They might not jump during winter but smallmouth bass remain one of the most exciting fish swimming in fresh water
MILLE LACS LAKE, Minn. — “There’s one,” Christian Hoffman said as he set the hook, “and it feels like a good-sized fish.” The evidence seemed to support his claim. The ultralight rod Hoffman held was arced into a nearly impossible bend, and the reel’s drag whined as it gave up line.
After a few powerful runs that looked to test Hoffman’s equipment to the limit, he kneeled down, reached into the hole and pulled up a trophy smallmouth bass. “Now that’s a good way to start the day,” Hoffman said. After a quick photo, the fish was sent back down the hole.
Hoffman said he and his fishing partner discovered their smallmouth pattern by accident. “My friend Andy Walls and I were hunting for walleyes off the edge of long shoreline point. We drilled a series of holes and marked several fish holding tight to the bottom with our electronics.”
Hoffman, of Brainerd, Minn., is a full-time videographer for Outdoor Sportsman Group, the company that produces In-Fisherman Television. Walls, of Grand Rapids, Minn., is the manager of Thousand Lakes Sporting Goods. They have fished together since they were in fifth grade.
The point topped out at about 10 to 12 feet and dropped sharply into water 20 feet deep. Perfect spot, they thought, to ambush a few walleyes. “It was about a half hour before sunrise,” Hoffman added, “and we were confident that this spot was going to produce some big fish.”
It did produce.
“I was using a big jigging spoon — a gold PK Flutter Fish — with no bait,” Hoffman said “The first fish came in and smoked it. I yelled to Andy that I was hooked up, adding that if it’s a walleye it’s huge. Turned out to be a 4 ½-pound smallmouth.”
Then it happened three more times during early morning, with a few sizeable walleyes mixed in.
Hoffman said that Walls had the idea to try a tiny tungsten panfish jig tipped with a small soft-plastic tail. He hooked up on the first drop. Hoffman followed suit, stowing the 36-inch walleye rod in favor of a 28-inch panfish noodle rod combo spooled with two-pound-test fluorocarbon line.
They ended up landing several more fish before the bite slowed again in the early afternoon.
Fine tuning tackle
It might seem counter intuitive, but Hoffman says anglers aren’t at a disadvantage using ultralight panfish gear. “As long as you use the right kind of light tackle, you can definitely land giant smallmouths,” Hoffman said. “They actually pull much harder when hooked on a walleye rod.”
Hoffman favors a 28-inch Power Noodle from Tuned Up Custom Rods paired with a 1000-size Pflueger President spinning reel. “That rod has the backbone needed to set the hook and control the fish,” Hoffman added, “and the light tip action needed to detect delicate bites and protect light line.
“You also need a reel with a buttery smooth drag. These fish pull hard. The fight begins as soon as you set the hook and doesn’t end until you lift them out of the hole.”
Hoffman selects a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce VMC Tungsten Tubby ice jig depending on water depth and wind conditions. He usually tips the jig with two or three maggots, but might add a one-inch soft-plastic tail when fishing near a school of bait-stealing perch.
“Tungsten jigs fish heavy for their size,” Hoffman said. “You need enough weight to fully straighten out the line. Any coils or slack in the line make it almost impossible to detect light bites. And with any wind, it’s much more productive to fish inside a portable shelter.”
The finickiest fish
“Sometimes the fish just move in and eat the bait,” Hoffman said. “Enjoy it when it happens, because it doesn’t happen often. For most of the smallmouth you’re likely to encounter, you’ll need to dig into your bag of tricks.
“In fact, if you don’t catch a fish when it first appears, it will likely hang around, move off then return. They might repeat that routine four or five times before committing to the bait. It sometimes seems like a group of fishing moving through, but an underwater camera usually reveals that it’s a single fish.”
Hoffman said that aggressive jigging is usually not effective. “I try to move the jig as little as possible,” He added. “I usually cradle the reel with both hands then brace my hands on my knee and gently rock the jig up and down, barely moving the rod tip.”
Watching Hoffman work the jig, this move seemed more about detecting a bite than triggering one. “The subtlety of the take is what’s most surprising about these fish,” Hoffman said. “Smallmouths might erupt on a topwater lure in open water, but they bite more delicately than bluegills beneath the ice. We get a lot of bites that we never even feel.”
Hoffman said he usually sets a sucker minnow or golden shiner under a dead-stick or a tip-up while he works a jig. “I don’t catch a lot of smallmouth on the setlines, but it does happen,” he said. “Plus, we sometimes catch a bonus walleye or pike.”
Smallmouths, though, remain the primary focus.
“In the past few years I’ve been able to ice-fish for smallmouths across the upper Midwest,” Hoffman said. “They behave a bit differently everywhere I’ve fished them, but the same presentations usually work. They’re usually finicky, they’re always a challenge and they quickly became one of my favorite target species during winter.”