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Cold Water Big Smallmouth

By Mike Mladenik - May 1, 2007
Over my 25 years of guiding, I have kept records of every day spent on the water. These records include the number and size of the fish caught, as well as the time of year and conditions. Having logged thousands of big smallmouth, one outstanding feature is noticeable. About seventy-five percent of the big smallmouth were caught in cold water.

By cold water, I am referring to water temperatures less than 60 degrees. This takes in the pre-spawn period in the spring and the fall pattern. The key to catching big smallmouth consistently is understanding where and how these big fish move in cold water. Once you understand seasonal movements and how to use the right presentation, you should be able to catch big smallmouth on your favorite water.


The first places I search for large smallmouth in the spring is stained water reservoirs. Stained water reservoirs warm rapidly and are the first places to see pre-spawn smallmouth. When choosing a spring reservoir, the smaller the better. A small reservoir will warm faster and will hold active smallmouth. One of my favorite early spring reservoirs is less than 1,000 acres, and we take five-pound smallmouth on a daily basis. As spring progresses and water continues to warm, start fishing larger reservoirs.

Regardless of the size of the reservoir, smallmouth will use the same pattern. Pre-spawn smallmouth will search out the warmest water close to spawning areas. So find a rock/rubble or gravel area, close to a shallow muck bottom bay, and you should find big pre-spawn smallmouth. The largest smallmouth in the reservoir will hold tight to transition areas from hard to soft bottom. It took me years to figure out why big smallmouth held in certain areas, until I realized one day that they were all transition areas.

"On natural lakes the largest smallmouth will suspend off structure or hold tight steep breaklines. These fish are catchable...."

While pre-spawn smallmouth will hit a variety of presentations, it is tough to beat soft plastics. When fishing the back bays and wood, my best success has come with soft plastic jerkbait rigged with a 3/0 wide gap Sickle Hook. Cast the jerkbait tight to the wood and let it fall. If a smallmouth is present, it will usually inhale the bait. If you don’t get a strike, give the jerkbait a slight twitch and again let it fall. Continue this presentation back to the boat. Tubes are also deadly and will catch big smallmouth under any conditions. Rig the tube weedless with a wide gap hook and a small bullet sinker. If the bite is light rig up a three inch grub on a light darter head jig.

When fishing plastics in cold water, I prefer a rod with a fast tip. The fast tip enables me to detect even the slightest pick up. However, if your rod is to light, you won’t get a good hookset. So besides having a fast tip, the rod should have plenty of power. My preferred rod is a seven foot Lamiglas EXS 703 or an EXS 661. Lamiglas XMG series rods are the most sensitive and lightest rods I have ever fished with. Use a medium action spinning reel spooled with Yo-Zuri six or eight pound test Ultra Soft. Ultra Soft is a blend of Fluorocarbon and nylon designed specifically for spinning reels. With less memory and stretch than monofilament line, it is trouble free and a pleasure to fish with.

A few weeks later smallmouth begin to go on the prowl on clear water natural lakes. If the lake has a shallow bay close to spawning areas it should be the first area to fish. The secret to catching big smallmouth is looking for a shallow bay with deep water access. Look for big smallmouth to hold on the edge of the bay off a deep point. Even a tiny point can hold a big smallmouth.

Crankbaits would be my first choice when searching for big smallmouth. A crankbait will allow you to cover water and they will also catch big fish. Stick with a minnow- imitation crankbait like a Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows, Yo-Zuri Pin’s minnows or Yo-Zurri hardcore series. The Hardcore Series has crankbaits that will run from just below the surface down to 12 feet. Start fishing deeper water with deep diving crankbaits and gradually move into shallow water with shallow running crankbaits. By starting in deep water, you will be able to catch both deep and shallow fish. If you start fishing shallow and then move deep, you will already have spooked the smallmouth holding in deep water.

If you connect with a big smallmouth while casting deep water, switch to a suspending jerkbait. Often the larger smallmouth will suspend off the bottom and will rise to hit the jerkbait. When fishing a suspending jerkbait it is important to run the bait at different depths even if you are catching fish at one specific depth. It is common for big smallmouth to be scattered during the pre-spawn period, so it is important to cover all water depths. The new Jerk-O, from Yo-Zuri is the best suspending jerkbait I have ever fished with.. This rattling jerkbait has a sloped face that causes the bait to dart back and forth erratically and suspend in place, which will drive big smallmouth wild.

