Winter can be a hard season for anglers. No matter how much we enjoy ice fishing, midge hatches, and other winter fishing, at a certain point, we get a bad case of the winter blues. During the coldest times of the year, when ice covers our favorite waterways, and snow piles up on our beaches and riverbanks, most of us eventually subside to winter’s weight and stay home. We watch fishing films, make lures and flies, and prep our boats with all the barely contained energy of trapped animals as we pace the icy bars of winter’s cage and wait to be unleashed.
At the first sign of the ice breaking up in spring, anglers grab their fishing rods and sprint for the nearest open water. However, while many are content to catch anything on a hook and line to shake off the winter doldrums, some spring anglers ignore the lakes, ponds, and reservoirs and head straight for moving water to fish with intent. Because as soon as the snow melts in rivers and streams across the country, massive spring fish migrations will be underway. These feeding and spawning fish offer anglers some of their earliest opportunities to hook up on their very first trip of the season, as long as they know what species they are after and how best to catch them.
During spring, thousands of striped bass move up the North Atlantic coast, flooding rivers from Massachusetts and Rhode Island all the way up to New York and Maine. These anadromous bass leave the salty waters of the Atlantic and head into the rivers pursuing spawning herring before eventually spawning themselves. Savvy spring striper anglers will crowd riverbanks and rocky shorelines and fill the length of the river with boats in hopes of getting a few of the big bass for the grill and the freezer. While these anglers will use a whole myriad of striper techniques, there are certain fishing methods that work better than others.
Shore anglers will have their best luck using bait with heavy spinning gear. To do this, bait a circle hook with either a live herring or chunks of cut bait. Add a heavy 1- to 4-ounce casting sinker to keep the bait from drifting in the current and then cast into any areas of slower current where migrating stripers are likely to pull over to rest. Let the bait sink to the bottom and then reel in any extra slack. Set the rod in a holder—or on a convenient rock or stick—and wait for a passing striper to inhale the bait.
If you’re fishing from a boat, you can fish in much the same way, but you may have better luck by either pulling anchor and drifting downstream with your bait dangling in the current or by trolling. Trolling for stripers is done by casting large, seven- to eight-inch jerk baits such as the Rapala, or large spoons like the Nichols Magnum off the back of the boat and letting them flutter and swim in the current as you hold them in place or slowly motor upriver. It can be a thrilling way to catch stripers, as the action of the lure usually results in some incredibly aggressive strikes.
One of the largest and most dramatic biological events in the natural world, the spring shad run is an overlooked and underrated fishing opportunity for many anglers. Between March and June, tens of thousands of these fish begin to push their way up rivers as far south as Florida all the way to Canada, creating some of the hottest fishing in the country. Though they are small, with the largest specimens weighing less than 8 pounds, these small members of the herring family can put up a hell of a fight on light spinning and fly-fishing tackle. Additionally, when they return in large numbers, they put a good bend in your rod from dawn to dusk.
In many states, shad fishing is a strictly catch-and-release endeavor as their low return numbers have caused many states to ban keeping the fish. However, should you be lucky enough to live in a place where it’s legal to bring home a cooler full of fish, you’re in for a hell of a meal. Shad are a fantastic eating fish with a light and delicate flavor, and their roe is also considered a true delicacy. However, cleaning them can be a challenge as they are filled with a lot of small bones. If you’re not up for eating them, you should still consider bringing home a few shad as they make great cut baits for other tasty fish such as catfish and stripers, and you can even use whole shad as dead baits for monster freshwater fish like muskie, pike, and even gar.
Catching shad consistently in rivers often means you need to get creative. The fish don’t feed once they begin their upstream migrations, but they can be tempted into thumping a variety of small attention-grabbing lures and flies. Shad Darts are a popular option with spin fishermen, but you can also have a lot of luck with small spoons like the Little Cleo and the Phoebe, and tiny inline spinners like the Panther Martin can be absolute shad slammers.
If you’re a fly angler, you can have a ball catching shad on a five-weight rod tipped with a small streamer like a Woolly Bugger or a Clouser Minnow, and you can even fish these flies in tandem with a nymph, like a Copper John or a Prince Nymph to increase your odds of hooking up.
Whether you consider them to be true steelhead or just big lake-run rainbows, there’s no denying that the adfluvial trout of the Great Lakes can be a hell of a lot of fun for both fly and spin anglers, and spring is one of the best times to catch them. Whether they’re post-spawn “drop back” fish returning to the lake from whence they came, or summer-run steelhead making their short spawning run, these normally reclusive fish become incredibly aggressive during the spring and will smash anything that moves.
As the spring run steelhead are more than happy to devour the eggs of their spawning brethren, both fly and spin anglers can catch a lot of fish by drifting eggs, beads, and egg flies through deep pockets and pools. This is done by either rigging a bobber or a strike indicator so that the egg will drift either right along or just above the bottom. Once your rig is set up, cast into the top of the pool and drift the egg on a slack line through the length of the pool, starting on the far edge and moving gradually closer until you’re drifting along the bow of the boat or along the bank.
