By Darl Black
Yachtsmen recognize the term "Roaring Forties" as consistently strong westerly winds in the southern hemisphere, generally between the latitude of 40 and 50 degrees. But dedicated river smallmouth anglers identify the Roaring 40s as the exciting early-spring bite that occurs as bronzebacks stir from their winter's respite and begin feeding heavily to bulk up for the spawn, which may be more than a month away. This period roughly coincides with water temperature climbing from 40°F to 50°F.
The Roaring 40s is my favorite time of year. First, it's the year's initial encounter with battling bronzebacks. I also find it the best time of the year on a river to catch numbers of big smallmouth bass.
To provide insights into this bite on different rivers, I enlisted three top smallmouth bass guides on eastern rivers to provide details about their waterways. Britt Stoudenmire has been guiding on Virginia's New River for 14 years, Mike Breeding on Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River for 15 years, and Jeff Knapp on the free-flowing section of the Allegheny for 12 years.
During the coldest times of year, river smallmouths are rather inactive, hanging out in slow-current winter holes. Precise location and depth vary, based on characteristics of each river. But in all locations, as winter wanes and temperature begins to climb, smallmouths start moving and feeding.
What triggers the earliest spring bite?
Stoudenmire: Anglers often only look at water temperature as the trigger to this early-spring bite, but I believe that photoperiod (amount of sunlight per day) is the major factor. I don't set a limit on the lower end of temperature, but for the bite to take off I like to see a slow consistent rise toward 50°F, often in early March.. The mid- to upper-40°F range is optimal. Once water temperatures surpass 50°F, bass can become scattered and picky.
Breeding: I go with water temperature as the #1 factor for the initial spring bite. I refer to the period of river temperature rising from the high-30°F range into the low 40s as prime time. That's when bass get their metabolism going and want to eat. At this point, every bass in the river is on the same page. As you approach 50°F degrees and the Prespawn Period, photoperiod and flow become more important.
Knapp: The first warming trend of spring or late winter wakes up middle-Allegheny smallmouths. By warming trend I mean three to four consecutive days of unseasonably mild weather once the river is free of ice, with lots of sun and air temperatures in the 60s or above. River flow also enters the picture—high dirty water delays the bite. I've seen the season's initial smallie bite happen as early as February and as late as April, but typically it's around mid-March.
What locations do you find smallmouths feeding as they transition from wintering locations to spawning grounds?
Stoudenmire: It's a journey from slower, deeper habitat to shallower habitat. Often you can recognize transitional locations by the visible separation of current, sometimes called current seams. Over the years, however, I've found that the most consistent locations for big smallmouths are hard to recognize during high spring flows. The best sites are uncovered during low-water months when objects that create a hidden high-water break can be seen above or below the surface. Mark them and return in spring.
Breeding: With snowmelt and spring runoff raising river levels, bass leave ledge pools and head toward the bank. This movement is accompanied by increased feeding and competition for forage among bass. Below 40°F, bass focus their minimal feeding on baitfish. But once the river reaches the mid-40°F range, they concentrate more on crayfish. We typically have high flows that flood shoreline areas, flooding bank brush and small trees. Smallmouths often move into this cover to feed.
Knapp: As the water warms and smallmouths become more active, they move shallower, following a food chain that also is becoming more active. They may move toward the bank of a pool or hole, or perhaps onto rock flats just upriver or downriver of the wintering hole. It's typical for bass to become more active as the day progresses, especially if the day is sunny. Flats that were void of bass in the morning can come alive with fish during mid-to late afternoon, so it pays to check adjacent flats throughout the day.
Let's talk lure choices and how to work them.
Stoudenmire: I almost always start with a tube or jig-n-pig. I find these two lures excellent for fishing current seams, and I love the "tick, tick, tick" of a bottom-bumping lure followed by the thump of a big bass eating it. I fish 3- or 4-inch Mizmo Tubes on a 1/4-ounce round jighead with light wire weedguard. For a skirted jig, my choice is a 1/4-ounce Smallie Snack, a custom-tied round rubber/rabbit hair jig. They're excellent crawfish and madtom representations—preferred bass forage in early spring.
