Springtime summons thoughts of mild weather and heavy bass moving into shallow cover. These visions make us eager to shake the winter doldrums and start the new season.
Experience shows, though, that while conditions seem inviting, bass don't follow our prescribed patterns faithfully. With the bass season in Minnesota closed for most of the Prespawn Period, the In-Fisherman staff has for 35 years travelled the country to find a good bite. And we've tapped the expertise of anglers who live in milder regions.
Predicting reservoir patterns seems particularly challenging. On top of the vagaries of spring cold fronts and rain, consider the rising and falling of water levels in response to past or planned precipitation. And the heavy stuff can leave prime areas looking like chocolate milk.
Jerkbaits and crankbaits for bass are key tools, particularly in spring. As surface waters warm, largemouth bass typically move shallower, shifting toward coves and creeks, and rising higher in the water column in deeper, clearer habitats. The slow wobbling and pausing action of these hardbaits entices bites from fish near bottom and suspended above. And when you get depth dialed in, crankbaits keep you in the productive zone.
Cranks Versus Jerkbaits
One key decision is selecting between a jerkbait or a fatter crank. Ott DeFoe, a rising star on the tournament scene from East Tennessee, knows that you need both lure types when prospecting springtime patterns. "On home waters like Cherokee, Douglas, and Fort Loudon reservoirs, the water's typically clear, at least three feet of visibility, often more," he says.
"Water clarity is the most important factor in selecting a crankbait or jerkbait in early spring. If you can see 3 feet or more, it's hard to beat a jerkbait when the water's cold, say below 45°F. My favorite early is Rapala's Husky Jerk as it has subtle rolling action. An X-Rap works early in cold water, but you must barely bump it along. Don't over fish it in cold water. As waters warm, its more erratic slashing action is a benefit, however."
Patience is the key in cold water. It's often essential to pause a bait for as much as 30 seconds after a snap or two. When you go to pull again, they're just "there." When paralleling a bluff bank, for example, it can take a couple minutes to complete a cast. "Water temperature is the second most important factor in the selection process," DeFoe says. "As reservoirs warm, crankbaits typically take over."
Suspending jerkbaits work in many situations, but particularly when baitfish and bass suspend, often in the early weeks of the Prespawn Period. Kevin Short of Arkansas points out that modern electronics make it easy to see if fish are suspending.
"Before I start fishing in early spring, I scout potential areas with sonar and side-imaging," he says. "If the fish are up, they're easy to see. That calls for suspending jerkbaits. If I don't mark many fish, I know they're relating to the bottom. Then a crankbait gets the call and I look for fish closer to the bank. I've noticed that when the water is still cold, shad and bass are much more likely to suspend when it's sunny. In cloudy conditions, shad drop into the bottom of creek channels and bass follow.
"But be warned," he adds, "if there's grass in the reservoir, you can throw that out the window. If you find a sprig of grass, you'd better be fishing it because that's where the bass are. And you're better off with a crankbait around vegetation."
Stephen Browning of Hot Springs, Arkansas, offers another insight on jerkbait tactics. "In cold clear water, I often fish a jerkbait over 20-foot depths," he says. "I've had a lot of success with a bait that sinks slowly, imitating a shad that didn't quite make it through winter."
He starts with a LiveTarget Rainbow Smelt, adding adhesive lead tape to the belly so it sinks slowly. Sticking it on the belly helps maintain a horizontal posture as is drifts downward. He favors the Ghost Bronze color, and first tries the larger 115 size, before downsizing to the 91. Regarding the best retrieve, Browning says, "I'm a 3-jerk guy, and I follow that with a long pause. In early spring, I've learned that shad and bass often move toward the surface later in the day when it's sunny, even if the temperature doesn't rise much. Don't give up if it the bite is slow in the morning."
Spring Crankbait Calendar
Like many experts, DeFoe relies on Rapala's Shad Rap, particularly the 2-inch #5 when bass move toward the banks but the water's still in the upper-40°F or low-50°F-range. "When it warms into the upper 50°F range, I switch to the #7," he says. "During this period, Storm's Wiggle Wart is another deadly choice. It runs 6 to 8 feet deep and works best at a slow, steady retrieve."
