Early Winter Trophy Smallmouths - Major League Fishing

Early Winter Trophy Smallmouths

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How Matt Stefan targets big bronze before the freeze
November 30, 2016 • Matt Stefan • Angler Columns

Matt Stefan

Unfortunately, for most of us in the North Country, the fishing season is coming to an end. Ice has begun to cover several of the shallow ponds and bays off larger lakes, and it will only be a matter of days before the lakes are completely frozen over and ice fisherman start their yearly ritual.

But I won’t accept defeat yet and continue my search for giant smallmouth bass. I’m not talking about 4-pound-class fish, but rather fish that comprise 30-pound stringers and the potential for old records to be broken.

Late fall and early winter are truly the times to catch giants. The smallies have finished putting on the feedbag and have worked their way out to their wintering holes. These fish are grouped up and FAT.

I get a lot of questions about where to begin in this quest, and the first thing I tell anyone is that you need to dress accordingly. It’s not uncommon to be fishing in temperatures that never break freezing, and the proper clothing is necessary to keep you on the water. Also, bring some sand in case the boat launch freezes over. Sand on the ramp helps provide traction to get your boat out of the water and can potentially keep your tow vehicle from sliding down the ramp and into the lake. I have seen too many close calls from unprepared fisherman.

Once on the water you will want to key in on deep points and humps. I like to look for a flat spot off the end of a point or a hump on the tip of a point with deeper water nearby. The fish are almost always sitting on the flat spot or the hump off the point.

Depth really depends on the water color. In some lakes the smallies winter in 10 to 15 feet of water, and in others they might winter 35 feet deep or deeper. The key is to continue fishing at the depth where you caught your first bass since, in my opinion, they seem to consistently utilize the same water depth throughout a lake.

Here are two examples of likely locations to find wintering smallmouths.

Hump, PointHump, Point

I have several baits tied up and utilize them all until a pattern or preference begins to show. Regardless of lure choice, you need to make sure you keep bottom contact and fish slowly. The smallmouths will literally be touching the bottom and sitting shoulder to shoulder. They can be so tight to the bottom that they sometimes have mud on their bellies when they’re landed, and they’re often difficult to graph with electronics.

My first lure choice is almost always a swimbait since smallmouths key on baitfish this time of year. I recently helped design a new prototype swimbait head specifically for this type of fishing called the Head Spin by Dirty Jigs. This swimbait head paired with a Keitech Swing Impact has caught several smallmouth for me over 6 pounds this fall. The head has a small built-in propeller, which creates some flash and turbulence that the smallmouths can’t resist.

If the swimbait is not working I like to drag a green pumpkin ISG Dream Tube on the bottom and always have a Rapala Jigging Rap ready for when I do see a fish on the graph directly below the boat.

Finding these late-season smallmouths can be difficult, and I have had lots of days when I never got a bite. But when you do get a bite it has the potential to be a giant, and often there are a lot more smallmouths in that same spot, so when you get one to bite you can fire up that school and catch multiple fish.

Potentially, those smallmouths will use the same spot every winter, so once you catch a few you might have identified a spot that will pay off for years to come. 

One last thing; please release them back immediately. Catching these fish from deep water can cause their air bladders to inflate, and putting them in your livewell for pictures will only cause undue stress on the fish.