Understanding the move

Smallmouth have a very predictable migration pattern on river systems between fall and winter. Here are the intimate details of that movement.

Every year in mid- to late fall, jumbo river smallmouth start the move to their winter haunts. It’s really quite simple: If anglers know where the smallies’ new locations are, they’ll do well; if not, they’ll struggle. Before we can understand where the smallmouth go, we have to understand where they were and why they leave.

Early fall stage

Mike Smith, who operates New River Fly Fishing in Willis, Va., explains the migration.

“In early fall, smallmouth can literally be anywhere, as the water temperatures are normally cool enough by then that they don’t need to stack up in riffles with higher dissolved oxygen or spend the heat of the day in deep holes or ledges for comfort.

“Then it would be a mistake to target smallies only in a few select areas, as the main thing that they are responding to is an urge to feed going into the winter before the decline in forage that inevitably follows. So early fall is a good time to target big smallies with searching lures, such as buzzbaits, especially during rainy and/or cloudy days or turbid water, until the water temperatures drop enough that the fish move into deeper water where the suspending jerkbaits work well.”

Smith adds Yamamoto Senkos, Heddon Tiny Torpedoes and Walt’s Poppers to his list of favorite lures and flies for early autumn.

The change begins

Once the move begins, the proverbial deck is reshuffled, says Richard Furman, a guide for Twin River Outfitters in Buchanan, Va.

“There can be a brief topwater bite, but it’s rarely in the mornings and only infrequently in the late afternoon when the water temperature rises into the low 60s,” Furman says. “The most common conditions are bluebird skies; cool days; low, clear water; falling leaves with those leaves throughout the water column; and what I think is the most important factor: a change in the sun angle.

“River smallmouth are very sensitive to that lower, harsher sun angle, especially in clear water/bluebird sky conditions. During the day, the fish will stack up in the deep pools and become almost impossible to catch. In fact, if you’re fishing then, you can see for yards out ahead of your boat, and you won’t be able to spot any minnows or fish anywhere.”

However, Furman emphasizes that the last 2 1/2 hours before sunset can bring phenomenal action as long as the water temperature remains in the 50s.

“Late in the day, the smallmouth will leave the deep holes and crowd shorelines that have rock and wood cover,” Furman says. “Crawfish start to move around at this time, too, and the minnows head to the banks, as well. If the leaves aren’t too thick, pound the banks with Bomber Model 6As and Storm Wiggle Warts in crawfish patterns.”

If the leaves are a problem, the guide opts for 3 3/4-inch Case Salty Tubes in watermelon red, 5-inch Yum Dingers on a 2/0 wide gap hook (rigged a foot below an 1/8-ounce split shot) and his favorite bait: a 1/4-ounce jig with a Zoom Tiny Salty Chunk trailer.

“Just inch that jig-and-pig over shoreline cover, and if you feel a slight tick, set the hook,” Furman says.

The move happens

Brian Hager of Mountain State Anglers emphasizes that dropping water temperature is the main factor forcing river smallmouth to move to their winter holes, which leads to the question: Just what defines this type of habitat?

“A winter hole is a place of protection,” says the Fayetteville, W.Va., guide. “It’s a given that rocks will be there, but the presence of wood and a location such that the spot receives direct sunlight several hours every day is what starts to make a location prime. Also, the spot should have no heavy current, should be relatively deep compared to most of the river and, obviously, should offer food like crawfish or minnows.

“A great example of a winter hole is a back eddy, which is a nice-size pocket of water off the main channel. A back eddy is out of the current yet has current feeding into it and often, but not always, borders a shoreline. Ideally, a back eddy will also have a dropoff or two, which will allow the fish to go even deeper as the temperature continues to drop. Finally, a back eddy is definitely a place smallmouth don’t have to expend a lot of energy to remain in.”

Another example of a winter hole, continues Hager, is a long, deep pool with slight current and possessing the cover and structure requirements mentioned above. Really, he says, pools and back eddies are the only two types of locales where smallmouth will hunker from mid- to late fall and throughout the winter. If anglers can find, say, a dozen or so such sanctuaries on their home rivers, they should at least have a chance to do well. And, also quite importantly, Hager says, winter mortality for the smallmouth will not be as high as it is on those waterways that lack these refuges.

