With Smallmouth Expert: Justin Boyer
Smallmouth bass are a common target across the United States throughout the open water season. They are arguably one of the most aggressive, predatory fish found in fresh water. However, this statement doesn’t necessarily hold quite true on ice. Contrary to common misconceptions, these fish don’t necessarily operate quite the same way year round. Fisherman are familiar with the incredible fall bite on most smallmouth fisheries. The fish sense the impending change in seasons and put on the feed bag accordingly. As winter arrives and temperatures drop, the feeding frenzy and activity follow suit.
Blake Tollefson: How does one go about finding winter smallmouth?
Justin Boyer: The first step in icing smallmouth is finding a wintering area. I start by investigating lake maps and looking for rock humps and long rocky points either surrounded by deep water or adjacent to deep water. Another important reminder is keeping tabs on my best days of fishing during the late fall. These fish will tend to remain close to those same areas once ice cover the lake.
Once I’ve done some chart reconnaissance, and located an area I want to fish, I set out to pick the area apart in more detail.
Blake Tollefson: Do smallmouth act like other species in the winter?
Justin Boyer: One of the best parts about locating ice time smallies is that they do not roam great distances. They don’t operate like panfish and lake trout. Most smallmouth are extremely lethargic. In other terms, once you locate the fish, the chances of icing a smallmouth are pretty good.
Smallmouth typically act in one of two ways below the ice. We can cover this in more detail later on.
Blake Tollefson: How do you get set up in an area for smallmouth bass?
Justin Boyer: After I’ve done some mapping homework, I start cutting holes. I try to pattern my holes to ensure I cover all directions of the hump or structure I’m fishing. Once the holes are drilled, I pattern the depths and contour the area. It’s extremely important to become familiar with the area that you’re fishing. I locate the highest point of the structure, as well as the areas that are adjacent to deeper water.
I also rely on an underwater camera to pinpoint the exact bottom content and the contours of the surrounding area.
Through my use of an underwater camera, I have actually determined which fish I should be fishing for. As discussed briefly, there are two types of smallmouth, active and inactive. Inactive fish will typically stay belly down on rocky bottoms, and almost act in a comatose state. Active ice smallmouth, on the other hand, will typically stay about a foot off bottom and roam throughout the area.
I focus my efforts on these active, more catchable fish.
Blake Tollefson: What kind of gear do you use to ice winter smallmouth?
Justin Boyer: I typically take a finesse approach to putting smallmouth on the ice. I rely on light and light tackle. Lots of fisherman use larger profile spoons and lures, but I’ve found the finesse approach to work effectively. Through my experience, I have found larger baits to have the potential to spook the often very lethargic fish.
Rods: I typically use a Medium or Medium Light. I will often tip them work a spring bobber in order to detect light bites.
Reels: I rely on higher quality trout/ice fishing sized reels. My personal preference is Okuma reels.
Line: 4 - 6 pound monofilament suits these applications well. A fluorocarbon leader can also help if the fish are line shy.
As I mentioned before, winter smallmouth are often lethargic and are not often hunting out meals. They will typically not expend massive amounts of energy to find food. During the winter, they are more of an opportunistic feeder. I use finesse baits in order to prompt these fish to my bite. My personal favorites are the Eurotackle Drop-X Tungsten Jigs, tipped with micro plastics like the Eurogrub and Y-Fry.
In certain situations, darting baits and rattle baits really tend to excel. I rely on the Z-Darter and Z-Viber, as well as a few other blade style baits.
Blake Tollefson: Now that we’ve talked about what to use, how do you use those tools?
Justin Boyer: Knowing how non aggressive these fish can be, I work the baits as such. I use small, vibrating jigging strokes to call the fish in. It could be compared to a quivering action. Once I’ve coaxed some fish in, I move the bait away slightly to imitate an evading action. As fish close in, I focus on the tip of the rod. Winter smallmouth will often suck the bait in, so watching the tip is extremely important.
Blake Tollefson: Anything else you’d like to share?
Justin Boyer: The final point I’d like to stress is the importance of catch and release. Everyone wants that perfect fish picture, but don’t sacrifice a fish over a simple picture. Proper handling is very vital during this time of year. Be cognizant of how long the fish is out of water. In extreme cold, keep the fish in the water until you are ready to take the picture. Snap a quick picture and get the fish back. Fins, eyes, and gills can freeze in a hurry. The key to keeping great fisheries alive lies within every angler.
Hopefully these tips and information can help you on your hunt for winter smallmouth. These patterns are proven and have helped anglers across the ice belt.