By Phil Fiscella
A 19-3/4" smallmouth bass and five other nice bass. Not bad for an afternoon in Central Illinois. But here's the kicker - it's January 29, the water is 36 degrees, and two or three feet higher than normal. I thought bass migrated to some mysterious deep pool and went dormant when it got cold. Maybe you could catch them if you fished real slow, real deep, with live bait - maybe. I thought wrong.
I had read and reread an article in Bassmaster (November 1997) by Butch Ward. He claimed to be able to catch smallmouth bass regularly between the temperatures of 42 and 37 degrees, all winter long. Finally I thought I'd call him - heck, it's only ten cents a minute. Butch was very helpful and sent me some of the hair jigs and tube jigs he uses. He said he was waiting for the water to rise two or three feet and really get rippin'. I thought he was crazy. Butch explained that as long as the water was low and shallow, the fish would stay deep. But once it got really high and rolling they would have to move to slow areas behind objects because they couldn't hold in the fast cold water. I fished some deep pools when the water was low and cold (34 - 41 degrees), and sure enough, I caught fish. Then, when the water went up two feet, I fished the areas behind roots, rock bars, points, and trees - places where the water was still or barely moving, just like Butch said to. And guess what? I still caught fish.
So here it is: Fish don't stop biting, they just move out of the current. There are not many places with still or slow moving water once the river gets up two or three feet. Most of these calm, dead areas are small, less than ten by ten feet, and right up against the bank, so locating the fish is easy. Fish these areas with tube jigs from 1/16 to 1/4 ounce size with a slow stop-and-go retrieve. Try several colors or sizes in each spot. Some Vaseline or grease on your rod guides will keep them from freezing up. Butch fishes regularly from a jon boat on a big river. So far, I have just walked the banks and targeted eddies and dead spots. Be careful to step lightly as most fish will be right up against the bank and caught below where you are standing. I am excited about it not warming up for a couple months now. Instead of sitting inside waiting for spring so I can get out and fish, I am pulling in smallmouth regularly and having a great time. I've really enjoyed the challenge of learning to read the water in high water conditions which change the character of the rivers and streams I am accustomed to fishing in warm weather. Be sure to dress warmly because once you get hooked on cold-weather smallmouth fishing, you won't want to stop.