I fish a tube and jig similarly. I generally set up my jet boat or fishing raft on the outside of a current seam and cast upriver slightly inside the seam, letting the lure bounce along the bottom in a natural manner. The upstream cast allows the lure to get down in faster current, and the only action I impart is to manage the slack line and ease it over rocks. I like it to hit rocks and then fall off on the downstream side. You can almost anticipate the bite before it happens during this scenario. Always start slow and increase the slack-lift-drop motion more aggressively if the fish show they're actively feeding.
If bass are extremely aggressive, I often swim the tube or jig until it hits a rock, then pulse it over the rock before letting it free-fall. You often feel the bite, but sometimes not. So if you lose contact with the lure, it could be a bass swimming with it. Immediately reel in slack and make a strong vertical hook-set.
Breeding: With water temperature in the high-30°F range through the mid-40s, I use either a tube or a swimbait. Smallmouths eat one or the other. I use lures from Back Room Baits, a local custom-pour shop that offers colors I like for the Susquehanna River. I fish a 3-inch tube on a 1/4-ounce ballhead inserted into the tube body. Though this period, I deadstick the tube. I use a 1/4-ounce head because I want the tube to sit and not drift with current. I merely shake my rod tip very lightly to quiver the tube's tentacles. When I move it, I drag it an inch at a time, then let it set for 25 to 30 seconds with periodic shaking. I may retrieve a bit faster if the bass seem more active.
I select swimbaits based on temperature. Below 45°F, I use a 2¾-inch lure and switch to a 4-incher when it's warmer. My swimbait retrieve is almost the same as with the tube. I use a 1/4-ounce stand-up shaky-head jig so the lure stands upright. I give it a little pop now and then, but incorporate the same long pause as the tube. The current gives the thumper tail all the action needed. The pop is gentle enough to give the bait only about an inch of forward movement.
One thing I've noticed on the Susquehanna is the importance of lure color in cold water. Below 45°F, I like smoke/blue-green swimbaits. When the water climbs into the 50°F range, success fades on that color. As the water warms to around 48°F, I add a jerkbait. My choices for spring are the Lucky Craft 78 DD or 100 Pointer in Ghost Minnow or Gold/Black. Once I work it down to depth, I employ long pauses and line quivers. The slowest retrieves bring the biggest bites.
Knapp: My two primary presentations are a suspending jerkbait and a tube. Because a subtle, deadstick presentation is required of a jerkbait this time of year, I prefer the Rapala Husky Jerk. It's vital to incorporate lengthy pauses in the retrieve. A typical cast goes like this: Hold the boat at a cast's length from the bank and make a cast that lands a foot or two from the bank. Give the lure a pull to get it a foot under, take up slack, then allow a long pause. Next, using only your wrists, give the lure another mild snap or two so the it inches forward. Take up slack and pause.
While it's important not to impart too much energy into the snap, the bigger issue is the pause; 20 or 30 seconds isn't too long. This presentation isn't about covering water, more like crawling a jig, only it's a jerkbait.
If bass don't respond, I go to a tube, first concentrating on areas next to the bank, then working deeper. Often the hit comes on the initial fall. If not, I use a subtle lift-drop to drag the tube along bottom. I prefer small finesse models such as Z-Man's Finesse TubeZ, rigged on a VMC Half Moon Jighead and I glue the tube to the head.
Some days, for whatever reason, smallies respond better to a slow steady retrieve with a small soft-plastic swimbait, such as Bass Pro Shops Speed Shad or a Galida's Grubz fished on a 3/16-ounce VMC Half Moon Jighead. Keep it slow and steady just off bottom.
What factors shut down the Roaring 40s bite?
Breeding: Once water temperature climbs into the low-40°F range, a drop back into the high 30s shuts them down.
Knapp: Heavy rain and rising muddy water, which happens often in our watershed, cause bass to react badly. It resets everything by pushing bass back to protected wintering areas. Low, clear water, which rarely happens, isn't a problem. But it shifts bass farther from the bank.
Stoudenmire: A sudden rise in water temperature over 50°F slows the bite, and it may keep fishing tough until the spawn. While not as significant as a sudden rise in temperature, low and clear water challenges even the most seasoned angler.
*Darl Black, Cochranton, Pennsylvania, is a veteran outdoor writer, photographer, and fishing guide. He often contributes to In-Fisherman publications.