By Dr. Jason Halfen
The natural world bristles with life in the spring. Your lawn’s formerly brown grass transitions to a lush, vibrant green. Bare branches on trees and shrubs become dressed in wardrobes of blossoms and leaves. And 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.
Early season fishing can be a daunting proposition for many anglers. Which species of fish should we pursue? Which part of the lake holds the most active fish? Once we start fishing, which baits or lures might be most effective?
These five tips are proven winners in the spring and will get you on your way to early season multi-species success.
1. Water Temperature is Key
No matter which species of fish you decide to pursue as your season opens, 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, the 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 current will help to attract and retain species such as walleyes, cold runoff delivered by river inlets can also reduce local water temperatures and turn the bite off. With that in mind, ensure you closely monitor surface temperatures with your electronics as you approach river inlets. If you encounter a plume of substantially colder water, it’s time to move on and search another area.
2. Think Small and Subtle for Panfish
Many a panfish has landed in a livewell after munching a chunk of nightcrawler or slurping a crappie-sized 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 far more releasable, as bluegills and crappies are rarely hooked deeply when caught on lures.
Oversized bluegills respond favorably to soft plastics with a slender profile that are 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. Suspend this offering beneath a bobber so that the bait rides near the tops of the season’s first green weeds and retrieve with a series of twitches and pauses to imitate emerging insect larvae or small bait fish.
Early season crappies love minnow imitations. I enjoy presenting a 1- to 1.5-inch minnow-profile soft plastic dressed on a 1/16-ounce jighead that features a wire bait keeper, which helps to keep the bait rigged correctly on the jig even as fish bite and tug on it. A long cast and slow, swimming retrieve that keeps the bait above emerging weeds or standing wood cover can be highly effective. On windy days, suspend the same lure beneath a float and allow wave action to provide all the swimming motion needed to land a bounty of spring crappies.
My favorite rod for both bluegills and crappies is the 7-foot, light-power, extra-fast action Panfish Series Rod from St. Croix. The length of this rod helps to propel lightweight offerings long distances on the cast and moves line fast to ensure productive hooksets when a strike occurs far from the boat. Its light power rating ensures abundant sport from panfish, yet it has plenty of backbone to handle the incidental bass and pike that you’ll encounter in the panfish zone. Seaguar Finesse fluorocarbon is an excellent pairing for this rod choice.
3. Early Season Bass are Hungry
Cold-water bass are notoriously fickle feeders. However, their lethargic attitude is rapidly replaced with an aggressive, predatory stance as water temperatures rise into the 60s. Their rapidly warming environment puts bass on the feed as they increase their calorie counts in advance of their impending spawning rituals.
Hardbaits are excellent choices for targeting early season bass. In the north country, where pre-spawn bass congregate near shallow weed growth, the LIVETARGET Sunfish Rattlebait is 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 is required to catch and release vast numbers of early season largemouth bass. The Sunfish Rattlebait’s ultra-lifelike appearance and profile, three-dimensional anatomical features, tight swimming action and high-frequency rattle all contribute to the lure’s remarkable effectiveness.
When fishing the Sunfish Rattlebait, I rig with 20-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line, which maximizes my casting distance so I can rapidly cover lots of water in search of actively feeding schools of fish. I also fish without a leader, opting instead to tie on a cross-lock snap. This strategy makes it far more likely that I will land marauding pike and pre-spawn muskies that frequent the same bass-infested zones I’m fishing without breaking off and donating my hardbaits to the fishing gods.
4. Rattle Up Post-Spawn Walleyes
Once water temperatures have risen into the 50s, walleyes will have completed their annual spawning movements but 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 post-spawn walleyes is on the edges of near-shore sand flats, frequently in 8 to 12 feet of water.
Lipless rattlebaits, like the LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait, are outstanding choices for targeting spawned-out walleyes wherever they swim. These baits excel at provoking reaction strikes, especially when presented with an active rip-jigging motion.
Within this family of lures, the 1/2-ounce size is preferred for beefcake walleyes on big lakes or reservoirs, while the 1/4-ounce rattlebait is a good choice for smaller lakes, pressured fish or post-frontal conditions when a more subdued presentation may be required.
Line selection for presenting lipless rattlebaits to walleyes is similar to that used for bass in the bays, with 20-pound braid serving as an excellent foundation, terminated by 2 feet of 15-pound-test Seaguar AbrazX fluorocarbon for a leader. A powerful, responsive rod is preferred when rip-jigging rattlebaits, and the Legend Tournament Walleye “Snap Jig”rod from St. Croix is an outstanding choice for this presentation. This 6-foot, 8-inch medium-power rod has an extra-fast action that’s ideal for aggressive walleye techniques you’ll use throughout the season.
5. Don’t Forget the Fundamentals
Whether your boat took a long winter’s nap under a blanket of snow or you fish throughout the year on soft waters, pay attention to the basics of boat and motor maintenance to ensure enjoyable trips in the early season. Arrive at the ramp with a tank of fresh gas, plenty of oil and a fully charged complement of batteries. Ensure that your boat and trailer registration are current and that you possess this year’s license documents.
Planning to fish before sunrise or after dark? Take a moment to check your boat’s navigation lights, as filaments may have snapped during the cold winter months. And for goodness sakes, wear your life jacket, as the cold waters of the early season dramatically increase the threat of hypothermia and limit survivability, should an unplanned swim be added to your early season fishing trip.
Fishing season is finally here, and these five tips are guaranteed to bring you early season multi-species success and help you to build some great memories on the water this spring. Enjoy the fast action while it lasts, as the dog days of summer will be here soon enough!
About the Author: Dr. Jason Halfen owns and operates The Technological Angler, a company dedicated to training anglers to leverage modern technology to find and catch more fish. For more information, visit technologicalangler.com.