Five Degrees Of Opportunity

When water temperatures reach a certain 5-degree window, Iowa's largemouth bass awake. Will you be there when the breakfast bell rings? (April 2008)

Jesse Simpkins shows off an Iowa bigmouth that he caught on a Rat-L-Trap.
Photo by Ted Peck.

Listen to the counsel of professional bass angling's big names long enough, and you're likely to hear this mantra again and again: Largemouth bass won't chase a lure until spring water temperatures warm to almost 60 degrees.

Don't believe it -- at least, not if you're in Iowa. In waters across the Hawkeye State, largemouth bass begin feeding nearly as soon as the lid of ice leaves the surface.

For a short time, when water temperatures hover between 43 and 48 degrees, anglers have an opportunity on a number of Iowa waters to tangle with bucketmouths that behave more like fish in a pre-spawn frenzy than fish in a coldwater funk.

Timing is almost everything, but location and lure presentation are equally important for tapping this little known bonanza.

I don't fish tournaments, and I certainly don't possess enough hubris or ego to claim to be a great bass angler. But I've been guiding in northeast Iowa and western Wisconsin for more than 30 years, on average spending more than 150 days each year on the waters that pool in this region -- and many of my outings are in pursuit of bass. It's difficult to fish that often and not learn something about bass behavior, especially if you keep an angling diary like I have since 1976. Maintaining this database has proven to be a great way to discover fishing patterns and anticipate trends. Staying on the cutting edge certainly beats hearing "You should have been here last week!"

Although Iowa lakes and ponds have a wide variety of habitat parameters -- ranging from the deep, clear waters of the Iowa Great Lakes to shallow, stained waters of Lake Anita west of Des Moines -- some common characteristics can be found wherever these fish call home.

Being cold-blooded creatures, bass become profoundly inactive in near-freezing temperatures under a sheet of ice. When spring arrives, with run-off, rain and wind exposing lake surfaces and providing oxygen once again, a subtle change occurs among the bass that inhabit their water.

Soon after ice-out, wind action can blow stressed bass up against the shoreline, where the last thing they want to do is eat a spinnerbait, but reflexes often trump native intelligence.

The spring sun warms shallow water on the north side of lakes quickly. Especially prone to this effect: water that's somewhat dingy and that lies above a heat-absorbing dark bottom -- water such as will be found in most of the access channels off of the Iowa Great Lakes. Water temperatures at the back ends of shallow bays can be at least 5 degrees warmer than that of other lake locations. Fish respond to this metabolic message like lost souls hearkening to a Billy Graham altar call.

Bass aren't the only piscine critters drawn to a lake's nether reaches. Panfish answer the call as well, followed by muskies and pike. Although it will be a couple of months before these fish can find ideal habitat parameters in any lake, native intelligence tells them to seek the best available options. As a result, fish tend to congregate in fairly small areas.

A fallen tree that might produce only a fish or two once waters heat up may be the temporary home for 20 or more bucketmouths as waters first begin to warm. These fish will yield to the primal urge of competition when the forage base -- or something that resembles the forage base -- comes within the strike zone.

This is one reason that bass will attack a slow-rolled spinnerbait or Rat-L-Trap on a sunny afternoon when water temperatures are between 43 and 48 degrees. Why aren't they aggressive in the morning or when temps warm beyond 50 degrees? Keep metabolism and the predator/prey relationships in mind. Fish don't need to feed as often in cold water. A bass that's been watching last season's young-of-the-year bluegills swim by a foot away all morning will receive enough impetus to eat when the afternoon sun raises water temperatures just a couple of degrees, enhancing fish metabolism.

In very cold water, slowed metabolism also dulls survival responses. After ice-out, fish movement is largely controlled by the drive to locate the warmest water available. When water temperatures warm up closer to a cold-blooded species' "functional" range, the survival index is ramped up a couple of notches. A slower presentation afforded by a jig-'n'-pig or suspending stickbait like a Lucky Craft Pointer fished close to cover is what it takes to provoke a response.

Not all water warms up at the same rate, especially in larger, deeper clear lakes. As a result, when the Rat-L-Trap and spinnerbait pattern shuts down in northern and western shallow bays, you may still be able to trigger a bite with a Rat-L-Trap for a day or two over similar habitat parameters on the south side, where water temperatures are just moving into the 43- to 48-degree range.

You can find continued success near the points of the same northern bays where you had such lip-rippin' fun on spinnerbaits by slowing it down and accurately casting around cover with a stickbait or slow-falling plastic with a relatively short bait profile once the temperature here warms out of the 43-48 degree aggressive bite window.

When you've found a concentration of fish in this aggressive attitude, lure color becomes secondary to bait profile. Still, lure color can certainly make a difference. On clear lakes, a blue/chrome or black/chrome lipless vibrating crankbait usually works better than a fire-tiger pattern, which will prove successful on stained waters. Years of experience fishing this pattern have shown me that red, orange and crawdad-colored 'Traps and spinnerbaits work better than any other hues, regardless of water clarity.

On any given day, bass seem to display a preference for either the Rat-L-Trap or a spinnerbait. Two anglers fishing different lures until the pattern du jour is revealed will reduce the time it takes to tap the action.

The bite will slow down as active biters get educated. Rather than moving down the lake to find another honeyhole, try changing lure color or configuration and keep fishing the same area.

Using different blade sizes or switching from a tandem to a single blade may trigger a few more fish that watched their kin dance away moments before. Sometimes this change will tempt bass that followed the Rat-L-Trap back to the boat and either struck short or turned away.

Having

an assortment of lipless vibrating cranks is also a good idea. The vibration given off by Rat-L-Traps, Cordell Spots and Rattlin' Raps is different for each lure because of slightly different bait profiles and both the number and size of rattles.

