Afflicted: A Primer for Winter River Smallmouth Fishing
By Jeff Little
Healthy sized winter bass like this are worth bearing the cold temperatures!
Each spring, I get a chuckle out of comments from people who know me only casually. ďItís almost fishing season, are you getting excited?Ē inquires a coworker. ďYep, Iím ready!Ē I reply without further explanation. Iím ready when the first red maple buds drop, and Iím ready at 4:30 a.m. on an early February Saturday morning when the forecast features freezing rain.
Winter river smallmouth fishing is not a hobby, itís an affliction. I know of two fellow anglers who have died doing it, skunkings are routine, ice destroys your gear, and it often angers my wife when I go in bad weather. Despite all of this, itís my favorite time to get after the smallmouth. Some day brain research will study the afflicted and find that anglers arenít much different than those suffering from gambling addiction. They will see certain areas of our brain scans light up, watch serotonin or dopamine levels spike in the same way and understand what some of us have for years. Itís Saturday morning and we NEED to go fishing.
Some research done on gambling focuses on powerful brain activity following a win or reward when itís not expected. Certainly the expectation to catch a fish after seven fruitless and cold hours on the water is low. But it does work. When it does, when you finally feel that signature THUMP! and swing on it, twenty-nine degrees quickly climbs to fifty-nine degrees. Your toes are no longer numb and you are ready for another seven hours. The high of catching smallmouth in those conditions is somehow higher. Iíve watched many novice smallmouth anglers set their sights on winter fishing. With determination they have become more successful anglers, not only during the cold months, but year-round as a result of the winter fishing experience. Hereís a primer for how to do it safer and more effectively.
As I am writing this article my local water temperatures swing between the upper fifties and lower sixties. The trees are almost at peak foliage and an aggressive suspending jerkbait bite is just around the corner. Itís late October. This is when I scout for new winter habitat. The float I completed last Friday with my kids featured several stretches of low catch rates with two distinctive series of pools where we caught most of our fish. I took notice and made mental notes of landmarks to find them.
In the upcoming month and a half, I will replicate the float several times. The early November floats will feature a quick float down to each of these pools followed by hours of thoroughly dissecting each one. I tend to fish and float down left bank, paddle back up to the top, then float down the right side, and finally the middle. I am looking for macro features of the pools structure that provide a slowing of current at all river levels. The last four words of the previous sentence canít be emphasized enough. More on that later.
By the time I complete the inaugural ďBlack Friday FloatĒ the end of November, Iíll have a good idea of the specific areas of the pools they will be tightening into. In winter fishing, once you find one, youíve likely found a mess of them. This congregation starts in fall, but as December approaches, the group tightens. Float trips from here until late March mean making a beeline to these pools. No casts are made until you arrive on the scene.
Spot within the spot
When my alarm clock jolts me awake on cold January mornings to get up and go fishing, I am usually dreaming that I am already there. Visualizations help spur success. One specific spot that recurs in my winter fishing dreams is on the Rappahannock River, a smaller remote flow in central Virginia. The pool has great macro current deflectors - ledges that swing a wide and deep flow away from one bank. It ends in a rock garden that provides a great place for them to move a short distance and spawn in May. But the spot I dream of placing my hair jig is a mound of gravel deposited by a notch in a steep bank. The water is deep all around it, but the top of the mound is only two feet deep. The late day sun beats on it, spiking the water temperature in that tiny area.
I canít tell you what to go out and look for in terms of the spot within the pool that makes it happen. Itís different in every winter pool. Sometimes itís a big log that has become incorporated into the steep clay bank. Sometimes itís an inside bend with three trash can sized boulders just upstream of the deepest water in the pool. If you have put in your time in October and November, you are on a good winter pool. Take December and pound that pool until it gives up the spots within the spot.
Winterís kitchen table
Where you find them at the end of three or four unusually warm winter days will be completely different from where they hunker down as ice forms on the surface. The days when I come home with an SD card full of photos of four-pounders are usually the former. Thatís when they come shallow right next to deep water. Shallow water without current or wind pushing on it will warm up faster than deep water. Add in six hours of bright sun, and the water temperature really spikes. Stoneflies emerge, darters that had been buried and motionless in the leaf matter start to venture out. The bass know that they can and must take advantage of the brief meal opportunity. Donít bother with shallows that are more than seventy-five yards away from the most current-protected and deep part of the pool. Find the largest deep from one bank to the other section of the pool, look for any shallow sun bathed area right next to it and work it hard.