Smallmouth Bass for the Seasons
As the sun disappeared behind the hill I pulled on wading shoes, assembled my fly rod and tied on a large woolly bugger. Reds, golds and browns of maples, oaks and sycamores heralded the coming of fall and winter.
Cool water swirled around my legs as I waded upstream, plying the woolly bugger around boulders that had fallen off the cliff in ages past, forming holding areas for smallmouth bass and the many species that make up the aquatic world of a stream.
I waded slowly upstream marveling at the onset of fall in the quiet stream valley. A great blue heron wading the shallows near the head of the pool speared a small sunfish and I heard quail call from their feeding area in a nearby corn field.
A smallmouth bass, mistaking my fly for a morsel, disturbed my tranquility. It wallowed briefly on the surface, then stripped line in a mad dash for the lower end of the pool and safety. The run was short-lived, however, and I landed the 12-inch smallmouth, removed the fly and released it.
As it swam off, I thought about the bass and its place in the cycles of the seasons which had brought us together. Fall, winter, spring and summer, each unique in the life of the stream, the life cycle of a smallmouth bass, and the smallmouth bass angler.
In the smallmouth's world, fall brings cooling water, a transition period between summer and winter. Activity slows and bass move from shallower environs to deeper holding areas. Feeding increases in early fall, then slows as water temperatures fall into the 40s with the beginnings of winter.
The smallmouth I'd caught came from under a downed tree in about three feet of water, surrounded by deeper water. Bass use these areas because they feel safe, and because the areas provide easy access to deep water.
Fishing Tip: Once streams begin to cool in September, fish a light spinning rod, using small crankbaits, spinners, natural bait such as crayfish or minnows, or jigs tipped with plastic baits. During the transition between summer and fall, fish around boulders and logs in two to four feet of water, which are usually found on the outside of river bends near the head or tail of the pool.
The metamorphosis continues in the world above the stream. Leaves turn brown, then fall, covering the ground and staining the water brown. Tree trunks stand naked, as winter brings colder air and water temperatures, ice and snow.
In the smallmouth's world, winter's extremes are muted, evened out by water's resistance to sudden changes. Water temperatures decrease gradually to the 30s and 40s. Smallmouth seek the deepest areas of the pools with large boulders and downed trees. They do not travel great distances seeking a particular pool or hole to spend the winter, as some anglers believe.
We really don't understand why smallmouth use those deep areas during winter, only that they do. Scientists speculate water temperatures may be warmer near the bottom, or that smallmouth feel safer and more comfortable as body activity slows with the cooling water in these protected areas. If a pool has a spring, smallmouth will congregate in the warmer flows.
Fishing Tip: Bass still feed through the winter, although not as much or as vigorously. Natural bait, such as crayfish and minnows, or jigs tipped with pork rind are favorites of winter smallmouth anglers, but presentation is critical. Fish slowly on the bottom around the boulders, rocks and downed trees, where smallmouth live during cold winter months, using light spinning tackle.
Warming rains and air temperatures through March, April and May renew the wondrous cycle of life. Serviceberries, redbud and dogwoods bloom, painting river valleys with white and red blossoms. Earth's mantle turns green and lush.
In the smallmouth's world, hormones stir. As waters warm to the low 60s, males leave wintering areas seeking shallow gravel areas, where a rock or log provides shelter from the current in pools and runs. They fan out platter-sized nests, sweeping gravel clean, then seek nearby females, enticing them to the nest.
Females expel eggs that are fertilized by the male. Once fertilized, eggs stick to stones in the nest, and are guarded by the male from marauding longear sunfish, bluegills and a host of other predators bent on grabbing a quick meal. The male stands guard until eggs hatch and the developing fry find safety in nursery areas along stream edges.
Fishing Tip: Although regulations prohibit harvest of smallmouth bass from March through May (March 1 through the Friday before Memorial Day in the southern half of the state), spring provides anglers some of the best catch-and-release fishing for large smallmouth bass. Males are aggressive during this period and will readily attack spinners, jigs, small crankbaits or large streamers fished near them. To improve survival of the bass, use artificial lures during this vulnerable period, land your bass quickly and release them immediately.
The valley slows in the torpor of hot summer days and nights. Water flow decreases and streams clear. Smallmouth spread throughout the stream, occupying spots where food can be caught easily. Shallow riffles become homes for medium and small bass, which live behind boulders and in sheltered pockets created by back eddies and downed timber.
Large bass frequent deeper areas near chunk rock or around downed trees during the day, using the protection afforded by the sites to forage for crayfish and small minnows. As the sun drops behind the horizon and light levels lower, smallmouth cruise the pools, foraging for minnows and crayfish.
Fishing Tip: Anglers harvest most legal smallmouth bass in June because water flows allow anglers in canoes and johnboats easy access to more stream reaches. Anglers, who stop fishing as air and water temperatures increase and flows decrease, miss some of the best fishing of the year. The key to catching summer smallmouth bass is knowing and fishing where smallmouth live and using the right lure or bait.
Although warm, clear water can make fishing difficult, smallmouth still feed actively. Fish with light line around large rocks or downed trees in moving water. These areas can usually be found in the upper or lower one-third of a typical pool. Use jigs tipped with plastic baits or crayfish or minnows suspended under a float.