You know how smallmouth bass typically take to the air when hooked, so how does a smallmouth jump when, with a frozen ceiling, you catch them under the ice?
Don’t bang your head on that one, obviously there’s no answer.
What I do think is that the energy smallmouths often exhibit summersaulting across the surface, they transfer to a hard, underwater battle when confined by a thick white roof.
Even a smallmouth just a pound or two will bend a jigging stick in half and won’t give up after the first or second and sometimes third thumping run. Their tenacity makes them plenty of fishing fun and well worth chasing, no matter how spotty the catching.
Gotta say there is no special or exclusive technique for catching smallmouths under the ice. I wish there was.
If a lake’s bass population is predominately smallmouths, that fact increases your chances but if the lake has many more largemouths, then a hooked smallmouth will be a sudden surprise.
That negativity aside, there are things you can do to appeal to smallmouths. The first is lure choice.
Smallmouths really like shiny stuff. And spoons – they’re very fond of spoons.
I’ve caught more smallmouths when dancing silver- or gold-backed spoons than with all other lure types combined. Add a rattle to that spoon – welded into the back – and you have a true ice smallmouth bait.
My advice is that if you want a prize smallmouth, don’t bother with the tiny tungsten jigs; minnow plugs will get some, but there is nothing like a concave curved spoon of about 3 inches.
Add a live minnow to the treble hook and you’ve got the key to the door. Remember to hook the minnow just in front of, or just behind the dorsal fin, on only one tine of the treble. It looks awkward but it works.
Two spoon patterns that have repeatedly worked are a perch pattern of predominately green-gold and black, with a gold back, and a rainbow trout pattern with a silver back.
A current third-place finisher that’s been coming on fast for me is a Wonderbread pattern spoon.
Wonderbread is predominately a glossy white with hot pink, cyan blue and pale chartreuse polka dots.
I have no idea what that unique color scheme imitates, other than a loaf of bread, but apparently the flicker motion of the moving polka dots is a major attractor.
As a generalized pattern I’ve found Wonderbread to work on so many lures in hard and soft water. For iced panfish try it on a tungsten jig.
Even under the ice, smallmouths are ambush predators. They come in quickly, strike or not strike, and leave. They’re not a fish that comes up to a bait and lingers, or gives the prey a long hard look like a perch or crappie will do, then gently mouth the bait like a taste tester.
Many times I’ve not even sighted the attacking smallmouth on my flasher before I am fast into a firm fight, only to be surprised when I raised the fish to see that it’s a smallmouth.
When fishing for small mouth expect a quick strike and a hard take. You have to be on your frozen toes for this action. Set the hook wicked hard as soon as either the line goes limp – meaning the fish has hit and risen with the bait – or you get a fast strong pull, to which you have to stick the hook.
But be instantly ready to give line. Also don’t try to keep a smallmouth from running, the soft tissue on the sides of the mouth will give way.
Blessed are those times when the hook penetrates a jaw bone and won’t come out no matter how hard the fight. The exposed tines on a spoon’s treble hook makes this a real thing.
When offering a treble hook spoon with a minnow, don’t over work it. If jigged too vigorously, the hook and minnow will wrap around the line and simply not work.
You can sense a tangled spoon because it feels off-kilter. Instead, work the spoon with a short or subtle jigging action.
Understand the purpose of a spoon with a minnow is for the spoon to act as an attractor. The spoon is the calling card, the minnow is the real bait.
Open-water smallmouth fishermen don’t have to be told to concentrate their efforts around rocks, either shoreline riprap or underwater piles.
I know of rocky spots on a couple of Pocono lakes where I’ve caught numerous iced smallmouths through the years. These places routinely produce winter smallmouths.
Typically rocky embankments or points that slant down into several feet of water are good spots for smallmouths, so too are locations where a few boulders have rolled down a shoreline and settled several yards from shore.
I certainly don’t avoid weeds when fishing for bass – any bass – but smallmouths prefer a hard bottom.
In addition to spoons, a tipup rig with a medium shiner will produce quality smallmouths. However, again, go for the rocks rather than the weeds.
Look for offshore ledges or shelves, set up an array of tipups along a ledge and leave them alone.
I’ve never filled the proverbial stringer with smallmouths taken under the ice, but I have tipped the scales with multi-pounders, and that makes their pursuit worthwhile.