From Indy to Elkhart, here's where you're likely to tangle with big bucketmouths (and smallies, too) this month in our state.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
On a spring day last year, Don Chalmers was nearly startled by the surface explosion out into the backwater that is Black Oak Bayou, a floodplain that drains into the Kankakee River. He tossed a black and red spinnerbait right on top of the settling ring of water caused by the monster bass.
But a bass of not much more than a pound slammed the bait and Chalmers quickly landed it.
"I knew this fish didn't make that splash," Chalmers said.
He cast again. Nothing. He cast again. Bingo!
Chalmers fought the real culprit of that surface disturbance for minutes.
"It was a fantastic fight," he said. "It came out of the water and gave me the whole dance and everything else."
Chalmers' largemouth bass weighed 9.2 pounds, according to his portable scale. He released the lunker bass back into the waters of the bayou, where bass go nuts every spring.
That's what you have to keep in mind. After cold, long winters in northern Indiana, bass are a hungry lot come the spring. The season may be the fastest of our four when it comes to bass action.
Below we'll cover five can't-miss spots, including Black Oak Bayou, Koontz Lake, Crooked Lake, Lake Freeman and the Bristol to Elkhart stretch of the St. Joseph River.
BLACK OAK BAYOU
This gem is within surprising proximity of the industry and smog of northwest Indiana. But come here and you'll forget you're in the back yard of the third-largest metropolitan area in the country. Black Oak Bayou is inside LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA), which has 3,797 acres of woods and waters.
That's what makes this the favorite spot of Chalmers, a tournament bass angler. It helps that he caught a 9-pound bass here. But he also caught another bass pushing 8 pounds recently.
"I believe the state record could be swimming around in there," Chalmers said.
Black Oak Bayou is a manmade impoundment across a levy next to the Kankakee River. Both bodies of water are inside LaSalle's boundaries, which end at the Illinois border.
The bayou is full of sunken, fallen and standing trees and lots of weeds. It's home to great numbers of waterfowl. You may even catch a glimpse of a sandhill crane or heron.
Regardless, all the thick cover can be daunting at first glance.
"It looks like a swamp," said Chalmers, who advises using only an electric trolling motor. "There are so many stumps. I've seen guys take their bass boats out there and just tear up their outboard."
The bayou is mostly shallow. The water temperature heats up here quicker than other deeper lakes in the area. The bayou isn't much deeper than 6 feet, unless heavy rains come and that usually brings it up only a couple of feet.
Chalmers makes sure to bring his polarized glasses and an array of spinnerbaits, his bait of choice here. He mostly fishes in 2 to 3 feet of water, but he said, if you can find dropoffs, you'd likely have some luck. "They're chasing bait into the shallows," Chalmers said. "You'll see lots of bluegills. You'll see thousands of them and the bass right behind them."
Chalmers focuses lots of his effort on last year's lily pads. The decayed stems can still be seen.
The nice thing about the bayou is that boaters and bank-anglers alike can have at it. The entire shoreline can be walked.
"If you hit the right spot, you can have a heyday," Chalmers said.
Also, take note. There are toothy northern pike in these waters (light line users, beware) and a few smallmouth bass as well.
Lake Freeman is one of the better smallmouth bass lakes in Indiana, according to Terry Blume Jr., a tournament angler and fishing guide from the Lafayette area.
"You can catch them up to 5 pounds," Blume said.
Claims like these are worth checking out for yourself. A dam on the Tippecanoe River created Freeman, just south of Monticello. With 1,547 acres, it's one of the larger impoundments in northern Indiana. It's a spot swarming with pleasure boaters and skiers during the summer. Traffic is limited to mostly anglers in the spring, though.
"During the week, you have it to yourself," Blume said.
Blume said his focus is on the chunk rock and dropoffs in the spring.
"I try to find the spawning sites for the smallmouths," he said.
He often finds himself throwing crankbaits in water as shallow as 6 inches and no deeper than 10 feet.
"Sometimes in the spring you'll want to dig your (crankbait's) bill into the bottom," he said, mentioning the use of extremely large crankbaits, the kind used for large pike. He bounces these off the rocks.
