Well, these certainly qualified as the right conditions.
A week ago air temperatures were in the 60s.
On this day, though, there was a bitter bite to the air. The wind blowing over the lake had crusted the snow inside the tree line so that it crunched underfoot.
That was nothing compared to the water, though.
Around the edges of this particular cove, it was still frozen along the bank. Retrieving a lure meant skittering it up over the ice those final few inches.
The bass were sure to be sluggish.
What to throw to whet their appetite?
One lure stands out at this time of year. From ice out through opening day of trout season and even to the beginning of the pre-spawn – any time water temperatures are below 50 degrees, really — jerkbaits can be just the thing to take fish.
They led to just one on this occasion, but over the next several weeks they’re primed to shine.
“That’s one of my favorite ways to catch bass in the spring,” said Brandon Palaniuk, a professional bass fisherman from Hayden, Idaho, who’s fished in six Bassmaster Classics.
“In that cold water, bass are really lethargic, especially in comparison to how they are the rest of the year. And their strike zone is much smaller as a result of that. They’re not going to chase something down.”
Jerkbaits are special now because they can hover in that zone until fish bite.
Generally speaking, they’re designed to suspend when cranked down, then wiggle and dance in place when twitched. A number of companies make them – Rapala, Strike King and Smithwick among them – with each offering actions a little different.
All mimic the shad, minnows and other baitfish that frequently die in large numbers with the onset of spring.
“Winterkill is the most common type of fish kill,” said Michigan Department of Natural Resources fish health expert Martha Wolgamood.
Fish, she said, can become easily stressed in winter. They have low energy reserves because feeding is at a minimum. That makes them less able to handle low oxygen and temperatures swings, she added.
Often, they perish in large numbers. Bass and other predatory fish instinctively take advantage of that without having to burn too much energy, said Jay Gillfillan, an FLW tournament angler from Ridgeway, Ohio.
Jerkbaits, with their tantalizing, sit-in-place motion, resemble those foundering fish and tease bass into striking.
“It’s like when you’re playing with a cat with a ball of yarn. It will look at it just sitting there for the longest time, but eventually, when you jerk it, now it has to have it,” Gillfillan said. “Bass are the same way.”
It takes patience to fish jerkbaits, though.
There’s no burning them through the water, especially early. The way to fish one is to get it to depth, then twitch it, with pauses in between.
“The colder it is, the slower I’m going to work it,” said Ott DeFoe, a Knoxville, Tenn., bass pro with more than $1 million in career earnings to his credit.
How slow? Palaniuk said he might wait 10 seconds between twitches.
DeFoe said can’t do that, but even he says the pause is the thing.
“A long pause for me is five seconds,” he said, “even in cold water. They’ve really got to tell me they want it slower than that.
“Otherwise, I’m just going to pause it more frequently.”
Whatever the pace, keep track of it, said Rod Bates of Koinonia Guide Service in Carlisle. He’ll repeat a cadence – twitch, twitch, three-second pause, twitch, twitch, three-second pause, for example – for five to 10 casts. If nothing happens, he changes things up, maybe going faster or slower.
Whenever he gets a bite, he remembers what he was doing when he got it.
“The reason you want to do know exactly what you were doing is what? So that you can replicate it,” Bates said.
It takes paying attention to successfully fish jerkbaits, too.
The bites they produce aren’t always the slashing, aggressive strikes that occur later in summer, Palaniuk said. That impacts his line choice.
Closer to the spawn, he’ll throw jerkbaits on fluorocarbon. Earlier in the season, though, in especially cold water, he goes with 10-pound monofilament because it floats.
That has two benefits, he said. First, it won’t pull his bait down on its way to the bottom. Secondly, it almost serves as a linear strike indicator.
“You’ll often see you line make a little tick on the water. I’ll see a little jerk or jolt on the surface, but never actually feel that bite,” he said. “That fish is just sucking that lure in.
“Being able to see the line move tells me to set the hook right away without waiting to feel the bite.”
Location is important, too.
On moving water, Bates throws jerkbaits where he finds what he calls “wintering holes.”
“That’s deeper water, with slack current, and food. If you find that, eureka, that’s the spot,” Bates said.
On still water, DeFoe seeks out windy, rocky areas of shallow water – maybe four to six feet deep – with deeper water nearby. Fish will move in and out of those shallows as water temperatures rise and fall, “looking for an easy meal,” he said.
A jerkbait won’t always convince them to bite. The swings, sometimes wild, in late winter/early spring water temperatures can play havoc with fish movement and feeding, he said.
But when things are right, jerkbaits produce, he added.
“You’ve got to take it one day at a time and take advantage of that good day when it presents itself,” DeFoe said.
Train your line for success
It happens every spring. You take your fishing rod out, make the first cast of the season, and your line – rather than being straight – is one series of loops after another.
Monofilament especially will “remember” being spooled on your reel and take on that shape. That can limit how far you cast and how accurately.
You can re-spool, of course. Or you can retrain your line. Pull off a bunch – 40 yards if you typically cast 30 – and spray it with a line conditioner. Real Magic is one brand, but there are others.
Next, stretch the line. Tie the end off to something and back up until you can pull it tight.
The conditioner will make the line supple and the stretching of it will take the loops out.