Trophy Smallmouth

What’s A Trophy-Sized Smallie?
The best way to know what a trophy-sized smallie is by putting your hands together in front of you and spread them until you smile. That’s a trophy.

Smallmouth Bass Basics
First, I suggest you take a box of jigs, finesse baits, and a bucket of tuffies or shiners fishing. Second, (and personally) I think spinning gear is more appropriate for smallies with line ranging from four- to six-pound test. Third, a topo map of the lake will help you locate smallie topography. If you are fishing a river-lake, I recommend casting to main lake structure near the channel. Then move to secondary river bars or islands that have a gradual slope before dropping into the channel. Slack water and eddies around these structures are superior places to fish because this is where smallmouth bass find food easy to catch.

The good thing about fishing for smallmouth in winter is that they tend to run in packs. Hanging one smallie is a good indication there are more around about the same size. If you catch several small smallies, move elsewhere to find your trophy. You may only have to move but a couple of yards to find it.

If you are on a non-river-run reservoir such Dale Hollow, you should still be hitting the main channel structures but also hit some of the big creeks areas looking for rocky or gravel flats and humps. Try to locate creeks that are spring fed or have some current. Water that’s a couple of degrees warmer makes a big difference in your catch rate during the wintertime. After casting where the bottom is less than eight feet deep with a Texas-rigged short worm (six inches or less), turn to your trusty jig. A quarter-ounce black jig with a black Uncle Josh 101 pork trailer cast into eight feet of water and worked down to about 20 feet should cover the smallmouth’s hang out.

A finesse bait – a short worm or tube on a Kahle hook will be more attractive to inactive smallies. With their metabolism at the lowest point of the year, they may have to be coaxed into biting. You finesse them by offering them something small and easy to eat.

When smallies are aggressive put on a bigger bait, an imitation crawfish, so the loud splash says “come and get it!” The bait that makes a lot of noise bouncing over the gravel gets eaten by the active smallies. This noise also helps the fish locate the bait since they can hear it from over 30 feet away, out of sight. Never mind that it’s too cold for real crawfish to be about, the bait still looks good to smallies.

Gravel and boulders on points and banks are two more good features to look for. If they meet a clay bank, so much the better. These bass like that transition between the two textures.

Drifting tuffies or shiners is more conducive to fishing the flats and bluffs. I suggest you put out a line rigged with an 1/8-ounce egg sinker held by a split-shot about two feet above a number 1 or 1/0 Kahle hook. Drop it to the bottom then reel in a couple of cranks to fish the minnow about two feet off the bottom while drifting over a flat next to the channel or along a ledge.

Guide, Gene Austin of Nashville (615-871-4109), started winter fishing in the seventh grade on Dale Hollow. He fishes a 1/16-ounce hair jig, often called a fly, that is designed with the hair bunched at the head. The fly is cast with a six-foot ultralight rod on six-pound test line. Austin says that a “naked” brown and orange fly is best, no minnow.

The small fly’s design allows it to fall very slowly. Austin will “pop” the fly off the bottom. This motion causes the lure to suspend momentarily because of the bunched hair. Austin says that he has caught a world of smallmouth with this method and calls it one of the deadliest smallmouth lures around. He says this method works best at transition zones, where a bank of rock changes to mud, or off bluffs with shelves at 10 feet. When most artificial bait anglers are jigging jigs, pro angler D.D. Fuller uses a lipless crankbait. He has developed a technique that has been very productive. First he locates fish by using his sonar along rock bluffs on the northwest side of the lake. Once he locates fish, he positions his boat parallel to the bluff. He says, “Normally, this is where you find the warmest water during winter. Smallmouth use the vertical rocks to maintain the desired water temperature without traveling a long distance.” D.D. uses a 1/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap in a color that matches the forage, usually shad. Since the 1/4-ounce Trap descends at six inches per second, he increases the fall rate by adding a 1/2-ounce worm weight pegged with part of a toothpick.

He makes a long parallel cast to the bluff then hand-feeds the line to make the lure fall straight down while counting the rate of fall. When the lure is in the strike zone, he pumps the lure two or three times. When he starts to get a little slack in the line, he cranks the reel to maintain contact with the lure. This is important.

