Tactics for Spring Smallmouths
September 24, 2010
After a long winter, it feels great to be back out on a river battling smallmouth bass. These tips will make your day even more enjoyable.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Tim Holschlag
I was cold, wet and worst of all, skunked! Seven long hours of fishing and I hadn't seen a smallmouth bass. Now fast-forward 20 years, same river, same time of year. Now the 10 fish over 18 inches I landed and released made it one of the best river days I'd ever had. Bad luck one time, great luck the other?
Actually, these two dramatically different outcomes were more about knowledge than luck. When I struck out decades ago I didn't have a good understanding of the effect of water temperatures on spring fish. So I fished the wrong places the wrong way. Conversely, the time I did so well, I had a much better understanding of temperatures, locations and techniques, and how to put these pieces of the puzzle together. To help you put together a great catch, here are the most important things I've learned about spring fishing for smallmouth bass.
SPRINGTIME BIOLOGY Spring on the angling calendar is only 10 weeks long, yet the smallmouths go through several distinct biological stages.
It starts with the early pre-spawn, when water temperatures reach the upper 40s. This is the time the fish are becoming hormonally primed for reproduction, but are still several weeks away from actually building nests and laying eggs. In rivers where spawning sites are distant from wintering pools, this early period is when fish move upstream toward areas where they will later reproduce. On other waterways, spawning and wintering habitats are close together, so early-season movements are slight.
However, virtually everywhere, early-season smallies are looking for two things: slower current and warmer water. In these areas, they will acquire energy reserves by feeding on minnows until temperatures reach the upper 50s and the males start staking out spawning sites. So forget the riffles, runs and midriver pool locations, but rather target early bronzebacks at creek mouths, below dams, in side channels and in eddies below islands.
Warmwater zones, especially, can be "easy money" spring locations. Solar heating can make slow-flowing creeks several degrees warmer than the rivers they empty into. Even culvert flow and intermittent creeks, if they're putting warm water into the river, can concentrate fish. This also holds true for the plunge pools below dams. The afternoon sun will warm the upper layer of stillwater above the dam. Then as this surface layer peels over the top of the dam it can make the plunge pool 5 to 8 degrees warmer than it was in the early morning.
In fact, all parts of a river will warm significantly during sunny afternoons. Water can be a frigid 47 degrees at 8 a.m. and a toasty 53 degrees by 3 p.m. This has such a dramatic impact on fishing that I seldom hit the water before 10 a.m. at this time of year. So fish during the afternoons if possible. And by all means try to get out there after several consecutive days of unusually warm spring weather. Water temperatures can easily soar 10 degrees after one of these episodes. Wherever I fish in the spring, I regularly check the temperature in the main channel, creek mouths and side channels, always looking for warmer water. The old credit card slogan definitely applies to your thermometer - "don't leave home without it."
SLOWER IS BETTER Certainly, early-season smallies are feeding, but not like they do in summer. As cold-blooded critters, both the bass and their prey will be in slow motion. Especially when water temps are below 52 degrees, lures should be retrieved ultra-slowly and very near bottom. Slowly hopping a jig - especially a hair jig - along the bottom is one of the most reliable methods.
As the water temperature reaches the mid-50 it can produce phenomenal big-fish angling. This is the time when fish activity increases and both sexes start moving near their spawning sites. A single side channel, island eddy or large bank eddy can now hold numerous big fish. In fact, this was the period when I caught all the lunkers I mentioned at the beginning of this article. And this certainly wasn't a one-time event. Many days, I've seen this period produce catches of multiple smallmouths over 17 inches.
This late pre-spawn time is before fish have fanned out nests, but both males and females are becoming territorial and are still feeding. That means both sexes will readily strike a variety of subsurface offerings. In places where spawning sites are shallow, many fish will hold nearby in slightly deeper water. Retrieves should still be slow, but not as painfully slow as required when the water was colder. Lipless crankbaits, in-line spinners as well as jigs all retrieved just above the bottom do well at this time.
SPAWNING SMALLMOUTHS The actual spawn is the time most anglers dream of when they think of spring smallmouthing. As water temperatures approach 60 degrees, reproduction becomes primary and male fish start fanning out nesting sites. Then over the next several weeks they engage in a rigorous ritual. First they spend days defending their site from other males and coaxing a female, or females, to lay eggs in the nest.
