Winter is (also) Smallmouth Season
Cold-weather angling means big fish and peaceful streams, but Indiana's poor river and stream access can limit opportunities
We’ve all heard the claims “hunt with this and you’ll kill a huge buck, fish with this never-fail lure, visit the world's best fishing spot.” Years ago there was one fishing lure advertisement that claimed the lure was so good it was outlawed in most states.
These outrageous claims are nothing new. Usually it’s some scammer trying to sell you something. At the risk of becoming labeled one myself I’m about to make a bold statement: If you follow my suggestions in this article you will catch more and bigger smallmouth bass from Indiana rivers and streams – guaranteed.
So what is this earth shaking information? Simply put: Fish Indiana rivers during the dead of winter.
I’m so confident in my claim that I’m going to go even farther out on a limb. This technique is so effective I’m hesitant to share this information because I actually fear it might be detrimental to smallmouth bass populations.
My fear is probably unwarranted since I don’t know any smallmouth fisherman worth his or her salt that doesn’t practice catch and release. In addition this technique can require a lot of walking.
I think it’s obvious that all fishermen want to catch more and bigger fish. However, the number of fishermen willing to walk the necessary miles to practice this technique may be very low.
So what is this earth shaking information? Simply put: Fish Indiana rivers during the dead of winter.
I know this sounds extremely simple, but trust me, this is a game changer. One February day four years ago the red line on the thermometer was tagging 50 degrees. I was sitting at home bored to death. I desperately needed to get outdoors but I wasn’t sure what to do once I got there.
Out of desperation I grabbed my fly rod and waders and headed out the door. As I climbed into my Jeep I had very low expectations for the afternoon’s fishing trip. My destination was a little stream fifteen minutes from home.
It’s not unusual for me to fish this little jewel of a stream if I want a quick evening fish fix. The fishable holes are more than a half a mile apart with each hole offering little more than 30 minutes of fishing. The hole I chose was one of the deeper ones with a sweeping outside bend covered with riprap.
While tying on my favorite go-to fly, a chartreuse and white Clouser Minnow, I thought “what a waste of time.” On my second cast I caught a 12-inch smallie. I assumed it was a fluke.
The cast had been placed well upstream and I slowly bounced the Clouser across the bottom. Two casts later and 10 feet further downstream I was firmly attached to a beautiful 18-incher.
This scenario repeated itself five more times during the following 25 minutes. All fish, excluding the first, were 16 to 18 inches long. As I was walking back to my Jeep I was talking to myself trying to find a logical explanation for what had just taken place. Was this a fluke or was it typical winter fishing?
I was hoping for the latter but only time would tell. In past years I’d taken some nice fish from this hole but I’d never experienced that quality of fishing on this stream or any other stream for that matter.
It was as if I were fishing totally different streams. Where were these big fish during the summer months?
When you're an addicted smallmouth fisherman an experience like that is hard to get out of your head. I had many more questions than I had answers.
I must be a slow learner. All that first winter I kept trying to convince myself that winter fishing couldn’t be that radically different from summer fishing. However, time after time I repeated the same experience I’d had on my first day of winter fishing.
It was as if I were fishing totally different streams. Where were these big fish during the summer months? And why were they so aggressive and vulnerable in the near freezing water?
But winter fishing isn’t easy. So far I’ve only found smallmouth inhabiting the deepest holes in the river. For me that means a great deal of walking from one productive spot to another.
Related Articles: Rivers and Streams - Public or Private? , Are You Trespassing? Know the Rules of Indiana's Waterways, Don’t Underestimate Small Streams, Cold Crappie
My friend Aaron Jenkins had permission to fish a stretch of a small stream fairly close to my home. The landowner owned approximately 3 miles of stream. One Sunday afternoon Aaron and I walked the entire 3 miles. Neither of us had ever fished this stretch of the stream and had no idea where to find the deeper water.
We found one 1/4 mile of river that was mostly limestone. This turned out to be the only piece of water that held any fish, the upside is it held a ton of big fish in the deep plunge pools.
I stood in one spot, never moving my feet, and landed four 16-inch smallmouth bass in rapid succession. I’ve never had an experience similar to that during the summer months.
