The ice is out and I’m itching to get on smallmouths. The fact that I’ve been quarantining in my apartment with two roommates who can’t even talk fishing with me isn’t helping. Problem is, water temperatures are barely nudging 40 degrees. This means that although I’ve been daydreaming about big smallies in shallow water, of post-spawn feeding frenzies, and that definitive smalljaw thump, I have to face reality—the fish are going to be hunkered down and sleepy in the chilly depths right now. But I optimistically check the weather forecast: a full week of high-50s and partial sun. Not bad. The wind forecast looks solid, too, light enough to safely fish from my canoe. I can work with this.
During the post-spawn, I know what to expect. It’s a wonderful window when it seems like any swimbait, soft-plastic, or streamer that gets in front of a fish gets crushed. But since I lack the patience to wait for that magic, I call my buddy Scott Davis, an experienced guide, angler, and Maine fisheries biologist. If anyone can give me some great insight on targeting smallmouths right after ice-out, it’s Davis. If you’re as impatient as I am, his tips can help you score long before prime time.
Location is Everything
Davis explained that ice coming off the lake isn’t a magic trigger that makes smallmouths move from their wintering locations. For shifting to occur, to get them in the mindset of spawning, Davis says the water needs to hit 50 degrees. Increased daylight prompts them along as well, but until the fish are ready to move, they’ll typically be in water at least 15 feet deep. The bass will be schooled up, suspended over rock piles, ledges, and drop-offs, and in many cases, it’s the guys that didn’t hang up their fishing gear for winter that are most successful right after ice-out.
“Ice fishermen are actually at an advantage this time of year,” Davis said. “They know where the smallies stack up in winter. Those fish won’t stray far from deeper humps and shoals until the water warms. If you can find them now in the open water—and that’s half the battle—you can really hammer ‘em.”
Davis says that river smallies behave differently than lake dwellers during pre-spawn, and nuances will occur from one watershed to another. Consideration of water levels becomes paramount. High water associated with spring runoff makes river fishing for early-season smallies difficult, because rapid bumps in flow tend to scatter the fish. That said, if rivers are running on the low side, anglers can target pre-spawn river smallmouth with some consistency by focusing on deep holes with soft bottoms, as well as sloping channel edges.
Present Slow-Moving Targets
The good news is that provided you have a bead on those deep-water smallmouths, you can make them eat. Davis recommends a couple different presentations for these lethargic fish, but vertical jigging is particularly effective. Sluggish bass don’t have to travel far to take a jig, and this time of years, the less energy a fish has to put into eating, the more likely it is to eat . Large Swedish Pimples—like the 3 ¼-inch, 1-ounce model—are staple lures for ice anglers, but they also get the job done when the water opens up. Drop one down over structure and work it slowly, Davis suggests, with a series of twitches and longer-than-usual pauses. Tipping one of the treble hooks with a piece of cut bait or salted minnow helps your chances. A medium-heavy spinning outfit spooled with 8-pound braid works well for this approach, and Davis likes a two-foot, 20-pound fluorocarbon leader, as it’s sensitive enough to feel the bite, but heavy enough to yank large smallies away from obstructions. If soft-plastics are more your game, wiggling one incessantly in the face of a sleepy bass via a drop-shot rig can also be lethal.
As the water temperatures slowly begin to tick up, Davis starts putting deep-diving crankbaits and jerkbaits into his rotation. He works them very slowly around drop-offs, especially in proximity to the shallow flats and bays bass invade once the water warms. Medium-heavy spinning or baitcasting setups pair well with these baits, and Davis says slow, erratic retrieves accentuated by long pauses score the most bites.
Unfortunately for many fly anglers, fishing deep water at a snail’s pace teeters on painful, but you can be successful in the early season. First, a seven or eight-weight rod that can deliver a full-sinking line is in order, because you’ll want to focus on the same deep ledges, rock piles, and shoals. Let a large beadhead wooly buggers or Clouser Minnow drop to depth, and then retrieve with a slow strip, imparting occasional twitches. Your next challenge (regardless of method) is simply feeling the take.
Feel it Out (Intently)
There’s no denying that the punishing hit of a smallmouth is what so many anglers find addictive. The early-season bite, however, kind of robs you of a complete fix.
“With pre-spawn smallies, don’t expect your typical, no-doubt-about-it bite,” Davis said. “The fish are definitely lethargic right now, but if you put something right in front of them, they’ll eat it.”
In the frigid waters of early spring, smallies often take a lure so softly that the hit is more akin to that of a perch or black crappie. It pays to stay tuned in and hyper-receptive to even the slightest tap or bump, and to respond accordingly by setting the hook—even if it ends up being false alarm. Braided line and sensitive rods certainly help in terms of bite detection. For fly anglers, keeping your line as tight and straight to the fly as possible will be beneficial considering you’ll be dealing with some degree of belly in your sinking line. On the upside, while the take may not be epic, a chilled-out smallie will still brawl, just a bit differently than it will in another month.
“When you do hook a good bass this time of year,” Davis continued, “they’ll pull and dig, but they tend not to jump.”
A few days after talking to Davis, I fastened my canoe to the top of my shitty SUV, and then packed the car with enough gear to outfit a small army: three spinning rods, two fly rods, boxes crammed with jigs, jerkbaits, soft-plastics, and one giant box of freshly-tied flies. The 30-pound barbell I’d been using to keep my arms in shape during quarantine will once again take its rightful place as a bow weight. I pull out of the driveway, my tiny, roommate-cluttered apartment finally in the rearview. I roll down the windows. It’s still pretty damn cold outside, but I’m going smallie fishing anyway, and I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.
Feature image via Joe Cermele.