Once you locate smallmouth, switch over to soft plastic jerkbaits and tubes. For colors, I prefer watermelon, green pumpkin, watermelon red and crawdad. If fishing open water use a darter head jig but around cover rig the tube weedless with a wide gap hook.

I always keep an open mind when fishing, but never is it more important during the pre-spawn. Water temperatures can change overnight and play havoc with fish, like the spring of 2006. It was early in the season and we were experiencing above normal temperatures. As we hit the water the conditions were perfect, light southwest winds, clear skies and water temperatures in the low sixties. I had never seen water temperature this warm so early in the season. Sometimes if the water warms to quickly, pre-spawn smallmouth can be confused.

Confused they were, since I fished several shoreline points and rocky shorelines, with only a few small male fish to show for my efforts. Next, I moved to a small rock which rises in the middle of a shallow bay. This was a spot where I catch lots of 12-15 inch smallmouth early in the season. I had given up on catching big smallmouth and would concentrate on numbers.

I was fishing with soft plastic jerkbaits rigged with 3/0 wide gap Sickle Hooks, when I rigged up a crayfish color tube and cast towards the rock, instantly I reeled in a chunky 19 inch smallmouth. We continued to catch several smallmouth on tubes and all of them were loaded with crayfish.

What was happening was the water had warmed up so quickly, that crayfish were all over this shallow rock looking for a meal. Smallmouth were so focused on crayfish, that they would only hit a tube crawled along the bottom. The water temperature by this time was 65 degrees, but smallmouth had put spawning on the back burner. Interestingly, we fished other similar rocky structure and could not catch a fish. These are just things that happen.


For giant smallmouth it is tough to beat the fall period. Typically in fall we boat at least on 5 pound smallmouth each day. Besides the smallmouth running big in fall, they are numerous. During the fall period, it is common to see as many as 10 big smallmouth schooled up in one small area. A few years back we boated 22 smallmouth between 19 and 21 inches.

In early fall, smallmouth start to migrate downstream on most rivers in the upper Midwest. As they move downstream, they will hold on the edge of sloughs and backwaters. If stumps are common in the slough or backwater, these can be big fish magnets. This shallow water fishery is passed up by many smallmouth anglers.

When the water is warm, there is no need for finesse presentations. Start out casting a spinnerbait or shallow-running crankbait along the weed edge and around the wood. If big smallmouths are present, you will know in a hurry. After you catch all the active bass, switch over to a tube, grub or jig and minnow. By late fall, smallmouth will stack up out of the current on the edge of sloughs. The big fish will hit plastics and large red tailed chubs until the water temperature drops below 40 degrees.

As the water continues to cool, smallmouth will stack up out of the current on the edge of the sloughs. A Yo-Zuri hardcore Crankbait would be ideal for picking off the active smallmouth. My favorite is the F 718 medium diver, with my favorite colors being painted shad, orange tiger and hot tiger.

On natural lakes the largest smallmouth will suspend off structure or hold tight steep breaklines. These fish are catchable, but you will need to position the boat directly over the fish. Start with a deep diving crankbait like a Yo-Zuri Hardcore Shad to locate active smallmouth. When fishing crankbaits my rod of choice is a Lamiglas XFC 665. The slower response of the glass rod assures a better hook-up ratio. Next, cast a tube or four inch grub. If smallmouth are holding in deep water, drift with a Carolina rig with a finesse worm. For the largest smallmouth in the lake, you might need to drift with a slip sinker rig ands a red tail chub.

If you are after big smallmouth, you can catch them in cold water. Concentrate your fishing to cold water periods and your odds will be increased. You may be dealing with less than ideal conditions, but nobody ever said catching big fish was easy.

Author Mike Mladenik
Mike Mladenik
Mike has been a Wisconsin Fishing guide for 25 years, authored several books, and has his own Television Show "Fishing with Northwood's Guide Mike Mladenik". Sponsors include Sylvan/Smokercraft Boats, Yamaha Outboards, Zieman Trailers, Lamiglas Rods and Peshtigo River Rentals. For more information go to his website
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