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Tips for Wintertime River Smallmouths

Jig and pigs are excellent baits for winter river smallies.

By Bruce Ingram

Photos by Bruce Ingram

Angling for Virginia’s wintertime river smallmouths is a paradox. The cold weather period is perhaps both the best time to catch trophy bronzebacks and the most likely time for fishermen not to even receive one bite. Here are tips from three well-known state anglers on how to experience more of the former and less of the latter.

Willis’ Mike Smith operates New River Fly Fishing and offers this advice.

“Fly fishermen should wait until we’ve had 50-degree-plus air temperatures for three or four days, which typically cause the water temperature to rise from, say, 40 to 44-45 degrees,” he says. “Then use sink tip lines and big streamers like my Articulated Fish Skull pattern to probe winter holes.”

An image of two men in a blue raft fishing on the New River

Guides Scott Guilliams and Britt Stoudenmire of New River Outdoor Company work a winter hole on the New River.

Pembroke’s Britt Stoudenmire, who operates the New River Outdoor Company, gives an example of a “winter hole.”

“My favorite winter holes are pronounced ledges that run the width of the river within deeper pools,” he says. “The ledges provide breaks that protect fish in higher flows and are great structure to attract baitfish and crayfish. These are also excellent places to try jig and pigs, tubes or suspended jerk baits.

An image of two men on a blue raft fishing near a deep rocky pool

Deep rocky pools are good places to prospect for trophy cold season bronzebacks.

“I like to position my boat on the bottom side of the ledge and quarter my casts towards the ledge letting the broken current do all the work as the bait drifts slowly downriver with the current. The breaks, also called eddies, have current seams on the outer edges. Smallmouths will stage on these seams when they are feeding or will position more in the protected pocket when they are in a holding pattern.”

An image of the man from the raft holding a New River Smallmouth bass

Britt Stoudenmire with a trophy New River smallmouth that he caught on a jig and pig.

Tommy Cundiff runs River Monster Guide Service and also targets those same winter holding areas but with a different lure.

“I used to do the big bait on heavy line thing for winter smallmouths, but now I’ve mostly gone to finesse fishing for them,” he says. “I use six-pound-test mono on a 6 ½-foot rod and tie on 2 ½-inch Berkley Gulp Minnows. Make short casts to the bank and retrieve so that the bait sort of slowly pendulums back to the boat. Twitch the Gulp Minnows just a tad as you bring them back.”

The Old Dominion’s top wintertime destination?

All three guides rate the New River as the best, but the James, Shenandoah (South Fork, North Fork, and mainstem), Rappahannock, Potomac, and Maury are quality destinations as well.

An image of two men on a blue boat catching a New River Smallmouth Bass

Scott Guilliams landing a fine New River smallmouth for Britt Stoudenmire.

“The New is an excellent destination for winter smallies because it has such diversified habitat and plenty of it,” Stoudenmire says. “Fish don’t have to move long distances to winter. I typically locate new winter holes on the New during the low water months when you can see the content of these areas better. Then I will go to them in the winter and check them out. Some work out, some don’t. Only time on the water will tell.”

Lastly, please be sure to always wear a lifejacket while wintertime fishing and check river gauges to make sure water levels are safe.

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  • January 7, 2019