If you’re a more active angler, you can have a lot of luck with spring steelhead by either casting and retrieving jerk baits and spinners through fast runs and rapids or by swinging streamers through longer, slightly slower runs. Swinging streamers is an especially popular method with fly anglers, especially when it’s done with a spey rod. To swing flies, cast down and across the river at roughly a 45-degree angle and then allow the fly to plane out and “swing” across the river until it comes to rest in the water directly below you. It’s a fantastic way to tie into the hard-fighting steelhead as they often chase the streamer halfway across the river before smashing into it at full steam.
While spring walleye can be caught in lakes and reservoirs across the country, they are especially fun to target in rivers. Straight after ice out, big egg-laden walleye will begin to push upstream to the base of dams, shallow tributaries, or otherwise unnavigable waters, making it the absolute best time for anglers to break the 10-pound mark and perhaps even land the walleye of a lifetime. The fish will move into areas of two to 10 feet of water, concentrating at bases of logjams, rock piles, and other underwater structures, before spreading out along long stretches of flat and slow-moving water that border the edges of deeper channels. This behavior offers a lot of easy opportunities for walleye anglers looking to either fill the freezer with walleye filets or tie into a true trophy.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to fishing for spring river walleye. Some anglers like to target the fish in boats rigged with electronics that allow them to see the fish laying in troughs and deep holes so they can move in over them. Other anglers prefer to “run and gun” from shore or by boat, where they are constantly moving and hitting likely walleye spots with more active fishing methods. Both approaches can be effective as long as the anglers are using the right fishing techniques.
If you prefer to sit over walleye in deeper holes and long runs, your best bet is to either jig or drift. Jigging is probably the more popular of the two methods as it can be done at a variety of different speeds and with a variety of different lures until you key in on exactly what the walleye are in the mood to eat. Your best bet is to use ⅛- to ⅜-ounce jig heads tipped with minnows, leeches, or soft plastics that you can drop down straight to the bottom and then gently bounce and twitch right in the walleye’s faces. Drifting minnows, worms, and other baits under bobbers can also be an effective option, especially when the fish are particularly sluggish in colder water. To do this, rig a bait under a bobber so that it drifts just above the bottom and then cast above where the walleye are laying to allow the bait to drift into them with the current.
Running and gunning is a great way to catch spring-run walleye from shore or from a boat when the fish are pushed up into the shallows. The best way to do this is by casting small, brightly colored jerk baits into riffles and slow runs behind visible structures or by swinging a Lindy Rigged worm in much the same way you would a fly. You can cast the worm rig out into the river and let it drift in the current until it comes to rest in the water directly below you or until it’s picked up by a passing walleye.
It’s well-known that spring-run Chinook (or “springers” as they’re affectionately known) are some of the hardest-fighting and best-tasting salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Traditionally thought of as an autumn-run fish, very few anglers capitalize on the first pulse of these anadromous fish that arrive in rivers between February and May. Though they still spawn in the fall like regular salmon, springers arrive early to accelerate the maturation of their eggs in the warmer waters of the river. This means they have a higher fat content than fall fish and a lot more energy, causing many anglers who hook into them to feel like they’ve tied into some sort of aquatic rhinoceros.
There are several methods for catching spring salmon, from drifting eggs to casting spinners, but there’s no doubt that the most efficient methods are downstream trolling and swinging streamers. Both methods play on the salmon’s aggressive nature, creating more bites, and both methods allow you to get a hit from a hardy spring chinook on a tightline, thrusting you right into the middle of the fight. To downstream troll, anchor your boat in a natural travel route for the salmon, such as along a deep bank or just above a narrow tail-out or rapid. Then cast a lure with a lot of swimming action, such as a Kwikfish or a Mag Lip, off the back of the boat where it can frantically swim in the current. After that, simply set the rod in a holder and wait for a big salmon to strike.
Swinging streamers for chinook salmon should always be done on heavy fly gear. The fish are incredibly powerful and can easily snap lines, leaders, and even the fly rods you use for trout and steelhead. Instead, beef up your setup by using an 8- to 10-weight rod and heavy 25- to 40-pound leaders. Spey rods are especially efficient for these salmon as the longer rods offer anglers a lot more leverage. As the salmon aren’t eating and simply strike out of aggression, you’ll also want to use the largest and gaudiest flies you can find, such as the Intruder and the Dolly Llama, which are sure to get the attention of these great silver brutes as they push their way upstream.
One of the hardest parts of being an angler is that the sport gets in our blood. We become accustomed to the gentle sounds of running water, the feel of sun on our faces, and the calm meditative rhythms of the river. However, for many of us, this isn’t an option for half of the year, and we’re faced with the ugly, gaping maw of winter.
But spring comes, and the trials of winter make it all the more special. No matter where you’re fishing or what you’re fishing for, spring fishing trips become less about the trip and more about a borderline hedonistic celebration of the outdoors. However, when we capitalize and concentrate on spring fish migrations, we also might catch a fish or two—but really that’s just icing on the cake.