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Stream smallmouth season starts now

February 18, 2011

Author Lee McClellan

Kentucky Afield Outdoors:

Although it may seem early, stream smallmouth season starts now

Feb. 17, 2011 Contact: Lee McClellan

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 1-800-858-1549, ext. 4443

FRANKFORT, Ky. – 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.

The author caught this smallmouth bass in late winter from central Kentucky's Elkhorn Creek.

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 year.

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 smallmouths.

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 situation.

The largest stream smallmouth bass must eat right now. Get out of the house and hook one.

Author Lee McClellan is an award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.


The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources manages, regulates, enforces and promotes responsible use of all fish and wildlife species, their habitats, public wildlife areas and waterways for the benefit of those resources and for public enjoyment. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife is an agency of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. For more information on the department, visit our website at fw.ky.gov.

2 Responses to Stream smallmouth season starts now

  1. Jimmy Works on February 7, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Lee, I fly fish for spots and an occasional smallie in Alabama. I am thinking about visiting Ky to do some flyfishing (wading or kayaking) for small mouths and I came upon your article from Feb/2011. I do strictly catch and release. Can you suggest a few streams — and where they are located ?

  2. Staff on February 7, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Lee is a contributing editor, but Lee works for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, his duties makes it hard for him to field questions, but you can search the Blue Water series here on the site they are all stream fishing articles, by Art lander and Lee. almost all of the fish able streams in Kentucky have smallmouth. However, Elkhorn Creek is a very good one to consider.

    Chris Erwin
    Contributing Editor/Publisher
    Kentucky Angling News Magazine
    Outdoor writer for the Greater Ashland Beacon
    Chris is the Secretary of the
    Kentucky Outdoor Press Association

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