Ah, spring! Words that cause bass fishing enthusiasts to emerge from their winter retreats, growly as a starving, ill-tempered grizzly that wintered in a hillside den.
The only balm that can soothe the savage beast is a day or perhaps a weekend on the water, searching for, casting to and catching a black bass.
Time on the water is much more likely to have the intended analgesic effect if the fishermen avoid these common errors, presented in no specific order.
1. FAILING TO PERFORM THE PRE-LAUNCH BOAT CHECK
Hey, no need to make sure all the boat systems still work, that the gas forgotten in the tank from last September hasn’t jellied or become water-logged and the batteries will hold a charge for a full day of fishing.
Or, maybe there is. A simple pre-launch boat check performed at home the day before the trip, like pilots do before heading into the sky, can alert you to problems that can be fixed before they leave you dead in the water.
2. IGNORING THE GEAR CHECK
Yes, all the rods and reels worked the last time they were used, but that was on a windy fall day with dust and grit blowing into every crack and crevice. The fish you and your buddy were hooking were hugging the lake bottom littered with plenty of sharp-shelled mussels. You, like many others, stored all that gear in the boat over the winter.
All signs point to the simple fact that reels and lines need to be checked before hitting the water. Clean the reels and apply lubricant as appropriate. Check the lines for nicks and abrasions. UV light is tough on line. Cut off the damaged section or replace it all.
While you are at it, get all those plugs and crankbaits purchased on winter clearance and replace the factory hardware with quality hooks and rings. Spend a pre-fishing evening inspecting hook points and applying the sharpening stone as necessary.
3. NOT BECOMING A BETTER CASTER
Why bother practicing? You can hit the water most every cast, rarely cracking that expensive crankbait on a dock or getting it hung up in bankside bushes. You and your fishing buddy lose fishing time while trying to retrieve your bait, and he’s mentally wondering whether he needs to find a new boatmate.
Aside from saving fishing relationships, a skilled caster will catch more fish than one with lesser skills. Like the golf adage of “drive for show, putt for dough,” more fish get caught with accuracy than with distance. Learn how to bend the cast around obstructions to get the fly or bait into those hard-to-reach places that other fishermen reject as being to difficult to hit. Teach yourself how to cast with your non-dominant hand. Learn how to drop the fly or bait softly into the water. The time to learn all these skills is at home. Once on the water, attention gets focused on trying to catch fish instead of improving casting skill.
4. IGNORING WHAT BASS EAT
The corollary is to ignore how largemouth and smallmouth bass food moves, where it lives and when it is most likely available. Black bass are opportunistic feeders, to be sure. However, fishing a fly or bait that imitates forage that is abundant and available in spring improves chances of hooking up.
Size matters. In most spring waters — rivers or lakes — baitfish, crayfish and aquatic insects will all be adults. The young of the year have not yet hatched, so fly or bait selection should match the most prevalent size of the available food.
Movement and location matter. If fishing a crayfish imitation, make it move like the real food. Crayfish live on the bottom and crawl around over rocks and through vegetation and debris. They skitter backward when scared or provoked.
5. DISREGARDING CONDITIONS
Fishermen tend to be habitual creatures. We fish the same river or lake, motor to the same spot where we last caught fish, tie on the same lure that worked before, cast the same direction and retrieve the lure the same way on this cast as we did last summer. Never mind that the water was 15 degrees warmer, the wind was barely a light breeze from the south, it was early September and the fish were gorging on a recent rainbow plant.
There is nothing wrong about being a creature of habit. Instead of being a one-size-fits-all fisherman, consider creating multiple habits that are based in large part on current water temperature. Start with creating spring habits.
Fish move in seasonal patterns. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that water temperature in April is lower than last September. In some waters, April may mean temperature approaching 60 degrees. In others, it may be a chilly 45 degrees. Your cold-blooded quarry is at the mercy of the current water temperature. It affects their feeding habits, the number or size of prey items consumed, the food that is abundant and available, how that food moves and where that food lives.
Fish move in response to weather changes. Warming trends bring them shallow. Cold fronts send them deep. Direct sun brings them shallow until the water gets too warm and the fish drop into cooler water. Strong river current moves the fish towards the edges or makes them seek obstructions that provide relief from having to work hard to maintain position. Dirty water tends to move fish to the edges as well. Successful fishermen adapt to conditions as those conditions change throughout the day, the week, the month and the season.
6. PUMPING UP THE VOLUME
It is so cool that the new boat has a ginormous sound system with 16 speakers that really send sound waves pulsing through the water from here to Alaska. That sound system, even well shy of full blast, trashes U.S. Navy sonar gear, disorients whales in the Pacific and puts every bass in the western United States on alert.
Perhaps a bit overstated, but the point to be made is that loud sounds put off fish, especially those spring bass that have moved up onto the shallows. Clunky anchor drops, rattling anchor chains, banging oars and dropping tackle boxes on the boat bottom all send sound waves traveling through the water at 5,000 feet per second. These non-prey sounds elicit a startle effect on bass and put them off the feed and into a fight or flight mode. So, turn off the sound system while fishing.
7. NOT READING THE WATER
Don’t spend any time learning to recognize water features such as current breaks, eddies, rock humps, inlet streams, flooded timber, old riverbeds and all the other fish-holding spots on rivers and lakes. Instead, just launch the boat and start casting. You recall that adage about how even a blind pig can occasionally find a truffle, and so it is that casting with no plan will luck upon the odd fish.
Or you could educate yourself and garner all the information that water, both rivers and lakes, reveals to those willing to pay attention. For example, dark patches of substrate on an otherwise light-colored bottom means rocks or vegetation. If inspection reveals the patches are rock, then try a baitfish or crayfish bait. If those patches are vegetation, then fly-fishermen should go with a large aquatic insect pattern imitating a damselfly or dragonfly nymph.
8. NOT SCOUTING LOW WATER
When your favorite reservoir or lake has dropped to its lowest level, stay home. Flick on the TV and watch re-runs of “Three’s Company.” Don’t waste time cruising the shoreline and taking note of all the now-exposed structure that will hold fish when the reservoir is full. And whatever you do, don’t take pictures of all that structure with your cell phone or digital camera. Everybody knows that memory doesn’t fade over time. Leave the GPS turned off so you won’t be tempted to create waypoints for the best structure, the beaver hut or rock pile that will hold big bass once the water returns to full pool.
On the other hand, you can spend a day scouting the water and educating yourself and recording that knowledge that will serve you in good stead, season after season, year after year. It’s the sort of information that can show up in some pretty impressive spring tournament bags.
I am so glad that none of these mistakes have occurred on my watch. Or maybe they are products of personal experience. See you on the water.