Tips And Tactics For Early-Season Bass

Spring bass can be hard to find and even harder to fool, but some basic lures (and a knowledge of bass habitat and habits) can make the difference for you this season.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Consistent success on early-season bass requires proficiency with a wide variety of presentations aimed at the many habitats these fish use at this time of year.

Whether you are talking largemouths or smallmouths in rivers or lakes, spring is a time of rapid change for bass. Following a winter of limited activity, warming water and the need to feed trigger initial early-season movements to the shallows. As water temperatures increase, serious nesting begins.

Another transition happens following the spawn as fish gradually disperse from the shallows, eventually setting up in areas that provide the proper blend of food and cover for the summer season.

Much is happening in the world of bass right now, which means they likely won't be doing the same thing from week to week, sometimes even day to day. The successful angler will do whatever is necessary to adapt to these changes.

What follows is a look at several early-season presentation options that cover a variety of situations from open water to heavy cover, in still water and flowing currents.

In an effort to avoid targeting bass when they are actually on their beds, these tactics are geared toward the pre-spawn and post-spawn periods. Also, before uncovering the boat for that first spring fling with bass, be sure to check your state's regulations for restrictions on springtime bass fishing.

SKIRTED AND BUCKTAIL JIGS

Early-spring bass, largemouths in particular, make use of a variety of habitats where a skirted jig is an ideal lure selection. Coupled with a natural or artificial frog-shaped trailer, this offering seems to trigger bites from the larger bass during the spring, particularly during the pre-spawn period.

Skirted jigs employ a heavy wire hook, weighted head and a multi-strand synthetic skirt. Some models also feature rattles.

Skirted bass jigs fall into the power-fishing category, and are best suited for being pitched into thick cover, such as weeds and wood. Laydown trees, especially those exposed to the warming rays of the sun, provide springtime largemouths with cover and warmth. The same can be said of brushpiles in shallow water, as well as beaver lodges. Many good-quality bass lakes feature quick- growing submergent weed cover at this time of year that will harbor largemouths when the conditions are right.

Pitching and flipping skirted jigs typically is not a finesse tactic. Relatively heavy casting tackle, such as a 6-foot, 10-inch rod with 16-pound-test fluorocarbon line, makes an ideal setup for working snag-choked cover.

There are exceptions to the skirted jigs-heavy cover relationship. Some of my most productive early-spring largemouth fishing has been on coverless flats adjacent to secondary creek channels.

During warming trends, 4- to 6-pound largemouths hit the flats to feed. The hot lure is usually a small, skirted jig -- 1/4 to 3/8 ounce -- dressed with a pork trailer and hopped across the flat.

Simple yet deadly offerings, bucktail jigs are composed of a leadhead jig with a 3-inch body made of hair, such as deer hair. Though natural bucktail works well, the hair can be dyed a variety of colors. Commonly, the head of the jig is painted, too, often complete with eyes.

If one word summed up the attributes of the bucktail jig, it would be versatility. A bucktail can be jigged, swam, snap-jigged and vertically jigged. It can be worked around cover and in open water. One of the primary attractions of a bucktail is the way the hair "breathes" underwater. This action suggests a living creature.

Bucktails can be fished bare, or may be tipped with a live or artificial trailer.

Bass, smallmouths in particular, will often go on a bucktail bite, and at times, these jigs heavily outproduce other presentations. I've seen this happen on natural lakes during the pre-spawn period when the fish were holding in short, newly emerging grass along a dropoff. By snap-jigging bucktails as the wind pushed the boat along the dropoff, good numbers of 2- to 4- pound smallies were taken. Bucktails work best fished on medium-power spinning rods with a fairly fast action. A good outfit is a 6-foot rod coupled with 8-pound-test copolymer line.

TUBE BODIES

Soft-bodied tube lures are also versatile bass baits, applicable in many early-season scenarios. Whether you're fishing the thick cover of a reservoir to a quiet eddy on a smallmouth stream, tubes are something every bass angler should carry throughout the season, especially during the spring.