Hager cites an example of a trip when his knowledge of where winter holes existed resulted in an epic outing.

“On Dec. 6, one year on the New [River], the water temperature had warmed a few degrees to about 50,” he says. “The day was overcast and relatively warm, around 45 degrees. Several clients and I did the run-and-gun thing from one wintering hole to another from 10:30 to 3 o’clock and caught 45 smallmouth. Most were between 12 and 17 inches, but a few were in the 20-inch range.”

For winter hole lures, Hager regards crankbaits and a specific jerkbait as his most consistently productive baits, relying on a trio of the former — the Bomber 5A and 6A, Cordell Big Os and Strike King KVD 1.5 HC crankbaits — and one of the latter, a Lucky Craft 65DD SP in tiger perch.

A formula for winter hole success

I recently went fishing with Steve Journell (a guide for the New River Outdoor Co. in Pembroke, Va.) after the smallmouth had settled into their winter holes. Before the excursion, Journell told me that with a forecasted air temperature of 22 degrees and a likely water temperature in the upper 30s at dawn, little possibility of success existed throughout the morning hours.

“Meet me at 10:30; we’ll launch at 11:30, and we’ll fish for about 90 minutes, but I really don’t expect to catch any,” he said. “Then around 1 p.m., what I call the ‘window for winter success’ will open, but it won’t be open long — probably until around 2:30 when the shadows start to lengthen across the New and the temperature drops just a tad.

“Next, we’ll fish another hour or so, thinking that we might catch smallmouth, but we probably won’t. By 3:30 or so, we’ll be cold and tired and getting frustrated and ready to go home. Oh, during that window, we had better put every smallmouth that bites into the boat, and those few bites will all come from bigger smallmouth.”

And, Journell added, only two types of lures were likely to yield success: tubes and jig-and-pigs. The guide’s favorite winter hole bait is a 4-inch Mizmo Big Boys Tube in black and red neon that he rigs with a 1/4-ounce VMC Wacky Weedless jig that is inserted inside the tube. For the jig-and-pig, his choice is a 1/4-ounce homemade model with a silicone skirt and adorned with a Zoom Super Chunk Jr. Both baits are tossed on a G.Loomis 782 medium action rod and a Shimano Stradic 2500 series reel, coupled with 20-pound PowerPro line and a 6- to 8-foot Gamma Edge 12-pound fluorocarbon leader.

Fascinatingly, the day evolved just as Journell predicted. The first bite did not occur until 1:05, but between then and 1:55, five smallmouth “ticked” the Mizmo tubes, and we managed to land the entire quintet, with the smallest smallie measuring 16 inches and the largest just under 20 inches. Around 2:15, the sun started to slip behind the enveloping mountains and a noticeable chill seemed to affect the smallmouth and most definitely us.

Understanding the move that river smallmouth make come autumn is definitely the key to several more months of quality action.

A game plan based on water temperature

Although factors such as water clarity and frontal conditions can complicate matters, guide Steve Journell offers this strategy based on autumn water temperatures.

55 to 60 degrees: crankbaits with wide wobbles (Cordell Big O and Storm Wiggle Wart) and tight wobbles (Bomber Model A and Bandit 300); Location: eddies, where rapids “smooth” out.

50 to 55 degrees: Lucky Craft 78 Suspending Jerkbait, Yamamoto D-Shad; Location: micro eddies, moving water with current breaks.

45 to 50 degrees: 3/8- to 1/2-ounce double-willowleaf ­spinnerbait slow rolled, 4-inch Mizmo Big Boys Tube, 1/4-ounce jig and Zoom Super Chunk Jr.; Location: rocky bottoms behind boulders and downed trees.

40 to 45 degrees: 4-inch Mizmo Big Boys Tube, 1/4-ounce jig and Zoom Super Chunk Jr.; Location: Slack water along bank; long, deep, rocky pools with little to no current.

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