JEFF KNAPP: Small baits work best for cold-weather bass
Cold water smallmouth bass personify the adage “less is more.” When water temperatures drop into the mid-40s and colder, petite presentations that merely suggest a bit of action often trigger a positive response from chilly smallies.
“Without question, as the water gets cold, to consistently continue to catch smallmouth bass you must use smaller baits,” Al Winco said.
Winco, owner of eastern Pennsylvania-based Winco’s Custom Lures, produces a number of finesse baits ideal for pursuing wintertime bronzebacks. An array of Winco’s cold water smallie baits includes the Undulator, Chillie Willie, Willie Wanabee, G& W Krinkle Cut Worm and Cold Water Hare’s Delight, all of which run from 2ﾼ to 3ﾽ inches long. While these baits feature various profiles and appendages, they all share a common characteristic: a thin tail that allows it to subtly quiver while the bait remains motionless.
“The other big factor is the ‘center balance’ of the bait,” Winco added. “When a center-balanced bait is rigged on a football head, or one of our Flutter Head jigs, the bait will stand up at a 45-degree angle, the perfect position for a lethargic smallmouth.”
Winco’s obsession with balanced soft bait/jig combos that stand up comes from his experiences fishing the areas where cold water smallmouths congregate, particularly on rivers.
“The same slackwater situation that attracts smallmouth bass to eddy-type areas this time of year also collects a lot of debris,” Winco noted. “So the bottom you are fishing over is likely lined with a layer of leaf litter. You need a bait that stands upright, with the tail rising up, for bass to see it. This position also provides the best hooking ratio. The proof is bass that are hooked in the roof of the mouth.”
While most of Winco’s baits feature soft-plastic bodies, the wise use of natural materials can also create offerings with just the right look to coax a frosty smallmouth into clamping its jaws, a point well-made to me by a regular client of my fishing guide service.
“I’ve found rabbit fur to be the ideal material for tying hair jigs for smallies,” John Wilpula said at the start of a recent outing. We went on to boat 70 brown bass up to 18 inches, many of them on his fur jig.
“I’ve found bucktail to be too stiff for the best subtle action in cold water. And marabou can wad up. Rabbit fur seems to have the best all-around qualities. It pulsates and breathes, even when the jig is motionless.”
Wilpula creates his rabbit fur jig by first typing in a 1ﾽ- to 2-inch tail of rabbit zonker strip. He then winds on a light body with a strip of crosscut rabbit fur, finishing up with a wrap of thread at the jighead. Typically, Wilpula ties his fur jig on a mushroom-style jighead, or a football head. Wilpula prefers the stand-up qualities of the football head when the water is ultra-cold.
No selection of cold water smallmouth bass baits is complete without the curlytail grub. But just any curly tail won’t do. There’s something nearly magical about the way cold water smallies hit Venom’s Galidas Grubz (www.galidasgrubz. com), even in water temperatures below 40 degrees. Perhaps it’s the heavily ribbed body (Winco’s baits also have heavy ribs), the ultra-thin tail, or just the right size. Regardless of why brown bass like it, the fact is they do, making it a profile that must be tried in the quest to discover Sir Smallie’s preference of the day.
Fishing for cold water smallmouth bass is a unique pursuit. A decade or two ago the thought of catching smallmouth bass in water temperatures in the 30s was largely unheard of. So the game is somewhat of a “just how cold can the water get and still catch these guys?” kind of affair. Arm yourself with these baits and you’ll do a fine job of putting that question to an honest test.