How to Catch Monster Winter Smallmouths
A fishing guide explains how to catch your biggest smallmouth of the season—in the dead of winter
There’s a reason why Delaware and Susquehanna rivers guide Blaine Mengel doesn’t stow his rods after fall. Though smallmouth bass may be harder to hook in moving winter water, Mengel catches some of his biggest fish from December through February. “Small bass eat very small forage in winter,” he says. “Big fish may feed less often, but they’ll be looking for larger food that provides lots of energy.”
Success comes from tracking the weather, using the sun, and finding ideal bottom structure. Follow Mengel’s strategy, and you’ll stay in the smallmouth game while other anglers lounge on the couch.
“Anywhere there’s a transition from hard to soft bottom is a great place to start,” says Mengel. The reason? Baitfish prefer a soft bottom—something the smallies know. Mengel looks for sandy 7- to 10-foot-deep eddies on west-facing banks because they get the most sun. During the warmest part of the day you can hook up on a diving twitchbait such as an XCalibur Xt3 worked super slowly with long pauses.
Mengel targets slack rock eddies with soft bottom during slight warming trends. “With their metabolism slowed, these fish won’t dart into the current to eat,” he says. “But barely twitch a soft-plastic tube in the calm eddy head and you can pick one or two off.”
If all else fails, find a 15- to 20-foot-deep slack hole and have at it. “You’ll mark a ton of fish,” Mengel says. “But these are the hardest to catch.” Here, Mengel uses rabbit-or fox-hair jigs, as the material pulses even when the jig sits motionless on the bottom. Keep the jig still, imparting the slightest occasional twitch. “I call a winter strike a ‘feel funny.’ If something feels funny, set the hook.”
Sunny Side Up
Smallies actually will move around in winter. West-facing banks get the most sun, so hit them at the warmest point in the day. You might find a few fish searching for food wherever hard bottom meets soft.