Blume will add weight to his crank- baits so that they suspend over deeper water. He throws these baits near the edge of water that drops off to as deep as 20 or 30 feet.
"They will come up to it, but it takes them a while," he said.
As the spawn nears, Blume said he will begin to increase the speed of his retrieve.
"Sometimes I do burn them," he said.
Blume then starts looking under the boat docks for fish. He starts throwing tube jigs and hair jigs, which he's actually known for making and selling. The key is light lures. His jigs vary in weight from 1/16 ounce to 1/4 ounce.
"It's a slow fall," he said. "I even use heavier line to make the lure slow fall through the water depths."
Blume's hair jigs are made from bucktail and black bear hair. The best colors, he said, are pink, white and grey, black and blue, brown and orange. Jigs should be half of your arsenal at this time of the year on Freeman, according to Blume.
He uses the hair jigs to represent c
rayfish, inducing a slow wobble into them that resembles a rocking chair. But his tube jigs are worked more like a minnow. Regardless, Blume warns anglers from moving jigs too quickly or too far at once.
"If you move your rod tip 2 inches, the jig moves 4 inches underwater," he said. "If you move it 5 feet, the jig just moved 10 feet. No bass is going to hit that."
To book a fishing trip with Blume, or purchase his hair jigs, call him at (574) 583-7163.
Koontz Lake, a 346-acre natural lake in Starke County, is another one of those lakes swarming with boat traffic during the summer.
Bass fishing not only is at its best on Koontz in the spring, but it's also at its most quiet. Jan Robinson, a tournament angler from Mill Creek, loves Koontz in the spring. But what is the key to spring fishing?
"Anywhere you can find emergent vegetation coming up," he said.
That, of course, usually first happens on the north side of the lake, since that side warms up quicker. Spring warmth is the key element in starting the process of weed growth or photosynthesis.
Small baitfish head to this part of the lake for protection and hungry largemouth bass follow them here, onto Koontz' weed flats in 3 to 4 feet of water.
Robinson fishes tube jigs and lipless crankbaits in the spring. For color, he goes with smoke with blue and green flake on his tubes and chrome and black for his crankbaits.
Koontz Lake is fairly dark because of its mucky bottom. That also means it heats up quicker than other lakes in the area, so look for the lily pads.
Much of the area Robinson focuses on is too weedy during the summer. But during early spring, the weeds are just coming in. That's when he likes to crawl tubes, jigs and worms right on the bottom with short, little twitches. With the crankbaits, the retrieve is fast.
"When you feel the weeds, rip it right through them and let it sink," he said. "That's when you get your strike most of the time."
For this, Robinson recommends using high-speed reels.
The flats drop off to 5 or 6 feet of water in some areas, but the drop is not very drastic.
"If you can find the breaks with the weeds on them, fish there," he said.
Robinson also watches the weather. He takes notice when there have been three or four days of stable weather.
"They'll turn on here when that happens, just like any other lake," he said. "A front just shuts them off."
Koontz Lake has a public access on the south end of the lake. There isn't a lot of parking, but there's usually enough parking available in the spring. Another option is the pay ramp at Stanley Marine, where there's plenty of parking and good, free information.
Steuben County's Crooked Lake is broken into three basins, which make the 800-acre natural lake easier to figure out, according to tournament angler Ralph Tuttle of Stroh.
Tuttle said spring bass fishing starts first in what is known as the third basin, a long finger that is fairly shallow compared to the rest of the lake. The third basin has lots of lily pads and stumps.
"You'll see the roots coming up," Tuttle said, referring to the pads. "The fish just congregate there."
The basin is also mucky, unlike the other basins. "It warms quicker," Tuttle said. "The water is stained unlike the first basin."
Tuttle typically ties on a Texas-rigged craw or centipede-imitating soft-plastic bait.
"I want that bait to move real slow," he said.
Tuttle works the bait right on the bottom, working it through the remnants of last year's lily pads, thumping it through the stumps. He keeps his bait moving through 3 to 4 feet of water. He works his bait tight to the shoreline. Sometimes he'll throw a bass jig.