D.D. repeats the pumping until the lure is directly under the boat and then jigs it like a spoon. Then he reels it in and repeats the process. Keep in mind that most strikes are soft in winter, so pay close attention to your line. You want to talk about a trophy smallie; Dale Hollow Lake is the home of the Tennessee’s record. David Hays landed an 11-pound, 15-ounce record in 1955 on the 13th of July. July, however, is not the hottest month for smallies on Dale Hollow. December to March is the best time period. Some guides say good winter areas on Dale Hollow are Horse and Indian Creeks towards the dam, and Big Eagle Creek and the first couple of miles up the Obey River on the upper end. But guide, John Cates, who uses the minnow method, says wintertime hot spots are mid-lake from Willow Grove boat ramp in Irons Creek to Mitchell Creek.

I think we can sum it up by saying the entire reservoir is trophy smallmouth country, some anglers just have their favorite spots. Cates casts five-inch shiners on a 2/0 gold hook from an ultralight rod with four-pound test line to channel bluffs, points and islands. I’ve fished with him a number of times and he rarely catches less than a trophy smallmouth. The fish can see well in the clear water, so you don’t have to sink your bait to the bottom. They can pick out the silhouette of an injured baitfish against the sky from 30 feet deep. At quick swim to the baitfish, and you have a fish on.

Gene Austin, mentioned earlier, grew up guiding on Dale Hollow, and he says from January to the second week of March is the major transition period on Dale Hollow Lake. It’s the best time of year for trophy smallmouth bass. Austin is a jig fisherman. As a rule he uses an 1/8-ounce leadhead with a 4-inch chartreuse, smoke or pearl grub. His jigging varies according to the weather. If it’s a bright sunny day, he starts at 15 feet deep and fishes out to about 25 feet. He tries two or three of his best places at this depth. If he doesn’t catch anything, he goes back to fish those same spots again but a lot deeper.

Austin tries to find a pattern early. That means catching three fish at the same depth on the same structure. If he can get three fish, on mud, gravel, little shelves or the side of a channel point, he knows he can go to any of the places like that and catch fish.

On dark overcast days smallies move up and he starts fishing at 6 feet and fishes the water down to 18 feet.

Cloudy windy days are the best on Dale. Cloud cover and wind cut down on the smallie’s visual acuity. Austin says that the windy banks are best because of the wave action. The water becomes dingy, dislodges food and, if the wind blows long enough, pushes baitfish near the bank. This creates good conditions for picking up smallmouth in shallow water. He adds that you need to give the smallies the slowest presentation you can. Cast your jig, watch your line and be patient until it hits the bottom. The key to fishing in winter is that you have to fish as slow as you think you possibly can, and then slow it down.

It’s hard to fish slowly in the wind but it’s the best time. Fish the main channel points and the secondary points, the long tapering points that gradually go from two feet to 50 feet deep. He recommends positioning your boat in about 30 feet of water and fish the point at about the 10-foot depth.

Next go to little gravel banks that have a drop. There are a lot of these located between the main channel point and the secondary points in Kyle Branch, Indian Creek, Horse Creek, Long Branch, Lick Run and many up Mitchell Creek. Many of these banks have shelves (locate them with your sonar) at about 18 or 20 feet deep. Some will have three or more shelves that stair-step. If bass want to feed, all they have to do is swim up from 30 or 40 feet. It’s a very short distance from that depth to a shallow gravel flat where food is found.

Cold Water Tactics For Trophies
A good trophy smallmouth area will have four things:

  1. a shallow water food shelf,
  2. a spawning area,
  3. nearby deep water with
  4. a sharp drop-off for quick escape.

All must be within 200 to 300 yards of each other. The key is to locate the spawning bed. First, look for shallow water shelves or flats with sandy or gravel bottoms. The depths will be three to 14 feet for small bass, and eight to 14 for trophies. If you can find areas like this near large boulders, even better. Smallies are a main lake fish, so don’t look in small coves. Now, why it is important to recognize spawning beds even in January? Because many smallmouth relate to one area of the lake all their lives, this is even more so among older fish. Many live and die within 200 yards of where they were hatched. Remember that the fish will drop off into deeper water once the water temperature falls below 55 degrees and continue sliding deeper as the water cools.

You may find them 40 to 45 feet deep once the water temperature drops below 50 degrees. It can be a lot of hard work and very time consuming but it’s worth it to find good smallie areas. Bigger fish are usually deeper than smaller ones.

Bottom Line
I believe you can take the techniques offered by the above anglers and apply them to your favorite waters and, with persistence, come away with your trophy.