After fertilizing the eggs, the male's duties are just beginning. For several days each fish diligently guards the eggs until they hatch, then works around the clock to protect his swarm of newly hatched offspring for an even longer period of time. This entire process from nest building until fry dispersal can take nearly a month if water temperatures remain in the low 60s.
Perhaps most amazing is the fact that these devoted dads eat little during this period. Likely as a biological adaptation to avoid accidentally ingesting their young, spawning bass attack but don't eat nest intruders. This means placing a lure very close to the nest is the key. A lightweight slow-falling jig is often the best. Wide, wobbling crankbaits with a stop-and-go retrieve often produce, too.
Sometimes nest-guarding smallies attack things far larger than a lure. For instance, I once watched a big spawning smallmouth grab the tail of a 10-pound northern pike my guiding client had inadvertently pulled over the smallie's nest. Think of it - a smallie biting a big pike so vigorously it tore the pike's tail fin! And it only let go when I lifted the pike from the water! That's protective behavior.
Of course, this aggressiveness also makes spawners extremely vulnerable to overharvest and calls for catch-and-release.
SPRING STRATEGIES Besides understanding where spring smallies are in their reproductive cycle - and where they are in the rive
r - knowing how to effectively fish these various locations is equally important. Let's start with dams, the most obvious and consistent early-season locations.
The areas below dams are almost always composed of different types of currents, depths and substrates. Keying in on the best spots is vital. The most significant fish-holding areas are: small eddies (slower water); underwater obstructions, such as boulders or large chunks of concrete; riprap (artificial bank protection); current breaks (where two different currents meet); and small side pockets out of the strong main channel current (these are especially good when the water is high).
Before you start casting, spend a minute trying to determine all the possible fish-holding areas that are available, including smaller, less obvious ones. And once you've identified the various possibilities, try them all. Too many dam anglers limit themselves by only fishing one or two spots. Just remember to be especially cautious because of the strong currents commonly found around dams. When fishing from a boat, double-anchor at both the bow and stern to keep the boat from being buffeted in the multiple currents. If wading, don't stride boldly into any water where you can't see the bottom, nor wade too deep in strong current. Wearing a personal flotation device is another good way to lessen any risks.
Many current breaks, underwater obstructions and other dam locations are best fished with the current. With the smallies facing upstream, your presentation is seen better if it's coming back with the current. And you'll need to read the water and cast accurately to deliver your lure or bait to the desired spot. Bringing the offering precisely through a current break or small eddy can score a strike, while a cast 18 inches away draws a blank.
INCOMING FLOWS Not all incoming creeks will attract smallmouths, but those that do often offer red-hot action. This can include tile outlets and storm drains, so it pays to check even tiny flows.
When anchoring at a creek mouth be careful not get too close. If possible, stay out in midchannel and cast toward the mouth. If the current is really strong in midriver, get close to the bank, anchor directly upstream of the mouth and work the bait slowly against the current. Also realize that an incoming stream can create a plume of warmer water downstream for 20 or 30 yards. Therefore, some fish may be holding a substantial distance downstream of the mouths of larger tributaries. And if the river's high water has flooded the lower end of a tributary - making it at least 3 feet deep - it pays to cast up into the creek. In fact, on some flooded creek mouths I get out of the boat and fish on foot. It's hard to squeeze a boat into these narrow channels, so quietly work them from the bank instead.
On rivers with numerous incoming flows, boat anglers can use the "run-and-gun" technique to fish them. Focusing just on these hotspots, you move quickly between them, working a half-dozen or more creek mouths in a day.
Even on-foot fishers can hit several creeks in a day by using the "road-fishing" method. You identify those accessible by road and drive from one to another. Some of my favorite early-season honeyholes are creek mouths that have produced fish year after year. By taking the time to find a few of your own, you can enjoy years of good fishing.
