.

Regardless of what kind of structure I’m fishing, however, I’m looking to cover different depths. I start shallow, around 10 feet deep, and move out until I’m sure I’m fishing too deep. That’ll be in the 30- to 40-foot range on most days.

Moving out like that requires long casts so I usually fish with spinning tackle. My rod is a 7-foot, medium action Abu Garcia Fantasista and my reel a size 30 Revo Rocket reel. I spool my reel with Yo-Zuri 15-pound-test Super Braid and an 8- or 10-pound-test Yo-Zuri Top Knot fluorocarbon leader. I tie them together with a Crazy Alberto knot. 

My jigs are custom made by a friend, Brian Ooten. The thing that sets them apart from most commercial jigs is that they are poured with a thin wire 3/0 hook. That’s critical because you need the thin wire to get good penetration with a long cast and light tackle.

If it gets warm for a few days, or if I’m fishing in the surrounding states off to the west and south, I break out my crankbaits. I want something with a really tight wobble. My choice is a Duel Hardcore Shad. They come in several sizes. I usually throw the 50 mm (2 inch model) or the 75 mm (3 inch model) if I want to go a little deeper. I fish them with the same rod, reel and line that I use for my jigs. 

The idea with the crankbaits is that if the water’s a little warmer the bass are probably feeding on shad or some other kind of minnow. I want something that does a good job of imitating whatever’s swimming around in the water. I pick whatever color most closely resembles the forage.

One final thought: When you set the hook in cold water like what we’re talking about you need to pull back and lean into them. Do not snap your rod hard. Cold water bass tend to clamp down on lures. They don’t bite and grab them. It’s easy to pull the lure out of the fish’s mouth with a snap.    

If you can handle cold weather and don’t mind sacrificing time in your deer stand, give smallies a try this winter. They bite pretty good most of the time.

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