March 02, 2021
Here in the frozen North, early spring smallmouth fishing is often a feast-or-famine affair. With the ice just off the lake, the water temperature is still plenty frigid, and the air temp often matches. Finding fish can be maddeningly difficult, but once you find them…well, those can be days of legend. The trick, of course, is finding them.
Unlike largemouths, which seem to head shallow as soon as the ice leaves the lake, smallmouths are a deep-water fish for much of the open-water season. Sure, you can find a few fish shallow throughout the season, but for the most part they hang deep. Think back to where you caught the last fish of this past season. Odds are they were in deeper water and relating to some sort of structure. Rock piles, ledge breaks and contour changes in deep water are late-summer and early-fall staples. Such is the case in early spring.
Things really get tough when the fish aren’t relating to any type of structure, which is often. For whatever reason, these early-spring smallmouths simply hang out where they hang out with little rhyme or reason to it.
A sensible starting point is the deepest main-lake structure you can find and know has previously held bass. I always start deeper than I think any bass will hang out and work my way toward shallower locations that held bass in the heat of the summer. This seems to save me time and puts me on active fish more quickly than if I start at the bank and work my way deeper. When my approach is the latter, I spend too much time on likely looking breaks and structure areas. By starting way deep and working toward shore, I cover water that seems to lack any features, and often this is where I find the bass.
Smallmouths seem to group-think when it comes to the spawn. They move up in waves when the water is near that magical mid-50s mark that seems to trigger the migration to shallow water. Until that happens, they group up in deeper water. A maddening aspect of this seasonal behavior is the fact that they often relate to nothing—no structure, breaks or obvious visual clues as to their location. This is further compounded by the fact that smallmouths are notorious for suspending in super-deep water. This means you not only must look for fish hugging bottom in deep water, you also need to scout really deep areas for schools of bass suspended in the water column. On big lakes, that means you’ll have a whole lot of water to search.
HOW TO FIND THEM
This is a great time of year for using forward-looking sonar. With minimal vegetation growing, forward-scanning systems can make quick work of scouring areas and clearly revealing the location of bass, which will likely be in schools and therefore much easier to locate. Don’t just look for smallmouths on the bottom, though. Brown bass are known to suspend partway down the water column, too. With forward-looking sonar, you can cover a ton of water to locate the baitfish these bass will be keying on and see them in front of the boat as you approach without spooking the school.
However, while seeing the fish (once you find them) can be simple indeed, getting them to bite can be a challenge.
The time-tested jerkbait is a go-to springtime lure, and the key is to fish it slow. Like, boring slow. Long pauses between jerks is the order of the day. Remember, the water is likely still frigid, and the bass are somewhat lethargic. A jerkbait allows you to cover a lot of water with long casts and target bass that are both suspended and hugging the bottom. In clear water, the flash of a jerkbait can be seen from a great distance, and that visual cue can trigger bass from a long way off.
Often, you’ll see bass follow your bait to the boat without committing to strike. That’s okay, because it tells you when you’ve located a potential fish-holding area. This is where the long pauses really come into play. I like a jerkbait that has near-neutral buoyancy, which allows the bait to suspend at the same depth at which it runs. The vast majority of bites will come when the bait is sitting still partway down the water column. Baits that rise slightly can be excellent, too, as that slight upward movement can trigger bites.
Early spring is the only time of year that I’ll throw an old-school curly-tail grub. For whatever reason, smallmouths seem to prefer these classic plastics this time of year. Later in the season, I do far better with a standard tube jig or drop-shot setup, but early in the season the curly-tail seems to be the ticket. Again, you’ll be targeting deeper water and dealing with schools of bass waiting to move onto the shallow flats once the spawning temperature is reached (about 60 degrees on most smallmouth lakes).
I don’t go crazy with colors and rigging. A basic round-ball jig head tipped with a white, yellow or smoke grub typically works just fine.
Another top producer in early spring is the hair jig, which I’ve found performs well now but is often ignored later in the season as the water warms. Go with the lightest jig you can. In deep water this will require plenty of patience, as it will take a long time for the bait to hit bottom. But it’s this slow, tantalizing fall that will help you target those finicky, suspended bass.
I’ll again stress the importance of forward-looking sonar here. I can see a hair jig falling on forward-looking units better than just about any other style of lure because of the bait’s slow descent. Not only can you see the jig on the screen, you can also see how fish respond to it and adjust accordingly.
I see no reason to ever carry baitcasting rods and reels on a smallmouth lake. I realize I’ve likely just earned myself all kinds of labels from hardcore largemouth anglers, but the simple fact is all of the abovementioned lures have proven to be deadly on early-spring smallmouths—and they’re all more effective when fished with spinning tackle.
Jerkbaits can certainly be thrown with a baitcaster, but you’ll encounter many more problems when doing so since they tend to catch the wind when cast, creating line twist and backlashes. I also find it far easier (and less work) to snap a jerkbait with spinning gear than with casting gear. I like a 6-foot-long rod with medium power and a medium-fast action.
Similarly, lightweight grubs and hair jigs simply can’t be thrown as effectively with casting gear. For these baits I prefer a 7-foot rod with medium power and a fast action. For the reel, anything with a good drag system will work. I’m partial to the Daiwa Fuego LT, a very good, mid-priced reel.
The line setup is the same for all: Back the reel about a quarter full with cheap monofilament (the pound test doesn’t matter; this is just filler), followed by enough 15- to 30-pound braid to almost fill the reel and then a 15-foot (or about three arm lengths) fluorocarbon leader. I keep the leader on the long side so I can retie a lot more without having to redo the Alberto knot that connects the braid to the flourocarbon.
For hair jigs and light grubs, I go with 6-pound-test flouro in clear water. Jerkbaits get 8- or 10-pound test. You can use a quality bearing swivel between the leader and braid to help with line twist if need be, but I typically reserve that for when I’m fishing tubes or drop shots, which seem to create more twist.
There’s no arguing that early-spring smallmouths can be tricky—they can be tough to find and often tougher to convince to bite. But once you find the fish and trigger one to commit, that wolfpack mentality seems to kick in and the feeding frenzy begins. It’s well worth the wait when it happens.
Top Smallie Waters
Unlock the spring bite on these regional favorites.
- East Grand Lake, ME: This fishery could be one of the last best-kept secrets in smallmouth fishing. It’s largely known for its May-to-July bite, but those fish are still in the lake in early spring, and you just might have the water to yourself.
- Lake Winnipesaukee, NH: This popular spot is choked with boat traffic during the summer. Hit it early in the spring, however, and you’ll find calmer waters and plenty of big brown bass.
- Lake Champlain, NY/VT: Boasting both smallmouths and largemouths, Champlain is one of the prettiest lakes you’ll ever fish, and it’s known for its springtime action.
- St. Lawrence River, NY: This system is a smallmouth factory, and early spring can be awesome. Because it’s a river system, finding fish can be a bit easier than in a lake thanks to the more obvious current and structure.
- Lake Ontario, NY: The big water of the Great Lakes can be plenty intimidating in the spring, but hit Ontario on a calm, sunny day and you just might experience a day of fishing you’ll never forget.
- Oneida Lake, NY: This shallow, rocky Central New York fishery often warms a bit more quickly than other lakes in the region, meaning springtime fishing can be excellent.