The natural world bristles with life in the spring. Your lawn’s formerly brown grass transitions to a lush, vibrant green. Bare branches on trees and shrubs become dressed with wardrobes of blossoms and leaves. Beneath the water’s surface, once dormant shallows now teem with life, from the smallest insects to the largest aquatic predators, as powerful photons from the sun drag water temperatures out of their wintertime lows.
Early season fishing can be a daunting proposition for many anglers. Which species of fish should we pursue? What part of the lake holds the most active fish? Once we start fishing, which baits or lures might be most effective? These tips are proven winners in the spring and will get you on your way to early season multispecies success.
Water temperature is the key
No matter which species of fish you pursue as your season opens, water temperature is the key to success. Surface water that is even just a few degrees warmer than surrounding areas will concentrate actively feeding fish. In general terms, focus your efforts on soft-bottomed bays that are off the main body of water. The best bays will frequently be sheltered from the prevailing wind to minimize the influx of cold water. Within these bays, shallow, near-shore areas are generally better than deeper ones. Interestingly enough, current from river inlets can be a double-edged sword in the spring: while current will help to attract and retain species like walleye, cold runoff delivered by river inlets can also reduce local water temperatures and turn the bite off. Monitor surface temperatures with your electronics as you approach river inlets; if you encounter a plume of substantially colder water, it’s time to continue your search in another area.
Small and subtle for early season panfish
Many a panfish has landed in a livewell after munching a chunk of nightcrawler or slurping a crappie-sized minnow in the spring. Nevertheless, savvy anglers recognize that they will typically catch more and larger fish by using artificial presentations. Such an approach has the added advantage of making fish far more releasable, as bluegills and crappies are rarely hooked deeply when caught on lures.
Oversized bluegills respond favorably to slender-profile soft plastics, rigged on the same small tungsten jigheads that northern anglers use all winter through the ice. A particularly potent combination is a 5 mm tungsten jig dressed with an inch-long orange, red or black soft plastic tail. Suspend this offering beneath a bobber so that the bait rides near the tops of the season’s first green weeds, and retrieve with a series of twitches and pauses to imitate an emerging insect larva or small baitfish.
Early season crappies love minnow imitations. Present a 1-1.5” minnow-profile soft plastic dressed on a 1/16 oz jighead that features a wire bait keeper, which helps to keep the bait rigged correctly on the jig over many fish catches. A long cast and slow swimming retrieve that keeps the bait above emerging weed or standing wood cover can be highly effective. On windy days, suspend the same lure beneath a float, and allow wave action to provide all of the swimming motion needed to land a bounty of spring crappies.
A terrific rod choice for both bluegills and crappies is the 7-foot, light power, extra-fast action Panfish Series Rod (PFS70LXF) from St. Croix Rod. The length of this rod helps to propel lightweight offerings long distances on the cast, and also moves a lot of line fast to ensure productive hooksets what a strike occurs far from the boat. Its light power rating ensures abundant sport from our panfish targets, yet also retains plenty of backbone to handle the incidental bass that you’ll encounter in the panfish zone. Rig this rod with a 1000-series PENN Fierce II Spinning reel and spool up with 4 lb Seaguar InvizX 100% fluorocarbon for the ultimate in shallow water stealth.
Early season bass are ready to feast
Cold water bass are notoriously fickle feeders. However, this lethargic attitude is rapidly replaced with an aggressive, predatory stance as water temperatures rise into the 50s. Their rapidly warming environment puts bass on the feed, as they increase their calorie counts in advance of impending spawning rituals.
Hard baits are excellent choices for targeting early season bass. In southern reservoirs, the craw-imitating crankbaits that dive to the 4-8’ range can be fished productively along swing banks as creek channels run from the main lake toward the backs of bays. In the north country, where pre-spawn bass congregate near shallow weedgrowth, lipless rattlebaits are an outstanding option. In this situation, a steady retrieve through the tops of submerged weeds in 4-8 feet of water is all that is required to catch and release vast numbers of early season largemouth.
When cranking for early season largemouth, rig with 20 lb Seaguar Smackdown braided line to maximize casting distance and cover lots of water, fast. In stained or turbid water, fish without a leader, tying the braid direct to a cross-lock snap. In clear water reservoirs, however, a 4-foot leader of 15 lb Seaguar AbrazX will increase your catch rates and provide enhanced abrasion resistance.
Don’t forget the fundamentals
Whether your boat took a long winter’s nap under a blanket of snow or you fish throughout the year on soft waters, pay attention to the basics of boat and motor maintenance to ensure enjoyable trips in the early season. Arrive at the ramp with a tank of fresh gas, oil for two-stroke motors, and a fully-charged complement of batteries. Ensure that your boat and trailer registration are current, and that you possess this year’s license documents. Planning to fish before sunrise or after dark? Take a moment to check your boat’s navigation lights, as filaments may have snapped during the cold winter months. And for goodness sakes, wear your lifejacket, as the cold waters of the early season dramatically increase the threat of hypothermia and limit survivability, should an unplanned swim be added to your early season fishing trip.
Fishing season is at our doorstep. These tips will bring you early season multispecies success and help you to build some great memories on the water this spring. Enjoy the fast action while it lasts, as the dog days of summer will be here soon enough!