February 23, 2022
By Dr. Jason Halfen
The natural world bristles with life in spring—and not only on land. Beneath the water’s surface, once-dormant shallows now teem with life, from the smallest insects to the largest aquatic predators, as the sun’s powerful photons drag water temperatures out of their wintertime lows.
While anglers in most parts of the country are still anxiously waiting for this to happen in their local waters, it’s not too soon to start planning for the bites of spring.
Early season fishing can be a daunting proposition. Which species should we pursue? Which part of the lake holds the most active fish? Which baits or lures might be most effective? The answers to these questions will help us prepare for three of the earliest open-water opportunities of the season.
First, understand that no matter which species of fish you decide to pursue as spring arrives, water temperature is the key to success. Surface water that is even just a few degrees warmer than surrounding areas will tend to concentrate actively feeding fish. In general terms, focus your efforts on soft-bottomed bays that are off the main body of water. The best bays will frequently be sheltered from the prevailing wind to minimize the influx of cold water. Within these bays, shallow, near-shore areas are generally better than deeper ones.
Interestingly enough, current from river inlets can be a double-edged sword in the spring. While water current will help to attract and retain species like walleye, cold runoff delivered by river inlets can also decrease local water temperatures and turn the bite off for bass and panfish. Monitor surface temperatures with electronics as you approach river inlets. If you encounter a plume of substantially colder water, continue your search in another area.
Go Soft on Panfish
Many a panfish has landed in a livewell after munching a chunk of nightcrawler or slurping an inch-long minnow in the spring. Nevertheless, savvy anglers recognize that they will typically catch more and larger fish by using artificial presentations. Such an approach has the added advantage of making fish easier to release, as bluegills and crappies are rarely hooked deeply when caught on lures.
Oversized bluegills respond favorably to slender-profile soft plastics rigged on the same small tungsten jigheads that Northern anglers use all winter through the ice. A particularly potent combination is a 5 mm tungsten jig dressed with an inch-long orange, red or black soft-plastic tail.
Early season crappies love minnow imitations. Present a 1 1/2- to 2-inch minnow-profile soft plastic on a 1/16-ounce jighead. A long cast and slow, swimming retrieve that keeps the bait above emerging weeds or standing wood cover can be highly effective.
My favorite rod for both bluegills and crappies is 7 feet long with light power and extra-fast action. The length helps to propel lightweight offerings long distances on the cast, and it also moves a lot of line quickly to ensure productive hooksets. Its light power rating ensures abundant sport from panfish targets, while retaining plenty of backbone to handle incidental bass and pike. I add a 1000 series spinning reel spooled with 10-pound-test braided line and a 3-foot leader of 6-pound-test fluorocarbon to complete the rig.
Give Bass a Feast
Cold-water bass are notoriously fickle feeders. However, this lethargic attitude is rapidly replaced by an aggressive, predatory stance as water temperatures rise into the 50s. The rapidly warming environment puts bass on the feed as they increase their calorie counts in advance of impending spawning rituals.
Hard baits are excellent choices for targeting early season bass. In Southern reservoirs, square-billed crankbaits can be fished productively along swing banks where creek channels run from the main lake toward the backs of bays. In the North, where pre-spawn bass congregate near shallow weed growth, vibrating jigs are an outstanding option. In this situation, a steady retrieve through the tops of submerged weeds in 4 to 8 feet of water is all that’s required to catch good numbers of early season largemouths.
Rattle Up Walleyes
Once the ice is off the lakes and water temperatures have risen into the 50s, walleyes will have completed their annual spawning movements. They will remain in relatively shallow water in search of recuperative meals. Contrary to popular belief, these fish can be targeted with great success using lures that provoke aggressive reaction strikes. A great place to look for these post-spawn walleyes is on the edges of near-shore sand flats in 8 to 12 feet of water.
Lipless rattlebaits are ideal choices for targeting post-spawn walleyes. These baits excel at provoking reaction strikes, especially when presented with an active rip-jigging motion. The 1/2-ounce size is preferred for beefcake Great Lakes walleyes, while a smaller 1/4-ounce rattlebait is a good choice for inland waters, pressured fish or post-frontal conditions.
I prefer a powerful, responsive rod when rip-jigging rattlebaits. Look for a rod that is 6 feet 8 inches to 7 feet long with medium power and fast or extra-fast action. A 2500-series spinning reel spooled with 20-pound-test braided line completes your ticket to springtime walleye action.
Throw these baits during the first trips of the season.
Spring provides renewed opportunities for multiple species, but like any other time of year, certain presentations will be more productive than others. Get your season off to a memorable start by using the following baits.
2-Inch Big Bite Baits Crappie Minnr on 1/16-ounce jig
This extremely versatile soft-plastic offering can be cast and retrieved, fished vertically or even slow-trolled behind the boat. bigbitebaits.com
Rapala Ultra Light Rippin’ Rap
An excellent choice for covering water and triggering the largest fish in a school, this compact Rippin’ Rap shines in the often-turbid waters of early spring. rapala.com
Extract early season bass from wood and weed cover by dressing this vibrating jig with a soft-plastic fluke or boot-tail minnow trailer. zmanfishing.com
LiveTarget Sunfish Rattlebait
Whether it’s fished fast or slow, shallow or deep, the Sunfish Rattlebait blends fine-tuned action with loud internal rattles and biomimetic patterns to trigger bass. livetargetlures.com
VMC Moontail Jig
This jig is best fished with an aggressive snap-jigging retrieve, and without any sort of trailer or live bait. rapala.com
Rapala Rippin’ Rap
No. 6 and No. 7 Rippin’ Raps trigger some of the biggest bites of the year from walleyes in spring. rapala.com