Winter is setting in, and your local river has become frigid. Are you planning to hang up the paddle until spring? Do you still chase river smallmouth when the water temperatures drop below 50 degrees? A few of us die hard anglers can’t wait until spring for another chance to feel the tug of that big bronze. We want to continue chasing trophies in the winter and that is certainly possible with a little bit of preparation, technique, and presentation.
It all starts with the “spot” the “hole” whatever you call the area you fish. Finding an area where the fish are likely to spend the winter is key. Smallmouth will group together and congregate to certain areas in winter. Recent experience has led me to believe that 90 percent of the fish are located in 10 percent of the river. You’re asking yourself how do I find that area? Simply enough all you need to find is deep water with little current.
Deep water is relative to the size of the river. If the river is an average of 5 feet deep, you need to find an area that is twice that depth. The best spots are usually at the tail end of slower moving pools. Google earth is a great tool to find these areas. Once you have located a likely wintering hole, it is time to go to work.
Technique is essential in the cold water months. One certain technique shines when others fail. I call it the “drag” and it has performed with great results. River smallmouth will move slower as the water temperatures drop and so will their prey. Crayfish is the major food source and that is exactly what you want to imitate. There are three soft plastic lures that really excel when dragging the bottom. They are as follows: tube bait, craw bait, and stick bait. Natural colors usual work the best, but don’t be afraid to change it up if you’re not getting bit. All these baits are rigged on a weighted lead jig head. The idea of dragging isn’t possible without keeping bottom contact with your lure. Therefore use the appropriate weight that keeps you in direct contact with the bottom. If you’re not feeling the lure as it drags along, then you need to go to a heavier weight. I prefer a 3/16 oz weight, but sometimes you will need the 1/4 ounce jig head. I prefer the tear drop style head to insert inside the tube jig, the football head for the craw bait, and the mushroom head for the stick bait.
I fish this setup on a 7 foot medium power spinning rod that sports a moderate to fast action, spooled with 8 pound Seaguar Red Label fluorocarbon. I use straight fluorocarbon for a few reasons. It is abrasion resistant and it sinks, both important factors when dragging. It should be noted that you still need to periodically check your line for frays. Repeatedly dragging rocks will eventually weaken the line near the knot. Retie as needed to prevent any heartbreak.
Presentation is the final step and the most important when cold water dragging. Position your kayak upstream and cast straight ahead or at a slight diagonal. This will help get your bait where it needs to be the fastest. If you cast parallel, your bait will drift downstream, not maximizing the time spent on the bottom. Once your lure has completed its decent the dragging process begins. Start with your rod at the clock position of 3 and raise it to 12 o’clock. This will drag your lure across the rocks where the smallmouth are feeding. Proceed to lower it back to the original starting point while simultaneously reeling up the slack created on the drag. It is important that you’re only moving the lure with the rod, not the reel. After the drag comes the pause. Pausing the lure is usually when the strike occurs. Depending on the feeding mood of the smallmouth determines how long you pause the lure. Generally I pause anywhere from 3 seconds to 10 seconds, depending on the water temperature. Colder equals slower.
This presentation is methodical and requires patients. You will also snag (a lot) but don’t let that deter the process. Try to dislodge the lure by shaking the rod. If you’re not successful, simply paddle above the snag while popping you rod. Usually that will free the lure. If you do succeed initially continue to fish, because you can trigger strikes after the lure comes unglued.
Do the drag, catch cold water smallmouth, but do not hang up that paddle!