If you’re waiting until summer to start your fishing season, think again. Where you can find gamefish seasons open, this early-spring period is prime time to get your string stretched by some of the season’s biggest walleyes and bass.
And I’d like to offer a not-so-secret formula for success: rattlebaits. Right now, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and walleyes are moving up from deeper winter sanctuary areas and seeking warmer areas to feed and get ready for the upcoming spawn. And no lure can cover more water and tempt more bites than lipless rattlebaits. There are models from nearly every major lure manufacturer and they all catch fish, if you work ’em right.
In spring, we often head to the Great Lakes or to the Dakotas for prime action. Walleyes hold along shallow bars and off shoreline points. Bars near the mouths of creeks and rivers are prime spots, too. Look for big sand flats with scattered rock or clumps of zebra mussels. In recent seasons, our lure of choice has been a No. 5 or 6 Rapala Rippin’ Rap, a bite-size bait that resembles baitfish and creates a lot of sound and underwater vibrations that prompt strikes from aggressive predators.
Our friend and accomplished fishing guide Tony Roach has mastered the proper retrieve with this lure.
“Early-spring shallow walleyes love this thing. Fish it in warmer pockets, in bays or near the mouths of creeks. The key depth is 5 to 10 feet, but I’ve caught ‘em as shallow as 1 or 2 feet,” Roach says. “Make a long cast and let it fall to the bottom. Raise the rod so the bait rises slowly. Then let it fall as you lower the rod, just keeping a bit of tension on the lure to slow its drop.”
Roach finds fish often eat it lying on the bottom. Then he’ll give it another gentle rip. He’ll start with this presentation when the water’s in the upper 30s shortly after ice-out; it’s ideal when lakes are 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
“As it warms, I gradually increase the speed of my retrieve, ripping the bait a little more aggressively. But slow is key, so be ready!” he says.
Rattlebaits are also highly effective for smallmouths that move up as the water warms, and they typically form small groups over rocky rubble and gravel bottoms less than 10 feet deep. Use them to cover a lot of water when searching for packs of roving fish. Again, work it slowly, with lift-drops.
These lures sink quickly so you can fish them effectively at different depths. I’ve found that color can make a big difference at times. Experiment with both natural colors that imitate preyfish and bright ones like fire tiger that attract a fish’s attention.
The same lures work for largemouth bass, but fish them over areas with vegetation that remains from the summer before or is sprouting off the bottom. Let it occasionally fall during the retrieve so it catches weedstalks, and then pull it free.
Bass often bite when that change of speed occurs. Work it slowly and don’t pull the lure away from fish. I prefer a medium-action rod, and match it with 12- or 14-pound mono or fluoro line. A slow-rolling retrieve works best during both the prespawn and postspawn phases.
I can’t overemphasize the effectiveness of this system for big fish of all sorts. Don’t delay getting out there in areas where you can target these species; this window may last only a few weeks!