The nice thing about the third basin is the lack of human development. On a lake that is built up with homes all along its shoreline, the third basin offers somewhat of a departure from this.
As the water warms up, Tuttle heads to the first basin, where homeowners have dredged paths in the shallow flats back to their docks for navigational reasons. Bass tend to spawn right down in these boat lanes.
"You'll see them building beds right in the middle of the lane," Tuttle said.
Tuttle then resorts heavily to a jig-and-pig. When the bass are on their beds, they're also very aggressive. Getting baits on or close to a bed, even if the fish haven't began spawning yet, usually gets a pretty violent reaction out of them.
Just remember that bass eggs are extremely vulnerable to bluegills when a bed's protector has been pulled off. Get your fish back into the water quickly to ensure spawning success.
ST. JOSEPH RIVER
The St. Joseph River goes through many changes as it heads through Elkhart County. As it flows north of Elkhart's downtown area, the effects of urban growth take their toll.
So if you like fishing a secluded little river in northern Indiana, think the upper section, as the locals call it. There are fewer homes and the river runs wilder up here. The closer you get to the town's center, the more development you'll see. But the smallmouth bass fishing is good all the way down to the dam and beyond.
Don Malcolm of Little Rivers Guide Service said that, during early spring, when the water temperature is at or below 40 degrees, he motors his bass boat into the channels with a blade bait.
In April and May, as the water temperature continues to climb, the bass head onto the muddy flats.
"Always look for off-current places like eddies," he said. "It doesn't have to be in deep water. If there are some limbs in the water or some brush, they'll hold to that."
Off-current areas include eddies behind logs and large rocks. There are several large, submerged rocks closer to Bristol. These rocks can be located with a depthfinder. Smallmouths almost always relate to these rocks in the spring, but you have to be thorough in working them.
"You want to fish these areas from more than one angle," Malcolm said. "Everyone knows a smallmouth is current oriented somehow. Anytime you find that kind of current break, you really need to fish it."
There are also several islands on this stretch of river. Smallmouths usually hang out on the lower end of these islands. Sometimes they'l
l be on the edge of a dropoff caused by the current cutting away. Sometimes they'll be deeper.
"It just depends on what mood they're in," Malcolm said. "They could be up on the flat. You won't know until you get your bait in there."
When the water temperature reaches 50 degrees, Malcolm recommends jerkbaits.
"Find the underwater points," he said.
If the wind is blowing into one of these points, the fishing should be even better. In recent years, the area has had unseasonable warm weather earlier than expected.
"A lot of people don't realize that smallmouths start making beds early," he said.
And if the weather gets cold again, and back and forth, the bass will move back and forth as well.
"They may back out just as quick," he said, recalling last year when the area got weather in the 70s in late April. "It can go down to 60 just as quick."
So Malcolm said you have to be willing to follow the fish around. Remember: Cold weather equals off-current areas; warm weather moves them to the flats.
You might be surprised with the St. Joseph River's clarity. When the bass are on their beds, you'll likely see them, even without polarized glasses.
"In one short stretch last year, I counted 50 beds," Malcolm said.
Spawning smallmouth bass on this river prefer sandy, pea gravel in water as shallow as a foot. Sometimes they even spawn on the roots of trees. Smallmouths are considered more aggressive protectors of their spawning beds than largemouth bass.
"They're pretty vulnerable," Malcolm said.
You can launch from Six Span Bridge on county Route 17 on the outskirts of Elkhart and work your way upriver. There's also a ramp just off state Route 15 in Bristol; but beware of water levels, gravel, sand bars and downed logs in this vicinity.
"There are times in the spring where they get so aggressive that you say, 'This is easy,' " Malcolm said. "Then the next day you're like, 'I'm not as smart as I thought I was.' "
When they're hungry, it's unreal. Malcolm caught a 3-pound smallmouth last year that had a fresh, 6-inch chub hanging out its mouth.
Little Rivers Guide Service can be contacted at (574) 875-6632.