Stories about big fish can get boring very quickly so I’ll knock it off. However I will tell you that the last three years of winter fishing has been just as good as the first. I’ll go fishing if the temperature is above 45 degrees not because this is the optimal temperature to go fishing but because I hate being cold.
Fishing might be good when the air temperature dips below 45 but I’ll never find out. I had one of my best days ever when a light snow was melting and warm runoff water was slightly raising stream temperatures.
I always fish in the warmest part of the day, late afternoon and early evening. Morning fishing might be great but I’ll be home drinking hot tea and watching the thermometer.
Public access to our rivers and streams is awful and I don’t see it getting any better in the near future.
You don't need any special equipment for your winter smallmouth adventure. For fly-fishermen it’s a sink-tip line, 6 feet of 6 pound fluorocarbon tippet and a Clouser Minnow.
I always fish a Clouser because I haven’t found any reason to try something else. By far the best color combination has been chartreuse and orange. Spin fisherman should try dredging the bottom with a chartreuse and orange, 1/4 ounce hair jig. I fish my flys a little slower in the winter months, but not by much.
Now that I've let the cat out of the bag I’m begging you to release ALL of the smallmouth bass you catch. A lot of the fish I’ve caught these past four winters were probably between 6 and 8 years old. It takes a long time to grow a big smallmouth.
Land them quickly and handle them gently. Use barbless hooks, they’re easier on the fish and much easier to remove from your finger. I haven’t fished with a barbed hook since I had one removed from my eye 40 years ago. I don’t feel I’ve ever lost a fish because my hook didn’t have a barb on it.
Just when you're heading out the door with your rod in one hand and your waders in the other, I’m going to poke a stick in your spokes. Unless you know someone willing to allow you access to one of those wonderful Hoosier smallmouth streams you may as well take up golf.
Even though I believe the Indiana Department of Natural Resources is second-to-none someone has dropped the ball. Public access to our rivers and streams is awful and I don’t see it getting any better in the near future. I don’t know why we don’t have better access but I would assume it’s because Indiana sportsmen and women haven’t pressured state politicians.
If you don’t ask for it you sure as hell aren’t going to get it. Some states, Wisconsin for example, have tremendous access to private waters. In the southwest corner of the state alone there are thousands of miles of public access trout streams on private property. I’m not sure how that came to pass, but we need to find out.
There are a few Indiana rivers that are open to the public and can be accessed via boat ramps. The White River comes to mind as does Sugar Creek. Both are great smallmouth fisheries, however they must be fished from a boat of some sort because the land bordering the river is almost exclusively private.
Additional Resources: Indiana Natural Resources Commission Navigable Waterway Roster
If you should decide to try your hand at winter fishing your first priority is to stay warm and dry. Hypothermia should be taken very seriously. If you are unfortunate enough to step in over your waders or flip your canoe it could very well be a deadly mistake.
Always have a warm, dry change of clothes handy, especially if you are floating. It’s also a good idea to carry some type of waterproof lighter so you can build a fire to warm up before continuing downstream.
One of the biggest advantages of winter fishing is having the river to yourself. If you’re seeking solitude, winter stream fishing may well be the answer to your problem. The only company I've ever had was a landowner checking to see if he had an illegal trapper.
After determining that I was the guy he had given permission to fish earlier in the year the landowner asked me “do you ever catch anything on that thing,” referring to my fly rod. At that exact moment the stars aligned and I set the hook on a nice smallmouth. The landowner threw his hands in the air and muttered “if I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t believe it.”
Shadley’s interest in hunting, fishing and a ton of other outdoor activities started at a very young age. He was hunting and fly-fishing on his own when he was eleven; it’s always been his passion.
He was employed by the Indiana DNR as a conservation officer for 34 years. For the first 17 years, Shadley worked southeastern Indiana as a field officer. For the last 17 years he was in charge of Indiana’s Turn In a Poacher program (TIP) and was the chief public relations officer for the law enforcement division.
Since his retirement he’s spent most of his time fly-fishing, shooting sporting clays, hunting and photographing wildlife.
Shadley is Fishing Editor of the Sporting Report.
Been doing winter fishing for 20 years. They pack into places they van survive. It is what makes smallmouth so susceptible to river otter predation. In the summer and spring they spread out. If you aren't getting them, I suggest leaving the fly rod at home and double or triple your cast distances otherwise you spook the big ones. Good article.