Cold Fronts and River Smallmouths


When faced with a major cold front, my suggestion is to head for the river. The first week of May started with a few days of stable weather, followed by a horrendous cold front that hit right at the start of the fishing season. Spring cold fronts are nothing out of the ordinary in the Northwoods. You need to learn how to deal with them. If I was fishing for pleasure, it would be no big deal. Being a fishing guide, you have anxious clients anticipating action. Mix in 48-degree water temperature along with high water and you have a tough bite. Having 35years of guiding experience does ease the stress level a bit, but there is never a sure thing.

Searchbaits for smallmouths

I knew that smallmouths would be scattered and that we had to cover water. Swimbaits are the best search bait for scattered early pre-spawn smallmouth. It is no secret that swimbaits shine in cold water and they catch big smallmouths during the pre-spawn. My top producing swimbait in 2018 was the Case Lil Magic Swim.

When fishing swimbaits for smallmouth bass, I prefer a 6-foot-6 or 7-foot, medium or medium/heavy action casting rod. I combine the rod with a low-profile baitcaster with about a 6.3:1 mid-range retrieve speed. If the conditions call for smaller swimbaits, I switch to a spinning rod.

There are a few factors that influence the size of the swimbait. First off, it is important to try to mimic what’s naturally available in the system. Additionally, you need to establish the quality of the smallmouth fishery. If you are fishing big fish water, throw larger baits, or vice versa. If the bite is tough due to cold water or any tough conditions, it is important to downsize. A swimbaits’ girth, thickness and resulting profile also should be considered.

Color is important regardless of the clarity of the water you are fishing. Shad and shiner patterns are most popular and will work in both stained and clear water. Semi-translucent swimbaits work great in clear water. A bit of glitter or a little shiny paint adds the effect of scales. Another option is to match bluegill, crappie or perch. On the Menominee River, the top Case Magic Swim colors are baby bass, albino shad and pearl shiner.

Spring is standout smallmouth season

By mid-May, the water temperature had inched up into the mid-50s. Stable weather was the norm and smallmouth activity exploded. Smallmouths were in the rocky shallows and a combination of topwater baits like the three-inch Hubs Chub or a Case Magic Stik rigged wacky style did the job. On any given day, both presentations caught smallmouths. Usually one presentation out produced the other one. For about two weeks, the smallmouth fishing was incredible

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However, just when everything was going as planned, another cold front pushed down from Canada. It brought with it four days of brisk northwest winds. The bite slowed down a bit and swimbaits again won the day. Although the water temperature dropped a few degrees and we had to deal with 25 mph winds, Menominee River smallmouths remained active. We had to keep on the move and fish a variety of different types of cover, but we caught quality smallmouth bass in shallow water. On several occasions, we found loads of smallmouth and fished out of the wind. When hit with tough condition, the numbers of smallmouths we catch drops but the quality remains excellent.

Summer on the Menominee

In the summer there is a fantastic topwater bite on the Menominee River unless you are hit with a cold front. Summer cold fronts can be devastating on natural lakes and the Great Lakes. They push smallmouths deep and give them lock jaw. On the river, the cold front has a minimal effect on smallmouths. It pushes them tight to the bottom or to vertical rock structure, but they still remain in relatively shallow water. I tell my clients to keep the topwater baits in the tackle box. If smallmouth were tight on the bottom, a Case Lil Sweet P or a tube did the job. I rigged the Case Lil Sweet P with a small worm weight and a 3/0 wide-gap hook, and crawled it along the bottom with an occasional pause. If the bite is tough, a slower retrieve works best. Patience is always the key to success, especially if you are looking for big fish!

A different presentation was needed for smallmouths suspending along the vertical rock ledges. For this situation, I choose either a 3.25-inch Case floating stik rigged on a mushroom jighead or a 4-inch Zipper Jr worm rigged on a darter head jig. Both presentations are fished in a similar manner by casting parallel to the rocks, letting the bait drop about halfway in the water column and using a slow, steady retrieve. Don’t pause or jig the bait since, after a cold front, this will turn off smallmouths. When you feel a bump during your retrieve, keep the steady retrieve until you feel the weight of the fish, then set the hook. This presentation will catch smallmouths under the most adverse conditions.

Finding the fall bite

The fall smallmouth bite came right on schedule even though we had to deal with high water and several cold fronts. By the third week of September, a massive cold front and high winds put a halt on the early September topwater bite. The river was rising due to heavy rain. Smallmouths started to stack up and were on the feed chasing river shiners and chubs that were pushed into shallow water. Fall cold fronts can put river smallmouth into a feeding frenzy. In a three-week period, my clients boated 21 smallmouths 20 inches or better.

Unlike big water and natural lakes, the Menominee River offers wilderness aesthetics, along with an incredible fishery. No long boat rides over rough water. No jet skis or pleasure boaters. Just serenity and big smallmouths. If you are looking for a memorable experience, a day on the Menominee River should be at the top of your bucket list in 2019.