The layer of ice encasing the tip guide dissolved immediately simply by pressing the rod tip between the forefinger and thumb. But this short-term fix would only last for a few casts before the rod tip iced up again. The situation was frustrating, to say the least.
"As soon as that sun gets a little higher in the sky, the temperature will rise above freezing," I reassured fishing buddy Bob Hornstrom on his first wintertime river outing with me. Given my smallmouth success through December and so far into January on Pennsylvania's free-flow section of the Allegheny River, I certainly wasn't going to let a little ice on the guides send me home.
During the last six weeks I had been very attentive to the river's water temperature as it bounced around the mid- to low 40s, wondering at what point the smallmouth might stop biting. Given the 39-degree water temperature when we launched, I feared the end was close at hand.
This morning the bites were certainly fewer than the last time out. By noon we had caught only a single smallmouth — compared with 20-some bass average during trips the previous two weeks or the fabulous 50-fish days when the water temperature was around 45 degrees.
However, by midafternoon, the sun had warmed the air temperature into the mid-40s and nudged the water surface temperature up a degree or two. Whether it was that slight increase in water temperature or the bright sunlight that triggered the afternoon bite, I cannot say … but we landed 10 smallies in a two-hour period.
With the sun sinking rapidly behind the hills, Hornstrom opened the livewell to grab a couple of smallies for a photo before releasing them. "These bass have spit up crawfish! Nothing but bits of crawfish! At these temperatures, I thought crawfish were in hibernation. What's the deal?"
"Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you about that. Why do you think we are using green pumpkin tube jigs?"
Admittedly, I had been surprised by the amount of crawfish bits that started showing up in the livewell during the last couple of late fall/winter seasons. I wondered if river anglers in other regions were experiencing the same coldwater pattern. To find out, I did what comes naturally to any angling writer — I asked some experts!
During the winter, pro angler Jimmy Mason guides for river smallmouth on the Tennessee River below Wilson and Wheeler dams in northern Alabama.
"The coldest temperature for the river is about 45 degrees," says Mason. "Although our peak fall catches occur around 55 degrees, we usually manage from six to 12 smallmouth per outing when the temperature dips into the mid-40s; they will be quality fish, with two or three of those fish in the 4- to 5-plus-pound range.
"During this coldwater period, smallmouth are holding in eddies and slacks, particularly on the downcurrent side of islands in 8 to 12 feet of water. There is no question that the prey is threadfin shad, or yellowtail as it is known locally. I occasionally see some crawfish pieces regurgitated, but baitfish are the primary forage."
With temperatures in the 40s, Mason relies on a hair jig. He thins and trims the fiber guard on a Booyah Bucktail but leaves the hair untouched. Then he adds a small Yum Craw Papi trailer. The presentation is simple: Place the cast so the current carries the hair jig into the eddy, then slowly swim the jig through the slack water.
In Tennessee, smallmouth guide Jim Duckworth fishes the tailwaters of the dams on the Cumberland River. Only rarely does the temperature drop below 40 degrees, and the water remains clear for several miles below each dam all winter. He says bass are concentrated along the shore in eddies formed by an irregular rocky shoreline or partially submerged wood cover.
"Our smallies feed on shad — 2- to 4-inch threadfin and sometimes slightly larger gizzard. With water temperatures falling through the 60s and high 50s, smallies will chase lures. But the bite slows below 50 degrees. That's when I switch to drifting a float-and-fly through shoreline eddies. I can still catch a few good bass until the water temperature hits 46 degrees. If fishing below 45 degrees, I free line live yellowtail."
Smallmouth guide Blaine Mengel defines winter fishing on the middle section of the Delaware River as the period when the average daily water temperature falls below 45 degrees and remains there. This covers the time frame from late November until sometime in March. He considers landing a dozen bass a good day, and says 20 fish is outstanding.
"Once the water temperature drops much below 40 degrees, the bite slows way down," says Mengel. "The coldest temperature that I've caught a smallmouth at was 32.4 degrees.
"During the late fall, Delaware River smallmouth feed on baitfish such as darters, small suckers, chubs and any remaining American shad fingerlings that have not migrated to the Atlantic. But during the winter, these bass eat whatever moves slowest — baitfish, crawfish, insect larvae — anything is fair game. The better catches occur during moderately high water. We've really got to work hard during low, clear water to catch fish."
Some of the best smallmouth sites in cold water according to Mengel are soft-bottom eddies frequented by carp during the summer — especially if some large rocks are nearby. Springs, seeps and discharges that increase the water temperature a few degrees will draw bait and bass, too.
Mengel's top winter lure picks are a rabbit hair jig and the locally made CW Smallie Delight Jig. Dragging a 3-inch Kalin grub along the bottom produces smallies during clear water conditions. He breaks out a Lucky Craft Pointer 78 if a prolonged warming trend occurs.
Farther north in New England, professional angler Mark Burgess makes his final December runs on the Connecticut River and Sudbury River before both rivers freeze over.
"Smallmouth fishing can be phenomenal with water temperatures in the 40s if you hit the right spot. The fish are bunched up in 8- to 10-foot slackwater areas immediately adjacent to current. Because crawfish are hibernating, these river smallies are on a baitfish binge — yellow perch, white perch, golden shiners and alewives."
