By the time pumpkin-spice salsa and mayonnaise are back in stores, I’m losing my appetite for smallmouths. I love them dearly, but I spend so many days targeting them in spring and summer that when the temperature starts to drop here in the Northeast, I’d rather don long undies for stripers, pike, and steelhead.
I’ve never really had regrets about it either. Until this year, anyway, after I had a chat with Michigan-based guide Mike Schultz. He calls the Huron River his home water, and while the rest of us deal with stuff like Christmas shopping, New Year’s resolutions, and February, he’s still chasing local bass. And no, he’s not twitching a jig painfully slowly in one hole for hours. He’s rowing a raft, working streamers with a fly rod, and sticking some pigs. It all started as an experimental cure for cabin fever but ultimately turned into a fine-tuned game that may completely upend what you think you know about winter bass behavior.
A Snowball’s Chance
Schultz is the owner of Schultz Outfitters, in Ypsilanti, and as he puts it, his winters used to pretty much consist of “tying flies, drinking beer, and getting fat.” Then, in 2015, Michigan extended its bass season as a catch-and-release-only fishery from January 1 until the May opener. Schultz wasn’t really sure what to expect during those early missions, but after some success with live shiners, then with swimbaits, he soon realized he could make those chilled-out bronzebacks eat streamers. It worked largely because of where he was locating the fish.
“The water is usually very clear in winter, so you can see everything. We were finding smallmouths in 2 feet of water,” he says. “We’d move in on a logjam and see a bunch of tails sticking out of the wood. It completely bucked the idea that every fish winters in a deep hole.”
Seeing fish and feeding them, of course, are two different things. A good winter day might mean catching three bass, but they tend to be heavyweights. Schultz says he spots smallies on all kinds of bottom, but nothing produces more consistently than dark, sludgy mud because there will still be aquatic insects in the soft goo that provide a consistent food source. Even if you’re in the perfect mud pit, Schultz says, timing is everything. “We’re doing short floats and going at midday during peak temperatures,” he says. “If you get a three-hour bite window, that’s a great day.”
Since you might only get a couple of shots in an afternoon, you’ve got to make them count. When the water dips below 40 degrees, Schultz likens the fish to drunk guys in a bar: “They can be pretty zoned out, and when they take a swing, they often miss.” If there’s one lesson he’s learned in winter that’s carried over into fishing the warmer months, it’s that slowing down is a good thing. Cold-season pursuits have trained his brain to register the slightest ticks and stops, which comes in handy year-round on those days when bass just mouth your flies instead of plowing through them. In winter, he’s casting an intermediate line, and while he says warm-weather favorites such as the S3 Sculpin and Redeye Leech are still money bugs when it’s frosty, having them in a variety of weights is often more important than a variety of sizes, because getting a fly right in the fish’s face is key. Occasionally, a bass will chase down a meal, but for the most part, you can’t expect them to move very far within the water column to eat.
Schultz has been successful on the fly in water as cold as 34 degrees, which conventional smallmouth wisdom says is practically impossible. But he points out that conventional wisdom is all relative to where you live. “You have to remember that to lots of people in this country, 50-degree water is ice-cold,” Schultz says. “Most of what I’ve read about targeting winter smallmouths is tied to fisheries farther south. The only way to figure it out up here was to get out there and try it. And what we learned is that the northern fish living in these frigid rivers are just tougher and meaner, man.”
Written by Joe Cermele for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
Essential advice from one of Field & Stream’s greatest writers
For three and a half decades, H.G. “Tap” Tapply dolled out hard-earned wisdom on all things outdoors in his monthly column, Tap’s Tips. Here, we have compiled 40 of his best fishing tips from the ’60s and ’70s. Tapply specialized in quick, clever solutions to common problems—many of which are sure to solve your modern-day woes. —The Editors
A plastic worm that has been torn or cut in half can be stuck together very easily. Heat the two ends over a lighter till they melt, then hold them together while the plastic hardens. The “weld” will be as strong as the original worm.
You can brighten tarnished spoon and spinner blades, or paint a glittery body on a streamer fly hook, with an “ultra-iridescent” sparkling fingernail polish. It can be found in copper and silver colors in a small bottle with a brush applicator, and costs only two bits.
