Wintertime for me, the rest of the Freak Finder Fishing crew, and many others in the northeast are difficult times. Our boats are put away until spring, we don’t ice fish, and we don’t have much to occupy us; at least not to the capacity that fishing provides us. Sure the holiday season is nice and it is nice to have some downtime to reflect on the season but after a few weeks we are ready again; ready unfortunately for nothing but the long wait. It is this winter lull that drives us to fish as deep into the season and provides that same drive to get out as soon as the ice vacates productive bodies of water around us. Every opportunity to get out and extend our season is one less day we spend reminiscing of the past season, daydreaming of what the next season holds, and going through tackle, reels, and equipment over and over and over again just to have some sort of touch point with the sport we all love.
There is a magical time of year in the fishing season that most fisherman avoid but the few that are dedicated and sometimes crazy enough to pursue it see great results. The water temps are in the high 30’s to low 40’s and either the lid is coming in or the lid is coming off. The fish are aware of what is happening in their surroundings and on either side of the ice scenario they are looking to feed. The frustration in this time period lies in the elimination of “dead” water. Lakes during these scenarios fish incredibly small; fish could be keyed in on the slope on one side of a hump, the top of a rock pile, or on one loan rock on a deep flat. Great news for those that are able to find them but also frustrating especially when you are plagued with shorter periods of daylight and your fishing day goes by in a blink; which let’s be honest happens in July too. The key for smallmouth this time of year is sun. If there is a sunny day they should be biting pretty well. You can catch them in the clouds too but the bite seems to be a lot better when sun is present. We have two seasons where the techniques described below can be deployed; early winter/late fall and early spring/ice-out.
WHERE TO BEGIN
To start your search look for areas that are notorious wintering holes; that is tough for us since we don’t ice fish here at F3, but if you ice fish or someone you know ice fishes your favorite lake go bend their ear. If people catch bass through the ice in an area, chances are they won’t wander too far from these places right before the ice locks in and when the ice goes out. The “aha moment” we had at F3 was that a lot of these areas mimicked summertime areas, especially for smallmouth thus making us realize we were ‘overcomplicating’ the area search. The caveat to that would be remember that the areas fish smaller; so a deep flat that smallmouth roam in July, August, and the better part of September may still hold fish but only on a certain stretch, turn, rock, or irregularity.
Don’t get too hung up on not being able to mark fish on your sonar this time of year either. As we will discuss later, fish more often than not are on the bottom thus making it hard to distinguish them. Look for areas that have quick access to deep water and steep slopes/breaks. Use your electronics to find areas and then keep your eye on your front electronics for activity to pick up and for fish to show themselves. If the fish are in the area you will catch them quickly; if not move on to the next. You may have to burn through a few different areas but once you find them you will know. That sun won’t be out long in these shorter days before December so keep moving until you find them and once they stop biting move onto the next area.
ROD & TACKLE
Rod. Tackle. Singular. This is the time of year you have more layers on your back than you do rods on your deck. Tackle is a blade bait; anywhere from 1/8 to ¾ in size but more often than not we are fishing ½ oz. Silver, Gold, Perch, and Chartreuse all have a time and place where they shine but a good rule of thumb is silver when sunny and gold when cloudy. There are a variety of different brands out there as well as the materials to make your own; the key no matter the brand is something that will get a good amount of vibration with a minimal amount of lift/effort. What I mean by that is you want that bait to start vibrating soon after you lift up on the rod. The fish are pinned down low so you don’t want to have to make aggressive pulls of the bait off the bottom to get that bait to engage. The biggest mistake people make with fishing a blade; myself included at first was over-working the bait and being too aggressive. I had the tendency to rip the blade way up off the bottom and letting it fall back down; it’s too much. Whether you are casting the blade or dropping it down and fishing it vertically, subtle lifts and reeling in the slack are all you need. You can cast the blade out and make subtle lifts back to the boat or if you see something streaking off the bottom on your graph you can drop the blade right down on them.
The hookset is also something that takes a bit of practice and has a slight learning curve. You do not need a big swooping hookset, it is very similar to dropshotting where you are raising the rod tip and speed reeling to catch up to the fish. That is where a high-speed reel comes in handy so you can pick up a lot of line quickly. I like a 6.2:1 Team Lew’s Speed Spin for spinning applications and a 7.3:1 Team Lew’s SLP Custom Speed Spool for casting applications. For the rod a delayed action tip is essential; look for something with a moderate tip. The moderate tip is going to allow for better hook penetration upon setting the hook. If the tip is too responsive you will have a tendency to pull the hooks out of the fish similar to fishing a crankbait. For casting; the Wart Special from Lew’s which is part of their Custom Speed Stick Series is a great rod for this technique. For spinning; the Denali Atta-X shakey head rod is great and also has a moderate tip with plenty of backbone to successfully get those fish to the boat. I could go either way on fishing line here; I see the benefits of fishing straight fluorocarbon line as well as fishing a braid to fluorocarbon leader. My casting setup will have 10lb P-Line Tactical Fluorocarbon and my spinning setup will have 10lb P-Line TCBX-8 Braid in high-vis yellow paired to an 8lb P-Line Tactical Fluorocarbon leader. My reason for that line combo for my spinning outfit is due to that is what I use for vertical presentations and the braid to fluorocarbon combo will help reduce the amount of loops and line twists that seem to increase this time of year given the colder air temperatures.
