When the winter weather outside is so frightful, smallmouth bass fishing on rivers can be so delightful.
Frigid weather and cold water bother largemouth bass more than smallmouth bass, according to Missouri guide Jack Uxa. "The smallmouth species handle the colder weather better than largemouth do,” he says. "Largemouths tend to get a little bit more inactive, and smallmouths tend not to care as much that it is cold. If largemouth are in 41-degree water temperature versus 60-degree water temperature, that fish will change a lot. The smallmouth is more apt to be active in general then.”
Uxa claims he has caught river smallmouth in any winter weather imaginable. "I have caught them with snow blowing sideways, in the wind, with clouds and bright sunshine," says Uxa, who notices smallmouth will go dormant depending on conditions. "Sometimes you need a little wind, and sometimes you need a little clouds or maybe a little sun (to activate smallmouth). So it is hard to predict what they are going to like. But, generally speaking, smallmouth don't get as affected by cold fronts as largemouth do."
River smallmouth usually prefer current, but Uxa finds brown bass in deep holes with slack water during the winter. "When you find them, they are generally grouped up and are easier to pattern,” Uxa says.
Winter smallmouth will congregate in holes with a "touch of current," such as an eddy or backwater. "It's not necessary that you have to find the deepest holes possible because there are some areas I can go to that are 18-plus feet deep, and it seems like those areas aren't as good as you would think,” Uxa says. “If I can find a spot where the majority of the river is 5 feet deep, and there is an area where it is 12 to 14 feet deep, for some reason, that is where I have my best luck." Uxa also catches active smallmouth as shallow as 3 to 4 feet, as long as the spot is next to a deep hole.
Finding baitfish with his electronics also helps Uxa locate the most productive wintertime smallmouth spots in rivers. The Missouri angler believes smallmouth feed more on baitfish rather than crayfish during the winter.
Lures imitating baitfish are Uxa's top choices for tricking wintertime smallmouth in rivers. "The Alabama rig is, at times, a lot of fun," Uxa says. He opts for the rig because it can catch multiple fish on one cast and tends to produce bigger smallmouth on average than other baits.
The guide's Alabama rig consists of jigheads in various sizes depending on the conditions. He often attaches 1/8-ounce jigheads to the rig, but on windy days he upgrades to 1/4-ounce versions. Some of the swimbaits Uxa attaches to his jigheads are the 3.8-inch Berkley PowerBait Power Swimmer, 3.5-inch Tackle HD Swimmer, and Keitech Swing Impact FAT Swimbait. His favorite swimbait colors for winter smallmouth are Albino, pearl, pro blue red, and Tennessee shad. Uxa employs a slow, steady retrieve to keep his A-rig close to the bottom. Sometimes he pops or twitches the rig to trigger strikes.
The Berkley Stunna 112 jerkbait is another top winter choice of Uxa's for river smallmouth. The guide claims he has caught smallmouth on the jerkbait in every color he has tried, but the most productive hue has been Hankie Pankie (white body with a chartreuse belly). He retrieves the Stunna on 10-pound Berkley 100 % Fluorocarbon. “I throw it out there and work it down kind of hard with two or three pops and then let it pause for two or three seconds," Uxa says. “Then it depends on what kind of day it is or what the fish want that day. The fish often want a slow retrieve between the pauses (a couple of pops then slowly retrieved), and other days they want it deadsticked." Uxa notices that when the water temperature gets colder as winter progresses, he has to pause the bait longer (possibly a five- to 10-count between pops).
Pairing a Tackle HD Swimmer swimbait with an underspin jighead also produces wintertime smallmouth in rivers for Uxa when the fish tend to ignore his jerkbait. “It’s one of those baits that is subtle because all you do is cast it out there and reel it in,” Uxa says. The Missouri angler selects a natural minnow color, such as Tennessee shad or a bright white hue, for his swimbait that he rigs on a 3/8-ounce underspin jighead. His presentation consists of letting the swimbait sink to the bottom and slowly reeling it, so the lure stays near the river bottom throughout the retrieve.
A Ned rig is Uxa’s go-to river bait for inactive wintertime smallmouth. "It is the most basic and subtle bait I will throw in the winter,” he says. “It's nothing fancy, just a tiny piece of plastic on a jighead, but for some reason, smallmouth like it, and you can catch a lot of fish with it on the tough days.” Uxa favors a 1/8-ounce jighead with a weedguard and glues a Z-Man Finesse TRD, Z-Man ZinkerZ, or Crock-O-Gator Shortie soft plastic stickworm to the jighead. The ZinkerZ Sprayed Grass hue (dark green with green and red flakes) is Uxa's favorite stickworm color, but he also catches winter smallmouth on a green pumpkin and peanut butter and jelly tints. Uxa retrieves the rig in the same fashion as he does a lightweight Texas-rigged plastic worm crawling it along the bottom. During late winter, he prefers moving the rig more and steadily swims it along the bottom.
Uxa braves the cold weather to pursue wintertime smallmouth because he knows fishing pressure on the rivers is extremely low, and his catches are usually bigger. “This is the time of year where you will see a bump in the average size (3- to 4-pound range) and potentially a huge one (around 5 pounds),” Uxa says.
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