For these chilled-down smallies, Burgess prefers to drop shot a green pumpkin finesse worm or deadstick a Suspending Rogue. Believing that some orange on the lure will better imitate yellow perch and golden shiners, he favors an orange-belly jerkbait and dips the tip of a drop shot worm in orange dye.
Steve DeZurik, one of Minnesota's top smallmouth guides, enjoys the briefest coldwater window.
"The Mississippi hits 50 degrees in early October, but in early December it ices over so you cannot launch. However before that occurs, as the water temperature drops through the 40s, we have some of the best fishing of the year — especially for quality 4- to 5-pound smallies.
"I constantly watch for what the bass are spitting up. The primary forage is 4- to 5-inch river shiners. Only rarely do I find regurgitated crawfish matter.
"The fish are bunched up in areas with minimal current. Typical sites are only a few yards in diameter with the bottom no deeper than 9 feet. With a careful presentation you can catch 10, 15 or even 20 bass from one small area before spooking them. One classic site is an eddy formed by a sandbar on the downstream side of an island."
In 40-degree water, DeZurik relies entirely on custom-tied hair jigs called River Bugs. Rather than using a bottom dragging or swimming retrieve, he simply lets the jig drift and drop.
"This is the best way to target smallies ganged up in a small area. Using an aggressive presentation will spook the fish. Taking into consideration the depth and current, I control the drop speed by selecting the appropriate jig weight between 1/16 and 3/16 ounce. Black, white, gray and light pink are the best coldwater colors."
"Most anglers won't believe how aggressive the smallmouth bite can be at 45 degrees — it's astonishing. But then suddenly at about 38 degrees, the bass turn off as if a switch had been thrown."
Analyzing The Last Bite
Although each river has different cool-down rates, depths and flow characteristics, smallmouth across the board react in a similar fashion: They gravitate to slackwater sites when the water temperature drops below 50 degrees.
With moderate to high flows, the typical holding sites are eddies created by shoreline rocks, logs or irregular banks. If shoreline pocket eddies disappear during low water conditions, the brown bass fall back to pools or holes.
Eddies formed on the downriver end of islands provide outstanding fish-holding sites during low to moderate high flows. Tributary creeks with a slow, deep pool just off the main river also shelter winter smallmouth.
Even though deeper water may be nearby, most active smallmouth are going to be in less than 10 feet of water and fairly close to a bank. Bottom content at these slackwater sites can vary. Smallmouth may be found on sand, mucky grass or rocky rubble at this time of year. Furthermore, as long as the pocket is nearly dead slack, bass are willing to hold as shallow as 3 to 4 feet of water deep immediately adjacent to a much stronger and faster flow.
In comparing guides' comments regarding key activity temperatures, it appears that river smallmouth in the Southern range may be a bit less inclined toward feeding forays once the temperature dips much below 50.
In Northern rivers, there is a very strong bite when temperatures are in the mid-40s. The reliable aggressive bite abruptly ends around 39 degrees, although it may be possible to persuade a smallie or two to take a jig or live bait at temperatures into the mid-30s.
Meanwhile back on the Allegheny, I'm left to ponder the coldwater prey/predator relationship on my home river. The experts on other rivers affirm that winter smallmouth primarily target indigenous species of baitfish, taking only the occasional crawfish that may be available.
The free-flow Allegheny has a rich and diverse baitfish base, as well as an abundance of crawfish. During the early fall, our river smallies feed heartily on river shiners, minnows and chubs. Why they switch to what should be hard-to-find crawfish as the water gets colder is unclear.
However, regardless what bass are foraging for, you do not want to miss the exciting smallmouth action that takes place during some of the coldest water temperatures of the year!
Dress for Success
Late fall and winter fishing requires special preparation beyond choosing the right lures and location to fish. Cold temperatures, particularly in Northern regions, demand that you dress properly to enjoy success.
Anglers should take a three-layer approach. The initial clothing layer next to the skin should be made from wicking material that will transfer perspiration to outer layers; never wear cotton clothing because it traps moisture. The second layer is for insulation, utilizing lightweight, non-water-absorbing material, such as a polar fleece sweater and pants. The final outer layer must be a waterproof, windproof — but breathable — two-piece storm suit.
Keeping the head and hands warm is critical to overall comfort. Be sure to have a warm winter hat or stocking cap available, not just your favorite logo ball cap. Try several different types of fishing gloves to find the style that suits you best, and carry chemical hand warmers in the pockets of your outer garment.
Finally, when you snap on your PFD for the run upriver, never take it off until you have the boat on the trailer at the end of the day.
Besides regurgitated crawfish in the livewells, there is another indicator that smallmouth are targeting crustaceans. Abrasions on the heads of many Allegheny River bass begin appearing in late November. According to divers and fisheries biologists I spoke with, these abrasions are acquired by smallmouth turning over rocks or digging into crevices for crawfish.
When we get back on the river in March after ice-out, the abrasions on many smallies are now open wounds, indicating they have been actively hunting crawfish for some time. Head-banging wounds begin healing by late April and eventually disappear by June.