Anglers across the Northland are drawn to the shallows in anticipation of early-season action as winter loses its icy grip on their favorite lakes. Among the first finned targets are panfish, which flood weedy, soft-bottomed shallows in search of emerging aquatic insects and small baitfish. Once gamefish seasons open, post-spawn walleyes and pre-spawn bass garner the lion’s share of fishing attention. At this time of year, both species are actively feeding – walleyes, to recuperate from the rigors of the spawn, while bass are bulking up for the hard work of nest building, spawning, and fry guarding that lies ahead.
Smallmouth and largemouth bass occupy different habitats during the pre-spawn period. Look for pre-spawn smallies in water that is 8-12 feet deep, over hard bottom that could simply be sand, but is more often a mix of sand, gravel and small rock. Once the smallmouth spawn begins in earnest, these fish may transition to slightly shallower water, but will typically remain in hard-bottomed areas to build nests. Largemouth, on the other hand, will favor shallow water, frequently along or near shorelines, with a much softer bottom and remnant or emerging weedgrowth. During periods of stable weather, pre-spawn largemouth will frequently move shallower to bask in the warmth of the sun’s photons, while spring cold fronts will push bass into adjacent deeper areas.
Pre-spawn smallmouth on hard-bottomed flats respond favorably to jerkbaits, but my favorite way to tackle these early season brown bass relies on a light tackle approach anchored by spinning gear and hair jigs. I was first introduced to hair jigs for cold-water smallmouth several years ago, and it’s hard to imagine a simpler technique for hoisting big-bellied brown bass into the boat. Indeed, there is effectively no jigging action used when presenting hair jigs. Rather, anglers cast them out and retrieve them – slow and steady – allowing the undulating natural hair fibers to pulsate and swim in the water. For typical 8-12 ft depths, a 1/8 oz hair jig is frequently best, downsizing to 1/16 oz when conditions allow. Retrieve just fast enough to keep the jig off the bottom, but not too fast. Indeed, using a 1/16 oz jig forces anglers to fish slow, which is often the key for pre-spawn smallmouth success. Dark hair jigs are frequently the best, especially black, brown, and their combinations.
Gear up to fish hair jigs with a medium light power spinning rod, 7 to 7 ½ feet in length, featuring a fast or extra fast action. These rod characteristics will help anglers deliver long, accurate casts with light, compact hair jigs. My favorite rod for this presentation is a St. Croix Mojo Bass “Hair Jig” MJS76MLXF, a technique-specific, all-graphite spinning rod that offers unmatched sensitivity and performance in a budget-priced rod. Equip this rod with a 2000-series spinning reel, like the PENN Fierce II, and spool up with a durable yet castable 6 lb test fluorocarbon, like Seaguar Tatsu. This double-structure 100% fluorocarbon main line features a strong inner fluorocarbon core, completely encased within a soft, supple fluorocarbon shell to deliver the ultimate combination of strength, abrasion resistance and castability.
Pre-spawn largemouth tend to respond more favorably to active, aggressive presentations than do their brown-colored cousins. An outstanding way to cover a lot of water over the shallow, weedy flats favored by early-season largemough is with a bladed jig, like the Z-Man ChatterBait. Similar to the hair jig presentation discussed above, fishing ChatterBaits requires that the angler do little more than cast the bait out and crank it in, as the ChatterBait’s unique blade produces incredible vibration, flash, and erratic action all on its own. Typical 3-6 ft deep flats call for ¼ or 3/8 oz ChatterBaits, which can be upsized to ½ oz for fishing adjacent deep water areas. Shallow, pre-spawn bass are baitfish eaters, so hit the water with an assortment of white (to imitate shiners) and blue/black (to imitate bluegill) ChatterBaits, as well complementary trailers. The Z-Man MinnowZ is a supple, yet robust trailer that responds perfectly to the ChatterBait’s characteristic action, yet withstands repeated attacks from the northern pike and walleye that share the flats with pre-spawn bass.
Choose your tackle carefully to get the most out of cold-water ChatterBait fishing. Graphite rods and braided line are typically too stiff for this presentation. Rather, select a fiberglass rod that is more forgiving, loading up with its parabolic action to better to absorb aggressive strikes and powerful boatside runs. Just released at the 2019 Bassmaster Classic, the St. Croix Mojo Bass Glass “Rip N’ Chatter” MGC72HM is a 100% linear S-glass rod that is precision-engineered for fishing ChatterBaits while remaining easy on the wallet. Equip this rod with a Shimano Curado DC 150 and spool up with 12 lb test Seaguar Tatsu 100% fluorocarbon for the ultimate ChatterBait presentation system.
Whether you chase brown or green bass during the Northland’s spring, these tips will help more of those pre-spawners find the bottom of the landing net. Enjoy this fast action while it lasts, as the heat and mosquitos of summer will be here soon!