If you want to catch plenty of smallmouths and get a tan while you’re at it, wait until summer. If you want to land big bronze backs fish so fat you can’t get a palm around them–get out now. Early season is the best time of year to take huge smallmouths. It’s a transition period when winter loosens its grip, days lengthen, and temperatures in rivers and lakes creep up a degree or two every few days. Adapting to the changes in the small-mouths habitat preferences and feeding behavior, as well as using the right lures, flies, and presentations, is the key to success. If you don’t mind frigid fingers and wind-burned cheeks, the entire late-winter/early spring period can be good. Look for the biggest fish first, but perhaps only a few per trip. As waters warm and spring marches in big-time, expect an increase in fish numbers, but a slow decline in average size.
When to Fish
Timing can be critical. Two or three days into a warming trend is generally best when still air or southerly winds prevail. Water temperatures rise several degrees during these warm spells and fish feed heavily They will be most active from late morning until late afternoon when the water is warmest. Avoid fishing during or just after a cold front and when north winds are blowing.
In lakes, the first areas to seek out are deep-water drop-offs, points, ledges, stump fields, creek channel edges, and humps. As waters warm, fish closer to shore on shallow points; flats bordering deep water; coves; docks; rockpiles; logjams; and backs of creeks, especially on the northwest shore. Red clay, rock, gravel or mud bottoms are all good places to try. Productive water can range from clear to stained, but not muddy.
In rivers, concentrate on deep, slow pools, rock ledges and power plant thermal discharge areas early on. A few days into a warming trend, turn to eddies, pockets, undercut banks and back currents near shore, where the water warms quickest. Look for covers such as protruding rocks and logjams, which offer good ambush points and relief from the heavy spring currents and melted-snow runoff.
Use a six- to seven-foot light- to medium-action spinning rod spooled with 6- to 10-pound-test line.
Retrieves: Reel-pause-twitch suspending minnow plugs; work crankbaits with a slow, smooth retrieve; crawl or lift-and-drop grubs, jigs, blade lures and spinner-jigs; with spinner-baits, watch for strikes on the drop, then slow-roll across bottom rubble and alongside logs.
An 8 1/2- to the nine-foot rod, and two lines–a 6- to 8-weight forward or bass taper floating line for nymphs and shallow-water streamer fishing, plus a high-density sink-tip line for working streamers deep–will serve nicely. Use tapered leaders of seven to 10 feet for the floating line, four to six feet for the sink-tip with 6- to 8-pound tippets. For nymphs, add a split-shot a foot above or tie weighted; also attach a strike indicator just below where the leader joins the fly line.
Retrieves: In lakes, use quartering-up and across casts with a dead-drift presentation for nymphs, or crawl across points and flats. Keep in close contact with the fly. In rivers, add four- to 12-inch twitches with the rod tip as the fly swings around below you.
Cast bottom-hugging minnow patterns across and upstream in rivers, over deep structure in lakes. Let the sink-tip line take them deep, then pump slowly across stony rubble and stumps. Punch out mid-depth streamers directly across in rivers, concentrating on eddies and pocket water. In lakes, focus on rockpiles docks, stump fields, and log jams. Keep the rod tip low to the water and work them with sharp six- to 12-inch strips, followed by distinct pauses.
Lures and Flies
Good choices for spring include three- to five-inch suspending and sinking thin-minnow plugs (jerk baits), small crankbaits, medium- to deep-divers, 1/16- to 1/4-ounce grubs, 1/8- to 1/4.-ounce jigs with pork dressings, 1/8- to 1/4-ounce spinnerbaits, spinner-jig combos, and blade lures (for lakes). COLORS: Silver/black, silver/blue, orange/gold, shad, firetiger, chartreuse, pumpkinseed, brown, black, white, smoke.
Good nymphs include the Stonefly, Beadhead Hare’s Ear, Hellgrammite and Bitch Creek in sizes 4 to 10. Streamers should simulate dark-colored bottom-dwelling baitfish such as sculpins and stonecats as well as shiny, flashier minnows that swim in mid- and upper levels. Good choices include the Sculpin, Woolly Bugger, and Marabou Muddler fop deep fish; the Alby Special, Clouser Minnow, Simsnake, Zonker in sizes 2 to 6 for more active bass. COLORS: Black, brown, gray, olive, chartreuse.