Retrieval speed and inflection also are important considerations once you've located a mess of bass.

When fishing a spinnerbait, I've had the best success with the pulsing vibration that results from the slow-rolling technique. Sometimes switching to a steady retrieve or even "bulging" the bait just below the surface is what triggers a strike.

Lipless vibrating crankbaits also lend themselves to interpretive retrieving. While the pause-and-pull method can be profoundly effective during warmwater periods, I've found a steady retrieve most productive when fishing during this coldwater bite.

Remember: This is a strike-oriented presentation. If you're over fish that aren't responding in that 43- to 48-degree water, speed up the retrieve. By the time the bass figures out that the easy meal has a pair of treble hooks, it will be too late.

Therein lies the beauty of catching bass in this ice-out window. As noted, fish tend to congregate along fairly short runs of shoreline or significant shallow water cover. You can explore a considerable amount of water in a short amount of time with these search-type lures. Once the first bass takes the bait, slow down and cover the area completely.

Even the best electronics on the market have little value in finding fish to target in this presentation, beyond merely noting depth and the profoundly important water temperature.

After ice-out, bass will seek the warmest water available until their metabolism ratchets up. This typically means they will seek out less than 6 feet of water or hold close to a heat-absorbing structure like an old stump tight against the shoreline.

Because the water may be shallow, anglers might need to tilt the outboard motor out of the water and adjust the trolling motor to the shallowest point at which thrust can be maintained.

Most lipless cranks run between 4 and 6 feet deep. Holding the rod tip up allows this bait to be worked effectively in shallower water. Floating Rat-L-Traps or a bait like Mann's Baby One Minus could be the answer.

Although your presentation is aimed at coaxing a strike, that strike can be more of a subtle presence than an authoritative attack. For this reason, fishing low-stretch braided line like PowerPro or Fireline on a medium-to-light 7-foot rod can help you avoid telegraphing your imminent hookset to the fish.

This spectacular bite window is a small one, and can close overnight. Last spring, I hit it just right on a small private lake in northeast Iowa, catching almost 20 bass, two of which weighed more than 6 pounds. I returned to the same spot the next afternoon after showing photos of these fish to an old farmer friend. We were skunked.

Another important key is being on the water the first time that the water hits the 43- to 48-degree temperature window. Spring is a time of seasonal change, and cold fronts remain a fact of life. The water can warm to 50 degrees, and beyond, only to crash 10 degrees overnight with the passage of a front. The second time water warms through this magic 5-degree window, the bass will likely have the same cold-blooded, lethargic attitude of Southern largemouths that haven't spent several months swimming under the Iowa ice.

Limestone and topography in northeast Iowa limit the number of prime waters on which to test this strategy. Essentially, only three public waters are worth targeting when the waters warm to between 43 and 48 degrees.

Near Fayette, Lake Volga (also known as "Frog Hollow Lake") repurposes the signature utterance in Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." When this 120-acre lake was built between high limestone banks, several feet of clay had to be placed on the bottom so that the lake would hold water.

Nature has since taken its course, with siltation entering Volga from three arms of the lake with northern exposure. No-wake rules are in effect on this scenic lake.

Two lakes near Decorah are also worth probing when the 5-degree feeding window opens. Forty-acre Lake Meyer, in a county park southwest of Calmar, has a silty bay on the north end that should become a bucketmouth magnet any day now. Lake Hendricks, off of state Route 9 west of Decorah, is about 20 percent larger, and every largemouth in the lake will ease towards the main lake arm that enters from the northeast in April. Both Meyer and Hendricks allow electric motors only.

The southern and southwestern sections of Iowa have many lakes where this aggressive coldwater bass pattern would be effective. The big variable here is ice. The entire lake has to be covered with an icy lid for at least a month for this pattern to reach fruition. Lately, Iowa winters have been less than predictable, but if the winter of 2007-08 falls under the "old-fashioned" category, you can bet the farm that an orange Rat-L-Trap will educate a pile of big fish for those who hit the pattern just right.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager Chris Larson rates 187-acre Lake Anita, about an hour west of Des Moines off of Interstate 80, as the best "numbers" lake for largemouth in the state.

Anita was renovated in 2003 and held low water levels until this past summer. When the lake returned to normal levels, the bass here went bonkers. Anita's no place for finding a wallhanger, but if the sensation of many 16- to 19-inchers attacking your lure is what you desire, Anita is the place to go.

Another option is making the "34 Run." Three lakes just off of U.S. Route 34 have all the ingredients to make hay with this pattern, according to Larson. Three Mile Lake just north of Afton was impounded in 1997 and is just beginning to peak as a bass fishery. Target the creek entry at the far north end of this 900-acre lake.

The next target as you vector west down this highway is Twelve Mile Lake near Creston. Start looking for that 43-degree water on the north side, working your way around to the west on this 650-acre lake.

Lake Icaria, north of Corning and further west on Route 34, is about 30 acres larger than Twelve Mile. This fishery was renovated in 2004. Bass fishing here should be smokin' hot this spring.

Timing of this event on northern Iowa lakes is usually sometime between April 10-20 during typical spring weather -- essentially the same time frame when walleyes are spawning on the Mississippi River. The Rat-L-Trap bite on those lakes off of Route 34 should happen a little earlier, perhaps April 7-14.

Bass? Walleyes? Trout? Turkeys? All passions call your name as the geese and sandhill cranes start working back north up the Mississippi River. April in Iowa -- so many options, so little time. To maximize

your success -- and efficiency -- during the crowded spring outdoors season, take advantage of these "five degrees of opportunity" for Iowa largemouth bass. Your stringer will thank you.

Find more about Iowa fishing and hunting at: IowaGameandFish.com

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