Winter doesn’t have to be dull when it comes to smallmouth bass fishing here in the Columbia Basin.
Thanks to some knowledge passed on to me from a former member (Wayne Heinz), I have learned how to have some success over the years out on the bluffs and deep underwater humps of the Columbia River. One thing you need to know for sure is that cool temperatures really do slow the activity of bass down but big fish do have limited times of activity throughout the winter. It is best to focus your efforts this time of year in depths beyond 20 feet. If I had to choose a target depth that would hold bass most of the winter, and you were just starting out, I would say hover around 40 feet. Temperatures here are stable throughout the coldest of winter. You do want to try varying depths as smallmouth will use these areas with quick access from shallow to deep water and will move up at times.
I have to admit that I only get out when the temps are right at freezing or warmer and there is very little or no wind. More wind or colder temps just make it unbearable to fish for me. With no wind, I can handle fishing right at freezing temps and have a pleasant trip with the exception of the boat ride! With any wind at all, the chill factor really starts to cut through. I also recommend keeping your life jacket on in these colder temps. If you somehow fell in, it would be very dangerous very fast. The extra cover will help you stay warmer anyway.
As I mentioned early here, bass activity in the winter is limited but you can have a very good day if your timing is right. Due to the limited opportunities I get to go out over the winter, I couldn’t say I’ve figured out the specifics of when and why bass may turn on briefly right in the middle of winter. What I can tell you is that nicer days can get the fish going a bit and cause some to slide up in shallower depths. It doesn’t always require nice weather to get them going, however. I have been out in the middle of winter and fished for two to three hours without a bite and then for a half hour I catch fish after fish and then it turns off again. Putting your time in can pay off. I had an outing this winter where I hooked 20 fish in the last hour of daylight.
As far as lure choices go, I believe a lot of things can work so long as you can present them to the fish under the current conditions. Some days there is a lot of current out on the river and that really limits your presentation options. A light drop shot rig can be very good under lighter current conditions but very difficult to fish when things pick up. The more line you have out means more of it will be pushed by the current and you are trying to keep a vertical presentation and feel that bite. For this reason also, you will want to limit the line diameter you are using. I am usually using 10lb test or lighter. I also find those deep fish seem to have a preference on some winter days for big baits. A big bait might be a lizard or large tube. Other days, only small presentations work. This could be a small dropshot worm or other finesse soft plastic. Texas rigs with a heavier weight can be a good option at times. The carolina rig also shines at times. One category of baits you don’t want to overlook are the bladed baits like the Silver Buddy. There are a lot of variations of this bait and lot of color options. There are times this bait will far out fish any other lure in cold winter water temps.
One more thing to mention about catching deep water fish is that we want to do our absolute best to ensure these great fish survive. The best thing you can do for your fish is to handle them as little as possible and get them back in the water as quickly as possible. Bringing up a bass from deeper depths, especially 40 plus, causes the swim bladder to expand. This can be fatal to fish. Some will vent the fish to allow air to escape. You can look up articles elsewhere on the topic. I recommend studying up on that topic before fishing the deeper depths in case it’s needed. I personally feel this is only needed at times. Use your best judgement here and take note of how your fish are doing when you release them.
That’s my quick bit on winter fishing. Maybe I’ll see you out on the river next winter. Currently, I’m looking forward to warmer temperatures and big shallow bass!