A lot of fish will come on the fall, so keeping a semi tight line while the blade is on its initial fall will help you detect those bites. Once the bait reaches the bottom I let it sit believe it or not. I also give the bait a period of rest as I am lifting and dropping it back to the boat. I have got a ton of bites when I lift the bait after letting it sit and they pick it up off the bottom. I have caught many smallmouth that have mud and silt in their throat which is evidence they are sucking in the blade off the bottom. Fish will swipe at the bait especially when cloudy; best thing to do is let the bait fall back to the bottom and a lot of times when you pick it up they will be on it. As mentioned above you can vertically drop down on these fish too; the one big surprise I have found with fishing in this cold water is how hard those smallmouth thump the blade. You wouldn’t necessarily think that would be the case when you are talking about water temps being this low but they absolutely do and it is ADDICTING!
It does not matter what brand of electronics you have on your boat, you can follow these simple steps to help you be more successful this time of year. I run Humminbird electronics on my boat so some of the terminology will be unique to this brand but all fish finders have the same user settings somewhere in their menus. On my graph at the wheel, I like to keep things fairly normal; the only adjustment I typically make here is to increase the range on my side imaging units because fish are typically on the bottom and not suspended. I am looking for rocks and humps right now and less concerned with being able to see fish on my side imaging; if they were suspended I would decrease the range to see those individual fish on the screen suspended off the bottom. The shorter range shows the fish suspended in the water column better. I also utilize a convention marker buoy this time of year to mark the top a rock pile, drop off, hump, etc. to maximize the efficiency of casting. My front electronics are where I do the most adjustment and tweaking. I either use the zoom feature of traditional 2D sonar or I turn the surface off of auto and back it down to 15-20’ so I can focus on the bottom 1/3 of the water column. Like I said, typically fish are not suspended off the bottom and most likely are belly on the bottom. I do not care what the other 2/3 of the water column is doing and by focusing efforts on the bottom will give you a better picture of what is going on. I also will turn my sensitivity up or utilize Switchfire Max mode to give an unfiltered image on 2D sonar. There is less sediment, algae, and particles in the water this time of year so Max Mode lends itself very useful despite it being an unfiltered image. By increasing the sensitivity you can help distinguish the belly on the bottom fish as well as being able to see your line and bait dropping down through the water column. With sensitivity being increased I find it best to pair that with chart speed. I turn my chart speed all the way up to 10. Anytime I am fishing vertically I want that refresh rate as high as possible so information is updating constantly. This will allow you to not only see fish better but it will also show you those fish that are streaking off the bottom to come investigate your blade; those fish are typically ones that you can catch. Just about every fish you see on the graph can be caught this time of the year.
Fish care this time of year is critical, especially if you are fishing over deep water for smallmouth. You wouldn’t think you would have to worry about fish care this time of year with water being as cold as it is but the main element of fish care that needs your attention is the fizzing of deep-water fish. The majority of the fish caught this time of year are coming out of water beyond 30’ and believe it or not these fish quickly come to the surface thus not allowing their air bladders to regulate properly. It is evident by the fact the stomachs on these smallmouth are hard as a rock. If you see this happening you need to properly fizz the fish so they can safely return back to their wintertime haunts. There are two main conventional ways to fizz a smallmouth bass but the easiest and least invasive way for me is through the mouth. Take your hypodermic needle and remove the plunger thus giving the air in the bladder a way of escaping. Lip the fish and look for the area just beyond the tongue of the fish but just before the crushers leading to their throat. You will see two bumps on the top of their mouth; the area between those two spots is where the ideal needle placement is for fizzing. If done properly you should immediately see their belly soften and reduce as well as being able to hear the air coming out of the fish. If you cannot hear the air it is best to place the fish in the livewell with the needle injected to see if bubbles are coming out of the needle thus meaning air is escaping the fish. Every fish I have caught that I have had to fizz have all swam away right back to where they came from. This takes some time and some patience but it is paramount to ensuring fish return safely. Stay tuned because we will be putting out a quick “how-to” video at F3 on how to follow this exact same process.
I am not talking smart casual here business folks. I am talking about dressing in layers to keep you insulated and warm but not adding bulk and thus hindering your dexterity. We are blessed at F3 to work with the great people at Simms Fishing. Simms has some great products especially for this time of year to keep your head in the game and your body warm. Simms also has found the balance of warm gear that you can layer up and not add bulk. Here are a few of our favorite Simms offerings this time of year at F3:
Rouge Fleece Hoody
Wildcard Knit Hat
Rivershed ¼ Zip Sweater
Bass Lockup Beanie
Pro Dry Jacket & Bibs
Waderwick Core Crewneck & Bottom
Guide Thermal Socks
Waderwick Thermal Top
Fleece Midlayer Top
Guide Windbloc ½ Mitt
Rogue Fleece Vest
Wool Half Finger Glove
Coldweather LS Shirt
The key is keeping your head, hands, and feet warm. Bring multiple pairs of gloves because they will get wet by handling fish, fizzing fish, etc. Once they are wet change them out; cold wet hands will make you miserable quickly. Using a net to land fish this time of year will increase the amount of time you get out of a pair of gloves as well. Bringing spare warm clothes is also a must this time of year. Accidents can happen; if by chance you fall in being able to get out of wet clothes can save your life. Dress appropriately, defy the elements, and go out to load the boat with fish!
Keep your eye out on our social media platforms at Freak Finder Fishing we have a new video coming out highlighting a lot of these key concepts and of course some big, beautiful smallmouth bass. Tight lines…keep fishing.