Brandon Palaniuk has established himself as one of the fastest rising stars in professional tournament bass fishing. Over the past few years, he has also earned a reputation of being one of the best at catching smallmouth bass with several top finishes and an Elite Series win on smallmouth dominated waters. His expertise and love of smallmouth bass fishing were formed growing up in the cool climate of the Pacific Northwest and he has fished for them in all weather conditions. “Some of the best days I have ever had for smallmouth are days when you have to break the ice at the boat ramp just to launch the boat. You just need to slow way down and adjust your approach,” claims Palaniuk. When the water gets cold, he simplifies his bait selection and does not let the cold weather affect him.
If the water begins to drop into the 50’s and below, Palaniuk switches gears in his bait selection due to the activity and feeding preferences of smallmouth. “I have found that when the water is cold, the smallmouth tend to be looking up in the water column for food. Baits like jigs that imitate crawfish will still work but not as good as they do during the warmer months,” says Palaniuk. Instead, he switches to baitfish imitations like a metal blade bait and Rapala Jigging Rap.
When the water temperature reaches 50 degrees or less, the first choice for Palaniuk is a blade bait. “I’ve caught them all the way down to 38 degree water temperature on it, but any time the water is in the 40’s it works great,” says the Idaho pro. This unassuming bait is a top choice for anglers fishing for a variety of fish species in cold weather and Palaniuk is no different. “The one I use is from Norisada Custom Baits and I will use either the 1/2 oz or 5/8 oz in both the Gold and Goby color,” shares Palaniuk.
The Rapala Jigging Rap works well for cold weather smallmouth and is a top choice for anglers fishing through the ice or open water. Brandon Palaniuk most often uses the #7 which is just less than three inches long. He will match his colors to the primary baitfish in the body of water he is fishing and will also adjust the size of the bait if necessary. “The Jigging Rap works great for fish that are suspended; if I see them off of the bottom on my electronics I will use this instead of the blade bait. It has a great darting action and will dive side to side really quickly,” adds Palaniuk.
When using either the blade bait or Jigging Rap, the retrieve is crucial for enticing cold water smallmouth to bite. “One of the most important things when fishing the blade bait is the position of your rod. I let it fall to the bottom and then rip it up, my rod will be going from the water level up to a 10 o’clock or 12 o’clock position,” says the Elite Series pro. The rod position is crucial based on the fact that the bass will often hit it on the fall. “You have to be ready because they will hit it on the fall and if your rod is high you will have to reel up slack quickly to get a good hookset,” says Palaniuk. He will repeat the steps over and over, ripping the bait up and letting it fall until he gets back to the boat.
When using the Jigging Rap, Palaniuk will pay close attention to what depth the fish are in and drop the bait straight down to where they are. “One thing about cold water smallmouth is that one day they will be really close to the bottom and the next they may be 10 feet off of the bottom, so your electronics are really important. I’ll drop the Jigging Rap to where they are and then give it a quick snap to get that bait diving and moving side to side and then continue to work it so it darts back and forth,” adds Palaniuk. He fishes this lure with a vertical approach, constantly watching his electronics, looking for activity and taking note of fish he sees on the screen.
For both of these techniques, Palaniuk relies on spinning gear exclusively. “I like a 7’ Medium Action Abu Garcia with a Revo Premier size 20,” says Palaniuk. He prefers this rod because it has the backbone needed to hook deep fish and get control of hard fighting smallmouth. His line choice is 8lb Fireline Crystal with an 8lb Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leader.
Depths and Locations
According to Brandon Palaniuk, cold water smallmouth are fairly predictable in both location and the depths they frequent. “I look for long sloping points or steep cliffs. The key with points is to find areas that drop off to deep water on one side or both sides of the point,” shares Palaniuk. He will line up parallel to the deeper drop-offs to ensure that his baits are in the strike zone longer and he is not wasting time in unproductive areas.
When it comes to depths, winter smallmouth can in anywhere from 10 to 50 or more feet of water. “I’ve caught them deeper than 50 feet of water, but the key range always seems to be between 20-30 feet of water. It really depends on the lake, but that is a good target range for just about everywhere,” says Palaniuk.
Fishing for cold water smallmouth requires a different outlook, a simple approach and a willingness to brave the cold weather. For professional anglers like Brandon Palaniuk that means relying on season-specific lures such as blade baits to tempt slow-moving smallmouth. By following his tips you are sure to increase your success at catching cold water smallmouth bass.