As waters warm and the spawn approaches, largemouths move shallower and often hold in thicker brush and fallen trees. That's when the square-bill bait comes into its own. "Around wood or in open water, I'm not a fan of super-loud cranks," DeFoe says. "In woodcover, I often choose a Rapala DT Fat 3 or a #5 Crankin' Rap, which is a buoyant plastic bait. It has a rattle, but it's not obnoxiously loud. The squared-off bill and rolling action of those lures helps them run through surprisingly snaggy woodcover. Work them slowly and be prepared to give a little slack line if the lure starts to stick. Their buoyancy pulls them backward and out of trouble."
Browning points to 55°F as the tipping point when jerkbaits give way to cranks, as bass move toward the banks in preparation for spawning. "They don't always push to the backs of pockets and creeks," he notes, "so you need to start prospecting once the creek channel contours start to flatten out." He favors LiveTarget's C64S Crawfish, a 2½-inch shallow diver with a wide wobble. In murkier water, he relies on the red-black model, using a Ghost Green one in clearer conditions. He said he's excited to try LiveTarget's new Squarebill Series Crawfish, due out this spring.
As the water warms toward 60°F, more presentation options exist: spinnerbaits in thick brush or laydowns, topwaters worked through open pockets near the bank, or softbaits fished on sloping banks or in cover.
In several springtime situations, Short has found that suspending crankbaits can be the best option. His favorite for early spring in clear water is the WEC Z2, made by William Chambers, president of Zoom Bait Company, and available through Peepers Baits. "It fills a similar niche as a #7 Shad Rap," he says, but it has a different wiggle. I've used it to catch bass in water that's still in the upper-30°F range. It comes with #5 trebles and I often switch to a #4 on the front. That transforms it into a suspending bait. In clear, cold water, I fish it like a jerkbait, twitching it, then letting it pause. At this time of year, I generally fish crankbaits with a stop-and-go retrieve.
"I replace the #4 hooks on a Norman Deep Little N with #2s and make it a great suspending crankbait. That one's deadly from the low-40°F range to the low-50°F range. Fish that are just becoming active in spring often swipe at a lure. Those larger hooks hook them better.
"The Deep Little N is deadly around deep grass as well. I wrap lead wire around the hooks to keep it down, working the 10- to 12-foot depths. When it starts to hang in grass, I rip it free and that erratic start gets bass to bite. It's similar to ripping a rattlebait through vegetation, but the look and feel and sound are different. If a rattlebait bite starts to fade, I pick up the weighted Deep Little N, and vice versa. Rattles help in vegetation. When you suddenly rip it free, you activate the rattles and bass respond."
Though fluorocarbon is widely used for crankbait fishing, several pros have found monofilament superior for early-season tactics. When snapping weighted crankbaits around grass, Short prefers the greater stretch of mono. "Elasticity works in your favor in that situation," he says. "First, it tends to spring the lure free from the weedstalk when it finally gives way, adding a bit of forward momentum that bass key on. Also, its stretchiness slows your reaction time, allowing bass to fully engulf the lure before you sense the take and prepare to set the hook."
For early-season jerkbaiting, Browning favors 10-pound Gamma High Performance Copolymer for a similar reason—stretchiness allows lethargic bass to get the hooks beginning to stick before the angler sets. When fishing shallow cranks, he switches to 16-pound fluorocarbon, mostly for its abrasion resistance. "You're working the bait around chunk rock and logs, and sometimes you have to horse them out of brush, so its strength and thickness help."
Browning has carefully selected rods that balance with his line choice, however. With stretchier Gamma Copolymer, he uses a 6-foot 8-inch St. Croix Legend Tournament Jerkbait rod, rated medium power. When cranking shallow cover with Gamma 100% Fluorocarbon, he selects a St. Croix Mojo Bass Glass Rod, a 6-foot 10-inch rod he finds excellent for target casting. Its added flex matches the reduced stretch of fluoro.
Professional anglers typically spend over 200 days a year chasing bass from coast to coast. And they pass their "off-time" researching new options in lures and tackle. Their income depends on their presentation approaches and tackle selection. While their systems can vary in detail, due to personal preference and experience, following these decision processes ensures you more bass this spring.