As the name implies, the tube lure is a hollow, cylindrical soft-bodied bait that measures 3 to 4 inches long (in models intended for bass). The tail of the tube is tentacle-like, often called a broom tail. Tube bodies may be found in a vast array of colors.

On the flowing waters that are home to smallmouth bass, quiet pockets close to shore tend to collect fish at this time. River and stream smallies will be found in faster water during the summer, but springtime fish tend to shy away from strong current. Bank sections crowded with rocks or boulders often provide the current breaks smallies prefer at this time.

The point where the water quickly breaks into deeper pools is a situation in which a tube fished on an insert-style leadhead jig is ideal. The leadhead is pushed up through the hollow body of the bait. When completely inserted, the line tie is pushed through the body of the bait. The head of the insert-style jighead is narrow and tapered so it may be slid into the bait without ripping it up. Wetting the jighead for a bit of lubrication aids this process.

The tube may also be rigged the opposite direction, by inserting the point of the hook at the spot where the line tie will be. Work the hook and then the leadhead into the tube until the line tie is at the original point of entry. Leadheads that feature weed guards must be rigged in this direction.

One-eighth-ounce jigheads are about right in most flowing water situations.

For the boat angler, it is usually best to allow the boat to drift with the current while pitching casts to the pockets of quiet water next to shore. I like to slow the drift of my boat just a bit, making occasional steering corrections and just enough thrust to slow the boat's downriver drift.

Early spring is one of the best times for the shore or wading angler to score well on spring smallies. It's a simple matter to locate slow-moving pools on large creeks and small rivers, places where bass will congregate until the water warms. Hop a tube jig along the bottom of the deeper pools. In the area toward the tail of the hole, where actively feeding smallies often lie, pick up the pace a bit and swim the tube just over the bottom.

When Texas-rigged, a tube body also excels when targeting largemouths on lakes and reservoirs during spring. It can be fished in the same areas as skirted jigs. The tube presents a different profile, which can make a big difference to bass some days. Use a wide-gap hook on a 3- or 4-inch bait. Use a bullet sinker to keep the sinker from sliding on the line, or use a screw-in style bullet sinker to keep it in place.

JERKBAITS

Jerkbaits, both the hard- and soft-bodied varieties, have a definite place on the end of the rod of the early-season bass angler.

Suspending hard jerkbaits are effective early-season baits for both smallmouth and largemouth bass. The key to success with hard jerkbaits is clear water.

During the early season, soon after ice-out, forage species such as shad and shiners are drawn to the rapidly warming water. While this is commonly associated with dark-bottomed bays that quickly warm, the surfaces of main-lake areas also rise rapidly in temperature during spring's warming trends.

Bass, smallmouth in particular, will follow these forage fish to the upper layer of the water column. Typically, this happens over large points and flats that extend well into the lake. A hard jerkbait is ideal for such spots. Fan-cast over flats using a stop-and- go retrieve to work the lure in. Don't be afraid to leave the bait hanging motionless for extended periods of time. Hits often occur a half-minute after the bait has been "killed."

On large natural lakes, smallmouth bass will concentrate off creek mouths when the proper rocky habitat is present. Use a hard jerkbait over rocky shallows to trigger fish holding there.

Rivers are an ideal setting to use a hard jerkbait. As was previously mentioned, river smallies often hold in eddies out of the main river flow at this time. When the water is clear, which it can be if snow or rain conditions were light over the winter, the hard jerkbait is often the number one producer.

Hold the boat close to quiet pockets of water and slowly work the suspending jerkbait from the bank back to the boat, even in depths of 10 to 15 feet of water. If the water is clear, the bass will find the bait if they want it.

It takes a bit of patience to work a hard jerkbait slowly enough during the early season. The tendency is to fish them too fast. I prefer a medium-action, medium-power 7-foot spinning rod for throwing hard jerkbaits. An outfit that includes 30-pound-test braided line and a fluorocarbon leader telegraphs strikes extremely well.

