Creek Smallies Year-Round
By Dave Votaw
From left to right, Dave's Uncle, Grandmother, Great Uncle, Grandfather, and Father. This photograph was taken in 1910 at a fishing camp in Minnesota.
A few years ago when my Dad was still wade-fishing, he casually mentioned to me around Christmas that he had caught a ‘bass’ in every month that year except January (he didn’t fish during January). I should digress here a moment to note that Dad, who grew up on the banks of the Wabash River, reserved the honorific ‘bass’ for smallmouth bass; there were likely no largemouth bass in the Wabash River in 1910. He referred to largemouth bass as largemouth; bass were smallies!
Like Dad, many smallmouth fishermen today chase the brown bass year round, heading North – Minnesota, Michigan, Canada - as the weather warms, and South – Dale Hollow, Cumberland, Kentucky Lake – in the cold months of December, January, and February. There’s something to be said for a 20 inch DH smallie in January, but frankly it doesn’t hold as much interest for this warm weather creek wader (there are plenty of cold water species to pursue at that time of year to ward off cabin fever anyway). That is why my preferred smallmouth season begins in mid-March, cold enough then as it is, and progresses through the warm water season to about November.
Today fishermen new to creek and river fishing are confronted with a bewildering array of baits and presentations from the fishing industry, all “must-have” pieces of gear to be carried at all times for fishing success. When I first picked up In-Fisherman magazine many years ago, I was overwhelmed by the myriad of choices they outlined for every situation discussed in each issue. In reality, it isn’t that complicated for a spin rod fisherman to enjoy consistent success month after month as the prime smallie season develops (although I am guilty of carrying a heck of a lot more stuff than I actually fish, because you never know when you might need to throw that strange looking soft plastic you bought two years ago but have never gotten wet!). None the less, here are some simplified go-to presentations for small flows through the year in the Midwest. This list on average will catch Midwestern creek smallmouth from March to November while simplifying your fishing life and lightening your vest.
March – When you can’t stand the cabin fever any longer, air and water temperatures have reached 40 degrees, and you think you can tolerate wading, throw a big, ugly black and blue jig-n-pig with a do-nothing chunk dressing in deep holes and dead stick it or move it slower than you think you can stand. This is a great imitation of a madtom or stonecat, a bottom-dwelling member of the bullhead family that is active when the water first hits the mid 40’s. Also, the first crayfish of the year will just be out. They are big with a bluish tint to the back, and big smallmouth will be looking for them!
April – For me, there is only one bait for the first of the warming weather of April: a 1/8 oz chartreuse spinner bait. I like the titanium baits with a single Oklahoma blade, but other configurations likely will work as well, I’ve just not bothered to try them. Shakespeare described April as “the cruelest month”, but I typically take my biggest fish of the year in April on this bait.
May – The spinnerbait will continue to work well in May, but by this time I’m ready for some variety and begin pitching soft plastics: tubes and grubs on light jig heads, and 4” Senkos fished weightless on an offset widegap worm hook are favorites. If color is important to you, open the Yamamoto catalog and go nuts. My preferences are light, dark, and in-between; just make sure you have colors in which you are confident and success will follow.
By the end of May in the Ohio valley the smallmouth will be spawning and it is time to leave them alone. Fish bluegills, crappies, catfish or whatever else you wish; as a wise man on this site once said, “It’s all good.”
Mid-June to July – Time to get back after the smallmouth during the easiest fishing of the year; my fish size tends to go down a bit at this time but the numbers skyrocket. So do the smallies. Airborne bronze has a way of keeping me happy! Almost everything works at this magic time of the summer, so always carry a few baits to cover the entire water column from top to bottom: flukes and Senkos, in-line spinners in yellow and orange, tubes and split-tail grubs for bottom dragging on a jig head, and the little ‘should be illegal’ Rebel Wee Craw (don’t leave home without it). The 1.5” model will dive to either 3 feet or 7 feet and is perfect for small water. I once met a guy on the Stillwater River that carried about 30 of these baits and nothing else; simple fishing, traveling light. Since they float, the entire water column can be covered with this one lure.
August – Hot weather, low flows, and well-fed fish can slow this month’s action down. The Rebel and in-lines will continue to work, but the presentation you must have for August, and the rest of the year, comes from Buckeye Baits. When I first met Matt Frondorf three years ago I had no idea he’d change my late summer/fall creek fishing forever. We’d been out the better part of the day and, as our fishing wound down, he began changing his bait. I heard him mumble “Gotta throw the buzzer a little, can’t fish without giving the buzzer a try…” I thought buzzbaits were strictly largemouth, flatwater baits, but that day I learned otherwise. Matt had the little smallies chasing the buzzer in the clear water like it was fish candy. If you haven’t tried buzzing on the creek, get some of Matt’s 1/8 oz buzzers for the last half of the season. Throw them anywhere and everywhere, and be prepared to change your shorts! Summer buzzbaits are the very definition of fishing excitement.
September – Keep on buzzing; in fact keep that buzzer going until cold weather arrives! Add the little 1/16 oz, 1.5 inch silver Rapala to your vest; smallies will be feverishly crunching minnows at this time. Under low water conditions, dead stick a Senko in white or smoke. Minnows have more fat and protein than crayfish, possibly explaining why smallmouth concentrate on them prior to Winter. On the other hand, it could just be their availability at the end of Summer.
October – The transition from summer to winter habitat begins in October and the smallmouth can be difficult to locate as they spread out while moving to deeper water. Search for them with the buzzbait and spinnerbaits. A few always remain in summer locations until the end of the month when the cold nights finally concentrate the fish in or adjacent to wintering holes. Get ready to use the float and fly technique!
November-December-January-February – Winter is the float-and-fly season for smallmouth and spots. Stay tuned for complete information on this increasingly popular technique for avoiding cabin fever as the winter progresses.
It goes without saying that these seasonal guidelines are generalizations and vary from year to year. Lure selection is a very personal matter, and it should be considering the importance of confidence in fishing success. Read any fishing message board and someone has asked, “Name your three favorite baits.” Responses will include absolutely every lure you can possibly think of. Some guys will fish the same bait, for example a jig and pig, all year long and have success. But I like variety, both in the seasonal and daily approaches I use to catch smallies. Start with the few presentations mentioned above, pay attention to the progress of the seasons and the daily weather, focus on what you’re doing when you do get out, and success will follow.
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