February 13, 2018
Flat water in a pale morning light. Brisk but calm. Golden brown bodies ghosting beneath the surface over sand and rock. A strike. She boils on top, then races toward the break followed by 4 or 5 brethren.
That's spring bass fishing "up here." On the Great Lakes and the natural lakes of the North Country, shallow bass rule prespawn hunts. We could fish them deeper, but why? Can't see them. Can't watch them fight all the way back to the boat. Not as active off the breaks. Obviously I'm prejudiced, so I asked a few experts to help pick top prespawn tactics.
It's fair to start with a hair jig. Right after the ice goes off, a bucktail jig has been catching smallmouths for me since the early 1970s. Many anglers may not remember the Nature Jigs from Mister Twister—stand-up heads with bulky bucktail bodies. I tipped the 1/4-ounce jigs with thin black pork strips from Uncle Josh and dragged them slowly along bottom. The jig I use today has evolved into a sleek, sparsely-tied, 1/16- to 3/32-ounce version that still is black. It's tied by Paul Jensen of Jensen Jigs. We've described this tactic in the past. It requires a long, medium-light-power rod, like the St. Croix Avid 8-foot AVS80ML and a large-spool reel like the Shimano Stella STLC2000SFI spooled with 6- to 8-pound braid or 4-pound mono. The jig is rarely tipped with anything, and the idea is to retrieve it so slowly it almost suspends, rarely touching bottom.
At the same time, from right after ice-out until bass spawn, suspending baits continue to be a "universal solvent" for smallmouths everywhere. I've employed In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer's "painfully protracted Pyzer pause" from Pickwick to Rainy Lake for years during spring, and won some serious cash doing it. "The very first bait I try for prespawn smallmouths is a jerkbait," Pyzer says. "usually a Rapala X-Rap. The key, especially immediately after the ice goes off, is the pause. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange coined the 'painfully protracted pause' term as we filmed a TV segment on Rainy Lake several years back. He admits I crushed him that day because he couldn't bring himself to pause long enough. There's no such thing as too long. I'd cast out, jerk it a time or two, then pause for at least a minute. Some anglers tell you they're pausing for 30 or 45 seconds, but if they timed themselves they'd realize it's more like 10 or 20 seconds."
We use similar tackle and tactics. I like a 7-foot 4-inch G. Loomis Bronzeback Series SMR 882S-SP with a large-spool reel with plenty of line capacity, like the Shimano Sahara series—needed when a rogue brown trout, salmon, muskie, or steelhead rams your Lucky Craft Pointer and takes off. The reel is spooled with 8- to 10-pound Berkley FireLine with a 5-foot leader of 10-pound fluorocarbon tied in with back-to-back uni-knots. My rule of thumb with early-season jerks is to cast, pull the lure down to its running depth, then set the rod down and eat a snack. Pick the rod back up and barely, almost imperceptibly, twitch it.
"Something about a jerkbait hanging in the upper third of the water column, doing nothing, drives smallmouths crazy—especially in cold, clear water," Pyzer says. "Sometimes they hit it on the pause, but more often they whack it on the next twitch."
Guide Mike Karempelis, owner of Walleyes And More, LLC, is a jerkbait believer, too. "On Green Bay, a Lucky Craft Pointer is the first lure I try in spring," he says. "Suspending jerks are best when the water is clear, and in the mid-40s to about 57°F. If fish have pulled out a bit, suspending baits shine in the 10- to 12-foot range. Very early in a cold spring, you find fish suspended off spawning areas at times. Otherwise, we only look shallow, less than 10 feet on most days. That's where smallmouths are most active during prespawn."
Karempelis also favors 10-pound FireLine with a 10-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leader. "The leader helps around zebra mussels," he says. "And we're dealing with more pike these days. Work it slowly with long pauses, letting it settle. Bites are subtle. It's important for the lure to suspend in a horizontal position. Watch the line, make sure the lure doesn't rise or sink. I think it's a big thing—having it sit horizontally instead of nose-down or tail-down. A nose-down lure that pops back up after a pause seems to work best in warmer water during summer. The less going on with the lure in cold water the better."
After the hair-jig and jerkbait days fade with warming water, I often rely on 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jig-grub or jig-worm combos. "The jig-grub continues to put more bass in the boat for me for some reason," Pyzer says. "A simple 4-inch Yamamoto grub has fallen out of favor with a lot of anglers, but it's still deadly, even more so now that it's no longer the flavor of the month. It comes into its own when smallies shift from the main-lake structures they first come up on and move onto shallow flats close to spawning areas. I always put the grub on with the tail-down, hook point up so it doesn't interfere with the hook when a fish bites and you set. The simplest 'do nothing' retrieve works best. Forget about the erratic jerks, hops, jumps, and bumps. Merely cast it out, let it settle to the bottom, and swim it back at a leisurely pace."
By now, anybody who has ever picked up In-Fisherman magazine knows I like a Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head Jig tipped with a Kalin's Grub. The jig-worm, however, is a different animal. You have to ask a smallmouth why, but they sometimes eat it when they won't eat a jig-grub and vice-versa. Personally, the jig-worm has evolved through incarnations involving the Persuader Curly Tail to the Berkley 4-inch PowerBait Worm to Case Plastic Ring Worms and now to a hybridized swimbait/ring worm, the Berkley Havoc Beat Shad designed by Mike Iaconelli. All those styles work, but—as always—the "new thing" shines every spring. Same tactic, same 1/16- to 1/8-ounce heads with the same tackle used for hair jigs and grubs—4- to 6-pound Maxima Ultragreen on a 7-foot G. Loomis Bronzeback Series spinning rod. Pyzer's description of the retrieve is dead on.
