Smallmouths by the CalendarSmallmouths by the Calendar In early spring in the north, with water temperatures still cold where do you start looking? Find out inside!
By Mike Gnatkowski
Bass anglers in the Great White North can’t wait to get on the water once the ice melts. The question is with water temperatures still ice cold where do you start looking? It depends on the body of water. The wide expanses of the Great Lakes are slow to warm.
Smallies could still be in their deep winter haunts when you first get on the water or they could be inching towards where they will spawn in a month or two and will stop to forage somewhere in between. Bass in large rivers may migrate far downstream from where they’ll spend the warmer months in slow-moving holes in the lower portion of the river. Smallies in natural lakes and reservoirs could still be in deep water and winter haunts. Or not.
On larger natural lakes and reservoirs smallmouths will be headed to the shallows to find warmer temperatures and forage as soon as things start to warm up in April. At what point they are in the transition is the million-dollar question. The best you can do is play the wind and hope it stacks warmer surface water against the shoreline. A south blow and bright sunshine can quickly warm the shallows of a south-facing shoreline and beckon to frostbitten bass. The idea is to start shallow, but if you don’t find what you’re looking for don’t be afraid to go to where you last fished in the fall.
Just how important sunshine can be was illustrated on a trip my son Matt and I made with guide Dave Rose a few years ago. We were targeting bass on some northern Michigan lakes in late spring. This part of Michigan has dozens of clear lakes that have great habitat for smallies and are known for producing big catches.
We got on the water fairly early and headed to one of Rose’s favorite smallmouth waters. After several hours of fishing produced only one small walleye, we loaded to boat up and headed to another lake that was a short distance away. We continued to probe rocky structure; drop-offs and main lake points that you just knew had to hold bass. By now it was mid-afternoon and we were still drawing a blank.
Rose pointed the boat toward shore reasoning that if the bass weren’t deep they might be shallow. There wasn’t any real reason for the bass to be there. The water was crystal clear on the flats with shallow, barren, undulating sand for 200 yards to the shoreline with only the occasional log for cover. What did happen though was the temperature gauge slowly inched up 56 degrees, two degrees warmer than anywhere else we’d fished that day. The dark logs likely absorbed even more heat from the spring sunshine.
Rose moved us along with his trolling motor as we cast to the visible logs. Thinking I might be hallucinating, I thought I could make out a shadow near one of the logs. I cast my tube jig towards the log and the “shadow” zoomed over and ate it. We caught a dozen bass before we quit by working the warmer flats and looking for isolated logs and cruising smallies. Water temperature is critical anytime you’re searching for spring smallmouths. The warmer the better until the spawn is done.
Intense spring sunshine can quickly warm shallow water and wind can amplify the results. Warm water is less dense than cold water and is more easily moved. South–facing bays are the place to begin your search on any lake, especially if you’ve had several days of sunshine and strong south winds. Warm surface water will pile up in the bays attracting both bass and baitfish.
Crayfish will venture out of hiding too to forage in the tepid water. The scenario is even better if spawning habitat can be found a short distance away. A strong north wind will undo everything. The warm water will be pushing out deep and cold water will come into replace it. The best thing to do then is to head deeper to the first drop-off and structure and slow down your presentation. The once aggressive bass will now be tight-lipped.
Smallmouths in moving water are not above traveling to find the right conditions. Smallmouth are more migratory than many people think. Studies done at Waugoshance Point in Michigan showed that some bass migrated over 90 miles to find suitable habitat. Bass in rivers will migrate downstream to find slow, deep pools where they can spend the cold months in a state of winter torpor. The ideal habitat has boulders, ledges and rocks where bass can get out of the current. Habitat like this is ideal for winter quarters, but is not suitable for spawning so as spring approaches bass move upstream to find small rocks, cobble and gravel where they can spawn successfully.
In between, bass put on the feedbag. Smallies gulp anything they can catch on their upstream migration to build up energy for the spawn. Anglers can take advantage of this heightened level of activity if they can locate where the bass are in their journey. Sometimes it takes some searching. If the water is high, bass will hug the edges taking the path of least resistance. Many times anglers who target smaller streams for bass will have poor luck early in the season. That’s because the bass aren’t there! It’s no coincidence that stream fishing for smallmouths is best during the heat of summer. Often that’s when the bass have finally made it back to their summer habitat after spending the cold months downstream in deeper pools.
I learned about the effects of wind and catching fish on the Great Lakes being a charter boat captain for 25 years. Although I was chasing trout and salmon then, the effects of wind and how it determines fish location on the Great Lakes is no different for smallmouth bass.
An on-shore wind is going to cause warmer surface water to stack up on the windward sides of points, islands and shoals and in shallow bays. The key is the difference in temperature. It might be the change between 38 and 42 degrees or 48 and 52, but the difference is what that attracts cold-blooded fish. If the wind is sustained for several days, the change in temperature will be even greater and the fishing is likely to be surreal. In spring, you need to rely as much on your temperature gauge as your depth finder, especially on the Great Lakes.
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