My wife gives me funny looks when I am rounding up my waders,
vest, hair jigs and respooling the reel on my favorite stream
smallmouth rod when the first warm front hits in late February. She
believes it is a case of cabin fever and missing my fishing
buddies, but in reality, a late February warm front is one of the
best times in which to catch trophy stream smallmouth bass.
This week’s sudden warm up after the harsh winter we’ve
witnessed in Kentucky puts this situation into play. Good
smallmouth streams course through most of Kentucky, except for the
mud-bottomed streams of the Jackson Purchase. If a stream near you
has a rock bottom, pools and riffles, and some holes at least 5
feet deep, it will hold smallmouth bass. Some great and overlooked
Kentucky smallmouth streams are so narrow in spots that you can
jump across them. Their deepest holes would barely moisten your
belly button. Yet, you can catch smallmouths as long as your
forearm from them, especially at this time of year.
First find the winter habitat of a stream smallmouth. Smallmouth
bass may migrate long distances in fall to find the deepest holes
in the stream that possess boulders, stumps, fallen trees or rock
shelves that break current. A deep hole with no current breaks
isn’t nearly as attractive a place for a stream-dwelling smallmouth
to wait out the winter months. They need places to escape the
current in a nearly dormant state during the coldest weeks of the
With the warm winds and abundant sunshine of late, stream
smallmouth will move to the flowing areas at the head and tails of
these winter holes to feed. Big females need to eat to provide
nutrients for the developing eggs that they will deposit later this
spring. When a weather-related feeding opportunity like this
presents itself, they must take advantage.
A light hair jig is the best lure to throw at this time of year.
Hair looks more natural in cold flowing water and hair jigs seem to
attract bigger fish. Bucktail served as the standard dressing for
hair jigs for decades. The stiffness of bucktail makes for
extremely subtle movement and produces a slim profile, ideal for
crystal clear cold water.
Jigs made from craft and rabbit fur, however, seem to work
better for larger smallmouths. It takes little current or movement
for these materials to naturally undulate and “breathe,” looking
like a sluggish crayfish or baitfish in cold water. This seems to
fool the large, smart and older stream smallmouth a little better
than bucktail, although bucktail still produces plenty of
Fish the hair jig “naked” or without a trailer. You want a small
and compact profile for cold water. Jigs dressed with purple craft
hair work great right now with brown and orange a close second
followed by olive.
Throw your jig into the current and let it slowly work its way
down into the deeper water of the hole. Once the current stops
moving the jig, let it sit still on the bottom for a bit. Reel it a
few feet and repeat. Large stream smallmouth often can’t stand a
hair jig sitting on the bottom, its hair subtly moving with the
current in cold water. They strike.
You want your hair jig to just tap the bottom while tumbling
with the current. If you never make any bottom contact, the jig is
too light. Conversely, if it sinks to the bottom like a stone and
gets immediately hung, the jig is too heavy. A 1/8-ounce jig seems
the best choice for most streams in Kentucky, but adjust as depth
and speed of current dictate. Bring plenty of jigs because they
will get hung in water too deep to retrieve.
A 4-inch straight-tailed watermelon with gold flake finesse worm
will also work for late winter stream smallmouth. Finesse worms
don’t work as well as hair jigs, but they can be Texas-rigged
weedless, so they rarely get hung on the bottom. Fishing a hair jig
requires a high frustration tolerance because their exposed hook
seemingly snags any piece of wood or crevice it comes near. You’ll
spend a lot of time retrieving or attempting to retrieve hung hair
jigs in a stream.
Fish the finesse worm like you would a hair jig, letting the
worm tumble in the current and touch bottom every so often.
“Deadstick” the worm by letting it sit on the bottom and quiver
once it hits slack water. A 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Shaky style head
works extremely well for this presentation.
Stream smallmouth bass take your lure lightly in late winter.
The strike may only be a weird mushy feeling. Set the hook if
anything feels unusual. The water in late winter usually flows
crystal clear. Don’t use line heavier than 4-pound test
monofilament or 6-pound test fluorocarbon.
However, if a warm rain muddies up the water, all subtlety goes
out the window. Fish a small, light spinnerbait with a gold blade
and chartreuse skirt behind current breaks such as a boulder, log
or pocket along the bank. As soon as the spinnerbait clears the
break and the current grabs it, reel in and make another cast. The
small Beetle Spin style spinnerbaits work great in this
The largest stream smallmouth bass must eat right now. Get out
of the house and hook one.