Finding river smallies in winter requires covering a lot of water, but not always from the kayak.

Finding river smallies in winter requires covering a lot of water, but not always from the kayak. Photo: Jeff Little

How To: Finding Smallmouth in Winter Rivers
Jeff Little demonstrates how to use a kayak to whittle down water
By Jeff Little

I caught my first big river smallmouth in 41-degree Shenandoah River. It was almost 14 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. A very generous friend brought me to a spot he knew holds fish all winter long. I didn’t immediately realize the value of his hard won knowledge. I ended that trip with four smallmouth bass over 18 inches, thinking that winter fishing was easy and always fruitful. I was rudely awakened next weekend when I tried it on my own.

I floated a different section of the same river, confident that the first bite would come soon. At the end of the day, I carried the weight of self doubt with me out of the river bottom. I hadn't felt as much as a nudge. But I was hooked on trying to feel that same warming sense of elation I experienced the weekend before.

The remainder of that winter, I pounded the river. I took vacation time. I made maps of two different watersheds. Pasting together topographical quadrants on a poster board, I attempted to make sense of the lay of the land as it relates to places the fish hold. I had plenty of information on where they were not. Whenever I caught any fish, I marked it on the river with a red Sharpie marker.

By the end of two winters, I had pulled together a short list of winter pools on both the Rappahannock and Shenandoah Rivers. The clusters of red marks showed me one thing about river smallmouth in winter: they have specific criteria for where they will cluster, and once you have found one, you've found them all.

As years went on, my list of good winter pools grew. But it took trying to articulate on video how I pare down a new section of river to find winter habitat to really understand what I was doing. I stopped making maps after the second year, but I made mental notes of where these clusters of fish could be caught in the autumn months leading into winter.

In summer, the fish spread throughout the watershed, provided they have food. In early fall, the first few chilly nights cause them to vacate vast areas of shallow water. Come mid October, you can still find them in most sections of the river, but the greatest concentrations of them are in certain deeper pools with less current. By Thanksgiving, those holes are packed with fish. They run laps in the pool, hunting down any remaining minnow the thinning grass beds exposes. In early December, the fish are tight against the steep bank. They tightened into their winter pools.

I still can't hit an unknown river cold and accurately predict which deep current deficient pools will hold big smallmouth, but I have a reliable process. It requires the dedication to float the same section of river at least 5 or 6 times between September and January to see what I saw on those old hand made topo maps: a cluster of red dots.

See Jeff's process in action on a newly identified pool on the Susquehanna River: