A Bass'n Plan: Open water tactics for 2014
There are two kinds of spring bass fishermen: the fair-weather type who waits until late May, and the eager beaver who gets on the water shortly after the ice leaves.
The fair-weather angler will catch his share of bass, but the eager beaver will catch a lot more – and bigger – because he will be fishing during the pre-spawn season.
Unfortunately, many Upper Midwest anglers are disadvantaged during the pre-spawn period because their state’s bass seasons are closed in they early spring. However, given the extended winter and late start to spring this year, Midwesterners might get to experience some of the early pre-spawn fishing that hasn’t been legal in recent years.
In the northern reaches of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan this year, for example, the ice lingered into May, which means the bass will be in a pre-spawn state.
If you can get out during the early pre-spawn period, there are some things you must know about bass habits and how to catch ’em. Don’t wait until the water warms. Bass, especially the mature fish, are eager to get shallow. When the ice leaves, they’ll congregate on irregular features (points, inside turns, weedbeds) that connect the flats to deep water.
The fish will slide up from their wintering holes late in the day when the water warms, which is why mid-afternoon tends to produce best. When cold fronts hit, the bass will return to the outside edges.
Jigs, tube baits, and other finesse baits will catch them, but reaction baits – crankbaits and blade baits – can be more effective. The key is to use lures that appear natural and stay in the strike zone longer.
TV fishing host Mark Zona says blade baits are the most powerful tool for catching cold-water bass right after ice-out. Blade baits have a weighted belly on a thin, fish-shaped lure and two treble hooks.
“Make a long cast, and when the bait hits bottom, make a short jerk with the rod tip to cause the bait to hop and fall back,” Zona said. “The colder the water, the shorter the hop; don’t rip the bait more than 12 to 18 inches off the bottom.”
Most strikes occur as the bait falls, and a bass bite will feel like dead weight as you lift the next time.
“You can feel the bait vibrate wildly when you rip it,” Zona said. “If not, and you don’t feel the weight of the fish, the bait is fouled. A good way to alleviate that is to open the hooks slightly and they won’t catch on the blade as easily.”
Suspending crankbaits with longer bills fished along the deeper edges can trigger big fish, as well. These plugs dive deeper than traditional minnow plugs. Zona doesn’t “jerk” deep crankbaits like he does shallow versions; he simply pulls and pauses, pulls and pauses, tempting deep or suspended bass into striking.
“Some of the biggest spring bass I’ve caught came on deep crankbaits and that technique,” he offered. “You don’t get many bites, but the ones you get are good ones.”
Keep in mind that bass want to move onto those spawning flats as soon as the water temp rises. Many of the females will get shallow on those warm, sunny days before the water temp gets into the 50s. You can find them over dark bottoms in wind-protected bays near deeper water.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to see bass starting the spawning process in 48-degree water.
A good place to look shallow is the gnarly lily pad root systems of yet-to-develop pad fields, deeper manmade canals off of the main lake, and pockets or bays on the north side of the lake. Any wind-protected area on the north side will be the first to warm up because it gets maximum exposure to the sun early in the year.
“Those weed patches along the drop-off can be bass magnets, too,” Zona said. “I’ve caught 30 bass from one no bigger than a small kitchen.”
When the bass are shallow, baits like the Strike King KVD Slash, Lucky Craft Pointer, and Rapala X Rap are good choices.
When they’re aggressive and you can speed up presentations, lipless crankbaits and tight-wiggling plugs like the No. 5 or No. 7 Shad Rap can produce a career day on the water. There may not be a better cold-water crankbait than the Shad Rap.
Another lure that deserves a place in your spring arsenal is a chatterbait that combines the attributes of a jig and a spinner blade. Anglers have discovered there’s an early window when pre-spawn bass simply can’t resist these vibrating plugs, especially in stained water.
To add buoyancy and action to a bladed jig, dress it with a 3- to 4-inch plastic trailer.
In fact, those soft-bodied “swim baits” have become a “secret” among Midwest anglers who rig them on jig heads and slow-wind them around cover. Stick to the 3- to 5-inch sizes in colors that match your local forage.
One final tip: Remember where you find pre-spawn bass each season. Fish will return to those same areas year after year, so a good log book with notations about location, water temperature, and weather conditions will serve as a reference of where to begin your search in years to come.