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KY Afield Outdoors: Quality time for stream smallmouth

By Kevin Kelly

Frankfort, KY - A stretch of mild weather that loosens winter's grip is an alarm bell for stream smallmouth anglers fed up with being stuck indoors.

For them, wade fishing a cold stream for bronzebacks is a surefire way to melt away the winter doldrums.

This is a laborious style of fishing. Hours spent casting and retrieving at a painstakingly slow pace may produce just a few bites. Soldier through and the payoff could be your biggest stream smallmouth of the year.

"This is probably one of your better times to catch some quality or trophy-sized fish in these streams," said David Baker, assistant Central Fisheries District biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "They're not overly active because they're not feeding a bunch, but it's a quality time of year. It's not a numbers game."

It pays to act swiftly and decisively when a mid or late winter warm-up settles in and persists for a few days. That means having the necessities - rod, reel, waders, lures, a valid fishing license - ready to grab and go.

Since stream conditions can change with little notice, particularly after a heavy rain or snow, it pays to pick out a few potential destinations. The statewide streamflow table available on the U.S. Geological Survey's website at is the next best thing to laying eyes on a stream to determine if it's high and muddy or clear and fishable.

Seek out areas with prime winter habitat, typically defined as deep holes with undercut banks, logs or boulders, in close proximity to feeding shoals or stream drops. The deeper water concentrates smallmouth and other fish.

"When we say deep water, it's relative to that stream," Baker said. "In a lot of these winter spots, these fish will school up because it suits all of their needs as far as food and refuge and shelter from the current. If you find these spots you have the ability to catch quite a few fish."

Subtle lures tied to 4- or 6-pound test line are good bets.

A three-inch Senko style soft plastic stick bait rigged on a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce lead head produces year-round. Plastic tubes in green pumpkin or watermelon with red flake and weighted similarly also deserve a spot in your stowaway box. Hair jigs are a tried-and-true producer of big winter smallmouth. Try one in 1/8-ounce adorned with purple or black craft hair or bucktail or rabbit fur dyed black or a combination of brown and orange.

"You can still catch them on the lures that you would throw during the summer but know that they're not going to chase as much," Baker said. "You need to get the bait down to them.

"I think repeated casts also are very important this time of year. Even though you think you're throwing to the same spot, you're going to be hitting different nooks and crannies because of the current. It may just take that bait coming by them before deciding it's worth expending energy to go get it."

Cold water calls for slow retrieves to entice lethargic smallmouth.

Cast upstream and toward the opposite bank and let the current help the lure along while imparting action with the occasional gentle flick of the rod tip. Don't allow too much slack in the line. Strikes may be faint and can easily fool an angler into thinking the lure simply nicked a rock or brushed against a submerged log.

A positive mental outlook and reasonable expectations help an angler maintain focus, but so does knowing that you're fishing in a good spot. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife's website at leads you to them. It features a list of Kentucky's smallmouth streams and an abundance of maps and mapping tools.

Anglers may also purchase a fishing license online while perusing the website. The new license year starts March 1. Until then, squeeze some more value out of a 2015-16 fishing license by taking advantage of the next nice winter day to pursue one of Kentucky's most prized game fish species.

Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kevin and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.

This story was posted on 2016-02-05 17:13:21
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KY Afield Outdoors: Elkhorn Creek smallmouth bass

2016-02-05 - Franklin Co., KY - Photo by Kevin Kelly. The author holds a smallmouth bass caught from a central Kentucky's Elkhorn Creek on Feb. 1. Winter warm fronts bring stream smallmouth bass out from their winter lairs to feed.
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