During the post-spawn, when largemouths scatter and begin leaving the shallows, a soft-bodied jerkbait is effective for working the flats when searching for fish. The bait may be worked through wood, as well as over newly emerging weeds. It may be fished quickly on or near the surface for aggressive fish or when attempting to trigger a reactionary strike. It may also be hopped along the bottom more like a jig or worm.

I like to rig a 4-inch soft jerkbait on a 3/0 weighted hook in the 1/8- or 1/16-ounce sizes.

I also use a soft jerkbait on river smallies with great success during the early season. Rigged with the 1/8-ounce weighted hook, I'll fish the bait more like a tube than a jerkbait, dead-sticking it in the current as the boat drifts along. I prefer the same rod-reel setup for soft jerkbaits that I use for hard baits.

Some anglers may opt for similar outfits in casting versions.

SPINNERBAITS

Last spring, I joined Deron Eck, a frequent fishing partner, for a day of early-season largemouth bass fishing on a local reservoir that covers nearly 2,000 acres. I mention it now because it occurs to me that on a day where we boated a dozen bass in the 3- to 5-pound range, many of the presentations I've described were productive -- plus one more: a spinnerbait worked over stumps and through weeds.

The lake we fished is a fertile one. Though the lake would see a heavy algae bloom by summer, in the relatively clear water of spring, a good growth of milfoil weeds rose well up off the bottom. In the backs of the bays, protected from the north wind of a recent cold front, it was possible to make out submerged stumps.

Whether you are talking largemouths or smallmouths in rivers or lakes, spring is a time of rapid change for bass.

Ten minutes into the trip, a big largemouth bit Eck's spinnerbait after he bumped it off a stump. The fish was lost at the boat, but not before revealing its 5- to 6-pound bulk.

Eck was using a 3/8-ounce spinnerbait. He had removed the primary blade from the tandem spinnerbait, and replaced it with a big No. 5 Colorado-style blade. Colorado blades are rounded in shape, and tend to give off a great deal of vibration or "thumping." It is this characteristic that Eck places a great deal of confidence in to trigger bass bites at this time of year.

Colorado blades also provide lift to a lure, meaning baits tend to ride higher than they would with a slimmer profile blade at the same retrieve speed. It takes little movement to get a Colorado blade to spin, so they can be fished slowly with plenty of rotation.

Our next stop was a shallow bay featuring large patches of milfoil. The tops of the weeds rose to within a foot or so of the surface. I was using a tandem spinnerbait, a willow-leaf model in 3/8-ounce size that I hoped would swim just above the weed cover.

In contrast to the Colorado blade, willow-leaf blades are slim. They don't offer the vibration of the Colorado blade, but they do sport much flash. Whereas Colorado blades ride high, willow-leaf models run deeper. The weedy bay seemed an excellent place to "grind" such a spinnerbait through the tufts of submerged vegetation. My spinnerbait was about 10 feet from the boat when a 4-pound largemouth rose up from the weeds to grab it.

These two bass bites illustrate the utility of the spinnerbait. When fishing around stumps, Eck used a bait modified by way of an oversized Colorado blade to trigger a strike, and he continued to do so throughout the day. In newly developing weeds, where I wanted something that didn't have as much lift that I could slowly roll through the cover, willow-leaf blades excelled.

I like a moderately powerful casting rod for working spinnerbaits, and have had good luck using a 6-foot, 8-inch casting rod.

As you can see, it takes an assortment of presentations and tactics to effectively fish the many habitats bass make use of this time of year. Lures are tools, best suited to certain situations, as well as the daily preference of the fish.

It's common to have four or five rods rigged with the types of presentations mentioned here. You may start out grinding the weeds with a spinnerbait when you come upon a laydown tree that extends out from the bank. Pick up the jig rod and pitch a skirted jig or tube next to it. With the sun hitting the water, it's possible some bass are suspended high in the water column, feeding on minnows that rise up to the narrow band of warmth close to the surface. Grab the jerkbait rod and find out.

What separates so-so days from outstanding outings is usually no more than an open mind and a willingness to experiment.

There's no doubt that your tackle box is already bulging with old and new lures -- just give some of them a try when your favorite "old reliable" fails to produce.

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