THE SPAWN Once the water approaches 60 degrees it's time to focus on spawning locations. But never forget that spawning can vary by several weeks from one year to the next. Generally, reproduction will be significantly later during cloudy, rainy springs and it will be earlier during sunny, dry springs. So don't try to determine spawning times solely by a date on the calendar, but rather incorporate up-to-the-minute water temperatures from the places you intend to fish.
The most common spawning sites are bank eddies, those places where a bend in the bank or a shoreline obstruction causes the current to dramatically slow. On rivers where islands are widespread, the slower eddies formed downstream of the islands can also be spawning locations. Eddies at least 18 inches deep with gravel or hard sand bottoms are the ones that will hold smallmouths in the spring. And those that also have a downed tree or log in them are best of all, especially for the largest fish.
Fishing eddies without spooking the bass calls for care and caution. Anchoring the boat too close to the eddy or walking right up to it on the bank can alarm the fish enough to stop them from striking. Keep back as far as you can and still thoroughly fish the spot. It's also important to understand how many fish might be in a single location. In bathtub-sized eddies there's likely to be only a single pair spawning, but huge eddies - those larger than a living room - might hold as many as a dozen fish.
SPRING LURES Since slow retrieves are so critical during the early season, lures and presentations that allow you to fish slowly should be first on your agenda. Oftentimes this means the trusty jig. Hopped, dragged or twitched along the bottom, the lead-head jig will entice coldwater bronzebacks like few other things. And it's the same for fly-fishing. Flies tied "weight-forward" (with metal heads) get down quickly and can be worked ultra-slowly and effectively in the bottom zone.
Tube jigs are popular right now and they do catch plenty of spring fish, but don't overlook the old-fashioned hair jig. Deer, fox and even synthetic hair jigs are particularly effective when the water is still in the 40s or low 50s. Certainly they can be tipped with a minnow, but "plain" hair jigs are easier to use and often at least as productive. Worked ever so slowly, the slight pulsations of hair appeal to the sluggish nature of coldwater smallmouths.
Unfortunately, there are situations where open-hooked jigs aren't practical. Some dam plunge pools are particularly snag-infested due to all the rock, broken concrete and debris in them. In these cases, jigs with wire snag-guards or those rigged Texas-style are needed. Slider-head-style jigs that allow you to imbed the hook point into the plastic body are especially snagless. One plastic body I like to rig Texas style is a small-diameter solid-body tube jig.
For open-water jig-fishing situations, I like the sensitivity that a soft, small-diameter 8-pound-test monofilament line gives me. For snag-filled areas, I switch to a stiffer, more abrasion-resistant 8-pound-test. Besides different lines for different situations, various jig weights are needed. Head weight will depend on depth and current speed. Always use the jig just heavy enough to make contact with the bottom, with 1/16-, 1/8- and 1/4-ounce covering most situations. Soft plastics come in dozens of wild color combos nowadays, but if you make sure your jigs, have a lot of the traditional spring hues like white and chartreuse in them and you'll seldom go wrong.
While jigs are the most versatile spring lures, crankbaits also have their strengths. Cranks are especially good for searching large areas and for low-visibility conditions. Methodically working a lipless crankbait like a Rat-L-Trap though an area allows you to cover a lot of water and project a str
ong vibration signature. As the water warms, thin-minnow crankbaits are also productive. Suspending models - which you fish with a stop-and-go retrieve - seem most consistent in the spring. Good crankbait colors are chartreuse, silver, white and red.
When the water is only in the low to mid-50s, topwaters are a poor choice, but once the temperature reaches the upper 50s, surface presentations can be terrific. This is especially true for spawning fish. Topwaters fished over nesting areas catch hordes of smallies in lakes, and they can be nearly as good for river bronzebacks. The secret is to fish them extra slowly and keep the current from pulling them away from the fish too quickly. Wherever there is significant current, work the lure directly against the flow. Small popping surface lures and prop baits both produce, if you fish them with long pauses between their "pops" or "buzzes." Topwater color is far less important than the sound it makes and the speed you fish it.
Certainly there will be times when heavy rains or cold temperatures put the smallies in a funk, but if you understand the where, what and how of spring smallmouthing you'll often be wearing a smile. And never forget that the smallie is far too fine a fish to waste by only catching it once. For the future of fishing, always practice catch-and-release for the superb smallmouth bass.
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