Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Tips for early-season smallie fishing

Suspended jerkbaits are deadly on spring smallmouth bass in shallow water. Simply snap these lures one to three times in a cadence and then momentarily pause the lure. (Photo courtesy of Jason Mitchell)

By Jason Mitchell
Contributing Writer


Smallmouth bass are one of my favorite fish to target. They’re just built to provide joy and excitement. Much has been written and said about the fight of a smallmouth. The stubborn digging below the boat and airborne acrobatics simply make these fish so much fun. 


Late spring and early summer can be tremendous times to fish for smallmouths because fish often are shallow and relatively easy to catch. Smallies typically will spawn when water temperatures reach the low 60s, but fish will move shallow long before then. Stable weather and warming water often create great shallow-water fishing opportunities. Cold fronts often will temporarily push fish off these shallow locations.


Smallmouths typically look for rock, boulders, and gravel locations in which to bed. Reefs and shorelines that offer this rock rubble bottom are prime.  


If I had to pick a perfect location to find shallow smallmouths in the spring, that location would be a large, shallow flat or reef that protrudes from the shoreline and where there are scattered rocks that range between the size of a baseball to the size of a bowling ball. Larger boulders scattered in the mix are OK, and the entire reef doesn’t necessarily have to be covered with rock, but you can bet that the rock areas are the sweet spots.


Obviously, large spots can hold more fish and attract more attention from anglers as well. Some of my favorite locations that often get overlooked or missed by other anglers are simply shallow rock spines that are slightly offshore – perhaps 100 yards. The closer to shore these locations are, the easier they are for other anglers to find. You can always catch fish on the easy-to-find, obvious locations, but missed and overlooked places are often better for finding cooperative fish.  


Polarized sunglasses are a must for reading water, and side-imaging electronics can also help. To really maximize the potential of side-imaging, I like to search an area with my bow-mount trolling motor down and my outboard motor lifted so I get a better reading off both sides of the transducer.  


When I see patches of rock or boulders, I mark those locations with a waypoint. You can bump fish off a location if you move too close, but the fish typically return. So if you have to get your boat right on top of a location to really learn the spot, do what you have to do to understand what it is you’re fishing over. 


For simply covering water and fishing through locations relatively fast, jerkbaits are deadly. The lure has a long cast weight transfer system that allows for launching casts a great distance, which is important early in the year when you must be able to reach spots while covering water.  


Snapping the rod forward during the retrieve will cause the lure to slash and careen in various directions, but the pause between the snapping cadence is often what triggers strikes. If I could pick just one hard lure for springtime smallmouths, my vote would be for a jerkbait.  


One change I’ve seen, however, on some fisheries is the move to deeper water by bedding bass. This seems to correlate with angling pressure. On heavily fished water, I see more bass bedding in much deeper water. Depending on the lake, these deeper locations are often 7 to 15 feet of water. This is where deep-diving crankbaits and even some square bills can really shine, especially if the fish are scattered and there are numerous locations along a shoreline that all have the potential to hold fish.   


There are times, too, when soft baits shine – particularly with extremely clear water or post-frontal conditions that lower water temps. My favorite plastic for early-season smallmouths in shallow water is a fluke-style plastic. Flukes can be fished slowly, unweighted, or fished faster like a jerk bait by simply rigging on a darter head. You can also drop-shot flukes if you’re fishing over 10- to 15-foot locations offshore.  


Most important: Simply get your lures in front of the fish.  


Spend time to really dissect locations and learn spots. Always try to fish from a comfortable distance. If you can see fish, they’re usually the toughest fish to catch. Try to back off far enough where seeing the fish is difficult.  


If the water is ultra-clear and the fish are finicky, what I have done with great success is run my boat around the area with my big motor to churn up and stain some of the water, often then making a pass back and fourth idling upwind of the fish. This will sometimes cloud up the water just enough so that the fish are not as spooked.


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