Sure, it’s trout season. The stocking trucks are still rolling in many states, so don’t overlook opportunities to seek those fish.
But don’t forget about smallmouth bass, either.
The truth is, some of the best fishing for the biggest fish is about to happen.
The pre-spawn for smallies – that period before they start laying eggs to create the next generation of fish – starts as soon as water temperatures reach the 40-degree range. It’s a great time to prospect for fish.
“That’s when you really want to start targeting these big bass. Because the fish are going to start getting more aggressive as that water warms up,” said Travis Manson, a Conshohocken, Pa.-based guide and tournament series angler who leads trips on the Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake Bay and through upstate New York.
The longer spring goes, the better the fishing gets, too.
Pre-spawn smallmouth bass are fun to catch.
Nest building really takes off when water temperatures hit 55 or so, Manson said, with conditions becoming absolutely ideal when the water is 60 to 62 degrees. The spawn rolls on and on thereafter in waves.
“Bass don’t spawn all at once,” Manson said. “That activity continues in cycles through mid- to late May, even into early June.”
Indeed, according to Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission records, two of the five largest smallmouths reported in Pennsylvania in 2017 were caught between the third week of April and second week of June.
Eleven of the top 30 smallmouths reported since 2012 were landed between April and mid-June, in fact.
Manson seeks those springtime smallmouths first just off potential spawning areas. He defines those as areas of four to 10 feet of water with hard bottoms.
“So boulders, gravel, anything like that. I’ve also seen smallies use wood, though,” he said.
He looks for such places on maps. Bays, coves and other areas that suggest they may offer hard bottom flats then get a follow-up visit.
He marks all those that produce, as they tend to hold fish year after year, he said.
In the early going, fish stage on the edges of such places, in deeper water, around breaks, humps and points. They move shallower as the water warms up.
He’s got a variety of techniques for catching them.
His go-to presentation – the one he uses 80 percent of the time – is the drop shot.
“It allows you to present your bait in a way that gives the fish a different look,” he said.
He puts a 1/32- to 1-ounce weight – the size determined by wind and current and other conditions – on 5-pound braided line, with a two foot, 6- to 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. Attached to that is a size 1 or 2 Gamakatsu hook.
He baits those with soft plastics in natural colors: green pumpkin, black, maybe a goby pattern if those baitfish are around.
Then, he slows down. Less is more in terms of imparting action.
“There are times I’ll leave it sit there, up to a minute or so. But most of the time, I cast it out and if I don’t get a bite right away, I’ll bring it in a little bit, drop it down again, bring it in,” he said.
He covers some water, but often using only his trolling motor or even just by drifting with the wind.
When not drop shotting, Manson often fishes tubes. He likes ones a little smaller than many anglers use, something about 2.5 inches long, again in natural colors. He pairs them with a 1/8- to 1-ounce jighead.
“I try to go with the lightest weight I can get away with,” he noted.
He works them in areas with a “clean bottom.”
“What I mean by that is, you’re sometimes going to run into algae and different stuff on the bottom, on these rocks. And the fish really don’t utilize that as often as they would a clean bottom,” Manson said.
He casts his tubes, then drags them back slowly, always in contact with that bottom.
That leads to snags on occasion, he said. But that’s OK.
Again, fishing braid with a fluorocarbon leader, he’s often able to free his tube by giving the line a quick snap. The lure popping free that way – with a sudden burst or jump – often triggers reaction strikes from smallmouths.
“I actually look forward to getting snagged because of that,” Manson said.
The third tool in his arsenal is the marabou jig.
Hair jigs work all year long, he said. But they really shine in the early season, that pre-spawn period when the water hits the 50s.
“It works great for those conditions,” he said.
He prefers smaller jigs, say 1/16- to 1/8-ounce. They’re hard to cast far, especially on the medium-light rod and a reel spooled with 5-pound braid, he admitted
That means it’s not a great search bait. You just can’t cover a lot of water in a hurry with a hair jig.
They work best when worked slowly, too.
But if Manson spots fish – sight fishing in a way that’s almost like hunting – they can really produce.
He casts them out, often leaving them sit perfectly still for a period of time. That gives the lure time to do its thing.
“That marabou is going to just kind of, in the underwater current, have enough movement to attract the curiosity of fish. And they’ll often strike,” he said.
“It drives fish nuts. It’s a technique that works on a very consistent basis.”
However you do it, though, now is the time to start chasing big smallies. The game’s started and it’s going to get even hotter soon.
Catch and release of pre-spawn smallmouth bass
The first thing to do when it comes to pre-spawn bass is to determine whether it’s legal to fish for them. Some states prohibit targeting bass during the spawn. Others allow it, but on a strict catch and release basis.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the bass harvest season closed on April 13. It doesn’t re-open until June 16.
So how to turn loose all bass caught between now and then, in a way that means they’ll actually survive?
Keep these tips in mind.
- Release fish as quickly as possible. That means playing them quickly.
- Keep them in the water while removing hooks if possible. That decreases the chances of injury and minimizes stress.
- If you must net a fish, rubber nets are preferable to fiber ones, as they remove less of the protective slime on fish. Wet any net before using it.
- Likewise, if you must handle a fish, wet your hands in advance.
- Use barbless hooks or pinch down the barbs on hooks. They’ll be easier to remove quickly.
- If you’re baitfishing, and a bass swallows the hook, cut your line rather than try to wrench it out. The hook will dissolve in time.
- Finally, when returning fish to the water, hold them upright until they regain equilibrium and are able to swim away on their own.