When you find line-grooves in a rod guide, usually at the tip top, you can buff them away with thin strips of emery cloth. But this leaves a rough surface, so always finish the job by polishing the inside of the guides with crocus cloth (jeweler’s rouge).
When you return home after a day of fishing, make it a habit to leave your box of lures or book of flies open overnight so the contents can dry out. Moisture trapped in an airtight container will soon rust hooks and tarnish metal lures.
When you run your boat ashore after a day’s fishing, stop the motor by disconnecting the fuel line and letting the motor idle till the carburetor runs dry. This will eliminate the chance that fuel may leak out when you put the kicker in the car trunk.
A frozen fish should be thawed slowly. Either put it in the refrigerator 24 hours before cooking it or place it in cold water. If the fish is thawed too fast, the outside flesh may deteriorate while the inside is still frozen too hard to cook through.
To provide a contrasty background for tying flies, paint the tying table soft white or another light shade, or use self-adhering, shelf-lining material in a solid color (light green is ideal). It’s easier on the eyes when tying very small flies.
As a rule of thumb, fish should not be kept in the refrigerator longer than two days before being cooked, for they lose their flavor rapidly. If it is necessary to keep the fish any longer than two days, it is better to quick-freeze them instead.
Two tips for keeping rod ferrules from sticking: One, don’t lubricate them, because oil or nose grease collects dust and dirt. Keep both ferrules dry and clean. Two, take the rod apart as soon as you quit fishing so the metal can’t oxidize and lock.
Small leaks and briar-pricks in boots or waders can be plugged temporarily by melting the end of a plastic worm and smearing the hot goo over the hole. The plastic hardens in a few seconds and sticks well. (Suggested by Mark Knight, Kansas City, Mo.)
Of the many ways to prevent the mesh of a landing net from becoming entangled in brush, twigs, and barbed wire fences, this is the simplest: Slip a heavy rubber band over the handle of the net and tuck the tip-end of the net bag under it.
An old (but not broken) ski pole makes an excellent staff for wading heavy water. Remove the basket at the bottom of the pole and attach a cord to the thong at the top so you can let go of it when you have waded into position to fish.
Some trolling lures revolve one way, some the other. If you know the direction in which your favorite lures spin, you can change from a clockwise to a counterclockwise lure to prevent, or reduce, line-twist. Even so, it is wise to use a trolling keel.
L. F. Manning of Norwood, Pa., tells me he doesn’t use a bait bucket for carrying minnows. He puts them in a sealed, pint-sized Mason jar about two-thirds full of water; says a dozen minnows stay frisky all day if he changes the water every few hours.
When fishing high, cold water in the early spring with spinning gear, try casting diagonally upstream and retrieving just fast enough to keep the lure from hanging on bottom. This often takes sluggish trout that refuse to budge for anything else.
A noisy approach can spoil a good fishing spot, so kill the motor and drift in quietly, then ease the anchor down slowly. When you start fishing, talk all you want, but try to avoid banging or scraping against the boat, for those noises fish can “hear”.
Ever knocked over your minnow pail and spilled your day’s supply of ice-fishing bait? It’s less likely to happen if you put a good-sized rock in the bottom; then if you accidentally kick the bucket, the rock may prevent it from tipping over.
You can keep a little cooler when fishing under a hot summer sun if you line the inside of your hat with aluminum foil, which acts as a heat reflector. It also helps if you wet your hair occasionally; it has a cooling effect as it evaporates.
October is the time when bass start to move out into their winter quarters. The larger ones, especially, seek out the deeper holes. One way to locate them is to scratch bottom in from 10 to 20 feet of water with a plastic worm fished very slowly.
You can often tell what type of mayfly has been hatching recently on a trout stream by looking for spider webs in the bushes and especially under bridges. A few flies always get tangled in webs, and you can match them if they hatch again.
Game or fish from the home freezer often doesn’t taste as good as you expected. One reason, it may have been kept too long. Another, more common, reason: It wasn’t quick-frozen. Many home freezers don’t run cold enough to quick-freeze food.