Karempelis (that heretic) has partly abandoned the jig-grub—expelling it from his top-five choices—for the Ned Rig, composed of Z-Man's Finesse TRD or cut-down ZinkerZ on a Z-Man ShroomZ jighead. "Jigs and grubs are another for-sure technique, but so many people use them now that we try to find something new," he says. "The Ned Rig has been phenomenal. Simplest lure you'll ever fish. I like a 3-incher on a ShroomZ head of 1/10- or 1/6-ounce. That jig stands the stubby, tapering plastic vertically on bottom on a pause, which is key. It has a spiral drop. Drag it, pop it up occasionally, and fish it like a tube—simple. It's phenomenal in the 5- to 10-foot zone. No question in my mind it resembles a goby or sculpin."
Tubes & Sticks
That old stand-by—the tube—is another Karempelis favorite with clients as the water approaches spawning temperature, around 58°F. "It's a different take on the same thing," he says. "I use a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce insert jig and drag it on bottom. In summer we fish it like a jerkbait, snapping it or walking the dog. But in spring we drag it. Dead-sticking tubes can be deadly, if you have the patience. Works with the Ned Rig, too. Sometimes they want it lying on bottom, not moving at all. They stare at it, but especially in spring, they eventually ease over and slurp it up. It's better to be too slow than too fast in spring.
Get Bit Tubes offer something a little different—something they haven't seen that adds movement at slow speeds. "I like fatter tubes that imitate gobies better, but you should experiment more with tube shapes, colors, lengths, and styles than with other lures. Sometimes longer, thinner tubes garner more strikes. The fall is different, the profile is different. Most days, we start with Get Bit or Berkley PowerBait Tubes."
Karempelis fishes a wacky-rigged 5-inch Yamamoto Senko when the water warms into the mid- to high-50°F range. "In big bodies of water we have bass in various stages at that point," he says. "Some fish may be spawning in water that warms earliest in the back end of bays. But out around the islands, smallmouths might be in early prespawn phase.
"I use the Gamakatsu Micro Wide Gap Hook in 2/0 to 3/0. It has a shorter shank, and its compact shape gets all the way in their mouth for solid hook-sets. The point is bent back toward the shaft, creating a tendency to get into the corner of their mouth. The hookup percentage is excellent. Often Senkos are resting on the bottom when bass eat them and the Wide Gap finds fewer rocks. And it's a light hook that works better in this weightless situation. The slower the fall, the better in spring. I want it in the strike zone, doing its thing as long as possible. I see guys using weighted hooks and that's nuts. Bass turn to investigate when they hear a lure hit the water and you want it to still be falling, not resting on bottom."
Pyzer also places the tube in his top-five, but fishes it more often during late prespawn than early. "The tube is more of an up-down-drag presentation versus the horizontal approach of jerks, grubs, and swimbaits," he says. "It adds dimension to the arsenal. I like a tube once I've found a concentration of bass, staging, say, off an underwater point, locked onto a pretty small area. It's usually the last bait I throw to a spot when I've fished other lures and want to catch one or two last fish. Here in Canada, smallmouths are locked onto baitfish more at ice-out rather than crayfish, so horizontal lures work best early."
Pyzer was tutored on a more unique spring tactic by California pro Aaron Martens. A drop-shot-worm tactic works well once smallies are pegged shallow, from mid- to late prespawn. Rig with a 4- to 5-inch Robo-style worm. Cast, let it settle, and bounce it. Shake the worm, not the weight, almost like dribbling a basketball. The key is to position the drop-shot hook only 2 to 4 inches from the weight. "It's a key tactic when smallmouths are in knee-deep or shallower water. Amazing how well it works," he adds.
Shallow-running crankbaits are another Karempelis favorite before the spawn. "We fish them during late prespawn on windy, choppy days when bass are in 6 feet or less around boulders and rock outcroppings," he says. "That's when we first make contact with the late spawners that come in from deep, main-lake wintering spots. We crack a shallow runner off rocks at a good clip, then stop it for a second or two, letting it float back up, then start again. It keeps cranks from lodging in rocks and also triggers a response. Bass hear it bounce off rocks and come over to investigate. If the retrieve is constant it's gone by the time they get there and you lose more lures. Natural crayfish patterns seem to work best in clear water. Baitfish patterns never work as well."
Finally, Pyzer favors swimbaits late in the Prespawn Period. "I love throwing a 4- to 5-inch swimbait, like a Bass Magnet Shift 'R Shad, X-Zone Swammer, or Keitech swimbait on a jighead—fishing it exactly the same way as the jig-grub combo. Best smallie swimbaits are the slimmest models. When the water is super-cold after ice-out, I retrieve just fast enough so the tail is kicking. As the water warms, I pick up speed, but never ripping or reeling fast. It's especially effective shallow around last year's dead pencil reeds."
Wherever you chase bass, these 10 options keep you setting hooks from ice-out until smallmouths begin to spawn. Because nothing says spring like a pack of excited bronzebacks following a hooked bass to the boat.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is a season-long smallmouth bass chaser. He regularly contributes to In-Fisherman publications.