Warming trend. Water temperature rises. Excitement literally bubbles out of shallow water like laughing gas as smallmouths enthuse and feed in relatively tropical conditions. The infectious excitement shows on every face watching bronzebacks bully baitfish in 3 to 5 feet of water.
A few weeks ago, the big bay was covered with ice. Now it’s warming fast. And the best bites for early-season smallmouths tend to occur shallow. Yes, early smallmouths can suspend between winter and spring habitats. Yes, brown bass gather in depths around 20 feet at the base of breaks leading to shallow flats when driven off by cooling water, cold fronts, or intense pressure. And sometimes, way up north, smallmouths cling to wintering areas for a week or two, and the fishing can be awesome in deeper water.
But the most exciting bites are shallow because smallmouths are visible, animated, and tough as nails. And excited. About the warmth. About the impending spawn. About the food. That means horizontal tactics. When the water is warming on a shallow flat where smallmouths later spawn, they gather and mill in depths of 2 to 6 feet, where sunlight penetration is optimum, substrates warm fastest, and baitfish arrive by the millions. But being shallow makes bass wary. Smallmouths might be excited, but not enough to become oblivious to boats and unusual noise. Long casts rule.
The most active smallmouths stay where water is warming. Find bays and shorelines where gentle winds are blowing in toward spawning areas, or where sunlight hits calm, shallow water for the longest period of time. If water is cooling, leave. Go on the hunt. Follow the sun and use the temperature readout as a guide. And if bass aren’t shallow yet, go to classic wintering habitat and peer into the depths with sonar and underwater cameras.
A logical succession loosely ties certain tactics to each stage of the Prespawn Calendar Period—especially up north—but the following tactics work in spring wherever smallmouths swim. Most years, the first day we can get a boat off the ramp after ice-out up north, the water temperature will be right around 40°F. If ice clings to some shorelines, or if severe cold fronts bring snow or freezing rain, temperatures might be somewhat colder.
“Immediately after the ice goes out is the best smallmouth fishing opportunity of the year up in Northwest Ontario, in my opinion,” says bass pro Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson. “On the main basin, smallmouths stay in their wintering holes for a week to 10 days after ice-out, until the water gets into the mid-40°F range. You can get your boat on top of mega schools of fish during this time frame and since they almost go into a hibernation mode during winter, they are ready to start eating again.”
He monitors deep smallmouths with underwater cameras. “On these deeper spots, you can have some fun dropping an Aqua-Vu down and it will blow your mind how many fish are there and how they relate to boulders, sand spots, just different things on the bottom, even in 25 to 35 feet of water,” he says. “I mounted an HDi7 on my console this year and I found I used it a lot more than when it was just a portable unit.”
Bass are schooled up and easy to spot with electronics, he says. “I use a Humminbird Helix 10 and over the past couple years I’ve become a fan of using the MEGA Down-Imaging in conjunction with sonar for finding smallmouths on deeper structure. It does a good job of separating boulders and ‘stuff’ on the bottom from fish. I can literally count how many fish I drive over.”
I know what most of you are thinking. Drop-shot. Right? Wrong. “In cold water, smallmouths are looking to eat minnows,” Gustafson says. “For years, soft jerkbaits have been the best baits. I’m using 4- and 5-inch Z-Man Scented Jerk ShadZs, rigged on a Northland Tackle 3/8-ounce Slurp Jig. It’s life-like and there is something about the buoyancy of the ElaZtech material that helps the bait sit horizontally and naturally. We call it ‘hanging’ these baits. ‘Moping’ is a term that Ron Lindner cooked up back around 2004, but it’s the same thing that southern bass anglers are calling Damiki rigging.”
Damiki “rigging” is really just jigging with any soft jerk or soft swimmer while watching the lure approach deep objects on sonar. A lot of pros practiced it successfully at the 2017 Bassmaster Elite Tournament at Cherokee Lake.
On some waters, rabidly excited smalljaws penetrate way up on shallow flats right at ice-out, quite a distance from any break to deeper water. And they concentrate. It doesn’t matter how cold the water is—if it’s warming somewhere, bass find it. As water temperatures rise above 41°F, bucktail jigs shine. Bucktail hairs are hollow, slowing the drop of the jig. In water this cold, a 1/16- to 1/24-ounce jig is optimum. Any color as long as it’s black. The technique relies on long, light-power rods and 4-pound monofilament. Braid and fluorocarbon sink too fast.
The 7-foot 9-inch Elliott Rods ES79L-F and 8-foot St. Croix Avid AVS80MLM2 are good examples of rods that launch light jigs long distance, protect light line, and have the sensitivity of a cat’s whiskers. The key is reeling steady and so slow that the jig practically suspends.
The same tackle is a perfect match for light marabou jigs, which sink a little faster and thereby excel as waters warm into the mid-40°F range and beyond. Andy Vallombroso, owner of Andy’s Custom Bass Lures, has been tying marabou jigs for a long time. His Marabou Pro Series Jigs come in two sizes, 1/16- and 1/8-ounce, and three colors, black, white, and avocado. “These jigs are hand tied,” he says. “We use a thin-wire Mustad black nickel hook, allowing you to use light line, which is critical with marabou. The trick is to tie them thick. Tournament bass guys know when our jig gets wet it tapers down, but not too thin. It moves more like a leech. Guys have been winning tournaments all over the country with it. Cold-water anglers up in the Northeast and Canada gobble these up.”