Recently I warned against putting mothballs in plastic fly boxes because they discolor and soften the plastic. But Col. J. R. Grey of Sacramento, Calif., tells me only those made with paradichlorobenzene do this; repellents with naphthalene do no damage.
Fly tyers prize the barred and black-tipped side feathers from drake wood ducks, so if you shoot a male woodie this fall be sure to save these feathers and give them to someone who ties flies. He’ll be so grateful he’ll probably force some flies on you.
Rod ferrules that fit too tightly can be loosened a little by polishing them with petroleum jelly. Swab it on the ferrules and put them together and pull them apart several times, then wipe them clean. The two parts will slide together much easier.
The sketch shows how Douglas Heathcock of Wellington, Ala., hooks a plastic worm to make it twist when retrieved. He reports that the spiraling action brings bass up from deep water and out of the weed beds even when the worm is fished on the surface.
You can usually keep your spinning and bait-casting reels in working order with a tiny screwdriver and a small crochet hook, one for making repairs, the other for picking out line tangles. Carry one of each in both boxes of lures and you’ll be ready for trouble.
Look for trout at the tail end of big pools at dusk. They drop down into the apron of slick, shallow water as evening approaches to feed on nymphs and hatching flies and are quite easy to take if you can get a fly over them without drag.
A barometer can really tell you if you can expect good fishing. Whether it is high (over 29.90 inches sea level pressure) or low isn’t nearly so important, however, as whether it is rising or falling. Fish bite best when the barometer is rising.
When ice-fishing for species that travel in schools, like perch and walleyes, cut your holes close together instead of scattering them. A light cluster of baits will hold the attention of a school of fish much longer than will a single bait.
Fly-tying feathers that have become matted and misshapen in storage can be restored by steaming them, just as flies can. Put a handful in a flour sifter, hold it over the steaming spout of a tea kettle, and shake it as if you were popping corn.
If your boat pounds when running into a chop, why put up with it? Bring the bow down by moving weight forward, or adjust the tilt of the motor to lift the stern a bit. You can also soften the pounding by reducing speed and taking waves at an angle.
It’s easier and safer to haul a big fish through the ice if you use a gaff. You can make one from a large (4/0 to 6/0) de-barbed hook screwed through the eye to a foot-long stick. Bind the hook shank firmly to the shaft with a strong line.
The sketch shows what I consider the best way to “sew” on a minnow for trolling. Push the snelled hook down through the lower lip, then down through the top of the head, then in and out the side. Tightening the snell curves a minnow and it flops over.
Trout often shy away from a fly or bait if there is a sinker near it, so always use the smallest sinker possible (none at all is even better) and clamp it to the leader at least a foot above the hook. Cast farther upstream, to give the hook time to sink.
Another good habit: when you stop fishing to rest or eat lunch, put your hat or cap on the ground and set the butt of your fly rod in it. This keeps sand and dirt out of the reel. Always lean the rod against something; never lay it down.
It’s easier to row a boat at night if you can “feel” the angle of the oar blade. This can be done by making the grip slightly oval-shaped instead of round, with the oval at right angles to the oar blade. (Suggested by Carl F. Hoberg of Mendon, Mass.)
Next time you cast artificials from an anchored boat, try this stunt: First lob out a live bait with a bobber and then retrieve the lure close to the bobber. Fish that follow the lure in without striking will see the bait and perhaps grab it.
If you use carbon tetrachloride to clean reels or to dissolve paraffin for making dry-fly floatant, use extreme caution. According to the National Safety Council, it is not only harmful if inhaled, but also if just the fumes are absorbed through the skin.
You’ll never lose the screw-on cap for a metal rod case if you attach it with a short length of heavy monofilament. Bore 1/16-inch holes in the center of the cap and near the top of the case; use small buttons inside the cap and case to hold the mono.
A quick and easy way to add or replace rubber legs on a hard-bodied popper is to thread doubled monofilament into a large needle and force it through the body, leaving a loop. Double the legs through this, pull through, clip, seal with a waterproof cement.
Written by H.G. Tapply for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.