Tough Trophy: Winter Smallmouth Bass

A stretch of mild weather that loosens winter's grip is an alarm bell for stream smallmouth anglers fed up with being stuck indoors. And with this year’s lack of significant snows, that mild weather isn’t going to send buckets of meltwater into Midwestern waterways.

Some, like my friend Jim Carpenter, would rather put on a pair of waders and jump right on into the streams to fish for winter smallmouth bass than any other way. For Carpenter, wade fishing a cold stream for bronzebacks is a surefire way to melt away the winter doldrums.

Jim says this is a labor intensive style of fishing. On the downside, hours spent casting and retrieving at a painstakingly slow pace may produce just a few bites. On the upside, the payoff could be your biggest stream smallmouth of the year.

"This is probably one of your better times to catch some quality or trophy-sized fish in these streams," said Carpenter. "The fish aren’t overly active because they're not feeding a heavily. It's not a numbers game, but it's a quality time of year."

It pays to act swiftly and decisively when a mid or late winter warm-up settles in and persists for a few days. That means having the necessities – rod, reel, waders, lures, a valid fishing license – ready to grab and go. When the stream is right, go. A spring rain shower, a return to winter-like weather and the opportunity window can slam shut.

Wadeable streams are scattered throughout the our area within a moderate driving distance. Still, no one wants to drive only to find conditions different than they expected and unsuitable. Since stream conditions can change with little notice, particularly after a heavy rain or snow, it pays to pick out a few potential destinations. The statewide streamflow table available on the U.S. Geological Survey's website at www.usgs.gov is the next best thing to laying eyes on a stream to determine if it's high and muddy or clear and fishable.

Jim suggest concentrating on areas with prime winter habitat, such as deep holes with undercut banks, logs or boulders, in close proximity to feeding shoals or stream drops. The deeper water concentrates smallmouth and other fish.

"When I say deep water, it's relative to that stream," Carpenter said. "In a lot of these winter spots, these fish will school up. Areas providing all of a smallmouth’s needs as far as food and refuge and shelter from the current are often far between, so when you find a great location, you have the ability to catch quite a few fish."

Subtle lures tied to 4- or 6-pound test line are good bets. Small, soft plastic bodies rigged on 1/16- to 1/8-ounce lead heads are good producers. You can still catch them on the lures you would throw during the summer but know that they're not going to chase as much so slow down and get the bait right in front of them.

Repeated casts are very important this time of year. Even though you think you're throwing to the same spot, you're going to be hitting different nooks and crannies because of the current. It may just take the bait coming by the fish perfectly before it decides it's worth expending energy to go get it.

Cast upstream and toward the opposite bank and let the current help the lure along while imparting action with the occasional gentle flick of the rod tip. Don't allow too much slack in the line. Strikes may be faint and can easily fool an angler into thinking the lure simply nicked a rock or brushed against a submerged log. Most of all, keep a positive mental outlook. That will help anglers maintain focus and make the best of this annual, but fleeting opportunity.

Your 2015 Indiana fishing license is valid through the end of March.

Related link: Indiana Real-Time Water Levels