How to Catch Winter Smallies in Streams

By Bill Cooper

Experienced smallmouth fishermen know that the winter months offer some of the best smallmouth bass fishing opportunities of the year. There’s one reason for that, said Missouri smallmouth guide Tommy Bench.

“Smallmouth are cold-blooded creatures and they migrate to warmer water, which means deeper holes,” he said.

Regardless of whether its rivers, streams, or lakes, smallmouth bass are going to head to deeper water for the winter, where water temperatures are a few degrees warmer.

“Smallmouth often migrate for many miles to find suitable winter habitat,” said Legends SS Boats pro staffer Nick Miller. “Where you catch one smallmouth in the winter, you can catch more if you work the cover.”

Water temperatures in the deep holes may be a little warmer than the surrounding waters, but will still be colder than summer water temperatures. That means one thing to anglers. Slow down. Bass are going to be a bit lethargic, and the fast fishing techniques of summer will not produce fish during the cold-weather months.

Winter smallmouths are going to relate to objects in the water that hold or reflect heat. Boulder and rock rubble are among the most common structure features that hold smallmouth. Wood is another key factor to look for in cold weather, too.

Because they have become lethargic with the colder temperatures, smallmouth bass will be in energy-saving mode as well. They will look for deep pockets of water that are out of the main current. However, they still depend on current to bring food into the hole, so they will not be far away.

Big fish often hang out on the down river side of big boulders. The rock serves two purposes. It brings heat into the water and serves as a current break, a perfect ambush point for a big winter female smallmouth. Casting 8-to-10 feet above such a boulder, allowing the bait to sink to the bottom and drift with a slight current will put the bait practically in in the holding fish’s face. Be prepared for the fish to pick the bait up and move a few feet with it. The bite may be very subtle.

Plastic baits are phenomenal for winter smallmouths. Wooly Bugs, Bad Mammas, Craw Papis, Money Craws, CrawBugs, and smaller plastic worms, such as YUM’s Finesse Worm will all produce fish. And the short-billed crankbaits, such as the Bandit Footloose will turn a few bites as well, especially when fished on the sloped sides of a deeper pool.

“Accurate casts are very important in cold weather,” said Corey Cottrell. “Bass aren’t going to chase a bait far, because of their slow metabolism. Put your bait where you know fish should be holding and fish it slowly.”

Cold weather is a deterrent to most anglers. That is a plus for die-hard smallmouth anglers, who dress warm to stay comfortable, and know where the deep holes are on their favorite fishing destinations.