And the same tackle works with light jig-grub combos. A 1/16-ounce VMC Half Moon Jig coupled with a 5-inch Kalin’s Lunker Grub is a potent combination for smallmouths when presented on 4-pound mono from the mid-40°F range right through summer wherever and whenever bronze bass roam shallow.
The Problem with Early Bass
The problem is, early-season bass are shallow, eager to feed, and vulnerable. They can be very easy to catch. Harvest during the Prespawn Period can devastate populations. Tournaments during that Calendar Period remove smallmouths from spawning areas. If they survive the trip, distance from habitat and stress can keep bass from spawning.
Bass pro Jeff Gustafson offers a simple solution that fishery managers everywhere should consider. “Up in Northwest Ontario where I live, our bass season never completely closes, which is awesome,” he says. “We have a catch-and-release season on our big waters like Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake until July 1, which protects smallmouths during their spawning routine, from anglers that want to eat them and tournament anglers that want to haul them miles from their spawning habitat. There’s nothing I like doing more than tournament bass fishing but I’m happy we have this regulation to protect these fish.
Suspending jerkbaits can be the answer any time, but they excel in spring. Watching smallmouths approach a suspender in cold water is a classroom experience. They rise slowly and hover behind the bait. Bass know where the eyes are. The approach from there can be measured in millimeters per minute. Snap the bait aggressively and that bass might disappear.
In cold water, smallmouths stalk suspending baits like cats. Pushing too much water spooks their prey, which is naturally lethargic. In warm water, bass don’t mind chasing. The opposite is true in early spring. Smallmouths just shrug you off and drift back to bottom if you try to make them chase.
“The first opportunity I have for smallmouths in spring, I love throwing a jerkbait,” says Minnesota guide Tony Roach. “I’m happy to pitch a hardbait after staring down a hole all winter. Early and late in the season, jerks are equally effective for smallmouths, walleyes, and pike. Early on, pull it down to running depth and let it sit there. Use the line as a strike indicator. Bass hit jerks during long pauses in spring. Size 10 Rapala X-Raps and #11 Shadow Raps are my favorites. The X-Rap stays where it’s at during a long pause, but the Shadow Rap slowly sinks. If bass are deeper than 8 feet I use a Shadow Rap with long pauses. Rip it downward to push it farther down then follow with a long pause. Rip, rip, long pause. You can throw it sideways on a slack line snap, but I tend to fish too fast early. You can tell by how they follow. If a bass is barely behind the bait, slow down. If it’s 6 or 7 feet back, you need a 30-second pause or longer.”
When smallmouths move shallow, Gustafson also leans on suspense. “On shallower waters, or in shallow bays on our large lakes, big numbers of smallmouths show up on shallow points immediately after ice out,” he says. “This is water that could be open while the main basin of the lake is still ice covered. It’s feast or famine because the fish are still schooled up so if you don’t find them you might not catch a bass, but if you find a good spot you could catch 20 in 20 casts. I think 23 in a row is my record.”
Suspending jerkbaits are the top tactic in cold, shallow water, Gustafson says. “I’m talking 6 to 12 feet. If you find a group of fish you can probably catch them on anything you want, but jerkbaits are good and you can use them to find fish better than anything else. Most of the fish will be just over that first edge from where you can see bottom to where you can’t.”
His favorite jerkbait is the Jackall DD Squirrel, a deep-diving model, and he’s been fishing jerkbaits on a G. Loomis 7-foot, medium-power Conquest (CNQ 842C). “This is a super high-end rod, but if you like to fish jerkbaits and you want the best equipment available, you should check out this rod,” he says. “I use a Shimano Stradic 2500 CI4 reel, 10-pound Power Pro braid, and a 6-foot 10-pound fluorocarbon leader, attached by an FG knot. The DD Squirrel casts well and gets down a little deeper than a regular jerkbait but like I say, fishing is good, these fish are in the mood to eat so any suspending jerkbait likely works. Fish them slower than you would in summer.”
I like to fish jerkbaits with 10-pound Berkley FireLine on a medium-light, 7-foot spinning rod like the Elliott Rods ES7ML-F or St. Croix Legend Elite ES70MLF2. FireLine is coated and won’t “burn” connecting knots over time. The knot connects the braid to a 6-foot, 8- to 10-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader, for stealth and the creation of a “keel” effect. Fluorocarbon is dense and keeps the nose of the bait down during long pauses that are so essential in spring. My favorite lure is the Lucky Craft Pointer in two sizes—78 and 100. In my experience, every Pointer suspends perfectly right out of the box—a critical factor in spring. Take two sizes because on some lakes, smallmouths won’t touch the larger 100. On other lakes, they never bother the smaller 78.
Which raises another point: Smallmouth behavior does vary somewhat from lake-to-lake. As Gustafson points out, bass stay in wintering habitat for weeks after ice-out in big Canadian waters. In some lakes around here, I swear bass slide into depths of 5 feet or less even before the ice recedes. Some like big baits, some like small. And as much as I love to throw jerkbaits in spring, there are lakes where it’s a complete waste of time. So bring the whole arsenal, become adept with a variety of techniques, and early spring will fast become your favorite season for smallmouths—if it isn’t already.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, multispecies expert and smallmouth guru, lives in the Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota.