Although these encounters test your mettle and enrich your life, few outdoor pursuits compare to December fishing for smallmouth bass in the snow. The activity seems incongruent - floating in a boat on ice-free water with white frozen snow lining the banks. You seem completely out of place, casting a hair jig, the float and fly or a shiner with snow in your eyelashes. You feel you should be at home; that it is dangerous to fish in such weather.
Except it may be the best weather condition for catching the largest smallmouth bass you'll ever hold.
"On an overcast snowy day, light will be greatly diffused," said Gerry Buynak, assistant director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "This brings the smallmouths up shallower and they can be easier to fool. They are more likely to strike an artificial lure because of less light penetration."
Anglers should take advantage of this. In our premier winter smallmouth lakes such as Lake Cumberland, Dale Hollow Lake and Laurel River Lake, anything than can get smallmouth out of their usual deep-water lairs is a blessing. These lakes are so clear you can see where you chipped paint from your jig head in 10 feet of water. This water clarity pushes smallmouths deep for most of the year during the day, but snowfall and a leaden sky bring them up to feed.
"I also think it is a pressure-related thing," said Ted Crowell, former assistant director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. "Snow brings along with it low barometric pressure. It is just like when it rains in summer. This turns fish on."
Crowell has spent many a winter day chasing smallmouths at Lake Cumberland and Dale Hollow. "It is unbelievable, the fish you can catch in December in the snow," he said. "There's nobody else on the lake. There's nobody in the parking lot. It's great."
Effects on Baitfish
Also, unstable weather places predators at an advantage over prey. The changing weather of a snow storm and the cold of winter disorient baitfish and smallmouth bass gobble up all they can. This is especially true for larger female smallmouths who must store up fat reserves for egg development in early spring. They need to eat.
The plummeting water temperatures of December also stress baitfish such as shad or alewives. They swim in circles and quiver as they fight death. This is why the float and fly technique is so deadly in winter. A small, light craft hair or duck feather jig suspended on light line 8 to 12 feet deep perfectly imitates baitfish in their death throes.
Another highly productive technique is suspending a large crappie minnow or medium-sized shiner under a bobber 6 to 10 feet deep off points. The bobber flutters on top until it abruptly torpedoes toward the bottom. Smallmouth bass that hit live bait in winter don't fool around. They strike fiercely.
Both of these techniques produce, because the baitfish suspend in the water column in tightly packed schools in winter. Smallmouth bass cruise under these schools looking for those alewives or shad acting peculiar and pick them off.
A black 1/8th to 3/8th-ounce rabbit fur or bucktail jig swum just above bottom and down those main lake points produced winter smallmouths for your grandfather and they do the same today. The old-school pork rind is still the best trailer. Find the smallest pork rind possible or cut a bigger one in half. Although the soft plastic chunk trailers prove much easier to handle and take on and off the hook, pork is still the best choice in cold water.
Don't let snowfall scare you from chasing bronze this winter. Don some waterfowl hunting clothing or coveralls and a pair of warm boots. Grab some hand warmers, a thermos of strong coffee and your fishing rod. Five-pound smallmouth bass are waiting for you if you brave the elements.