Finesse the Grass
In fair spring weather, it's not difficult to catch bass by working spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits, and Texas-rigged worms over and through submerged grass. Fishing pressure or a cold front can shut down such a bite quickly, though, and when that happens, it's time to switch to a finesse split-shot rig. Pinch a 3/16-ounce Water Gremlin Bull Shot to 8-pound-test monofilament 24 inches in front of a 4-inch worm Texas-rigged on a light-wire 2/O offset worm hook. The Bull Shot is pointed on one end and won't catch on grass as a round split shot will. Slowly drag the rig 2 feet at a time through holes in the grass, past clumps, and along the edges. Pause three or four seconds between pulls. When the line moves off, set the hook. —M.H.
MAKE THEM SEE DOUBLE
A soft-plastic jerkbait twitched just below the surface is usually deadly on shallow spring largemouths. If bass aren't taking, though, rig a pair with a three-way swivel and imitate a school of baitfish darting and skipping to escape from predators below. Even jaded old-timer bass that have seen scores of lures will often fall for this dual presentation, and the extra weight will let you make longer casts and cover more water.
Attach a three-way swivel to the main line and tie in two leaders: one 8 to 12 inches, the other 18 to 24 inches. The long leader can be the same pound-test as your main line; make the shorter one somewhat heavier so that they won't wrap around each other. Tie a Fluke or other soft-plastic jerkbait to each leader. Cast carefully, lobbing the rig instead of snapping it, to avoid tangles. Work the baits back with erratic twitches, pauses, and jerks to imitate a pair of wounded, struggling shad. Probe points, brushpiles, weeds, shoals, and blowdowns.
It's deadly on smallmouths, too. A friend took a pair of 5-pounders on this rig at the same time on one unforgettable trip. —G.A.
Float a Fly
Bass often suspend and become difficult to catch when the water temperature drops below 50 degrees. In clear lakes, the float-and-fly combination often fools bass at such times, and it's easy to use. Simply clip a 1-inch round bobber to 6-pound monofilament 8 to 15 feet above a 1/8-ounce jig tied with acrylic hair, which has a lot of movement underwater. The jig should hang at a depth 2 feet above any suspended bass your depth-finder marks along steep rock or clay banks. Cast the rig with a limber 8- to 10-foot spinning rod. A choppy surface imparts all the action that's needed. On flat water, occasionally shake the bobber. When a bass takes, you'll know it immediately. —M.H.
FISH THE JUNK
Junk fishing is a focused method of casting to any visible cover that might hold a bass. It's often the best approach for anglers who have limited time because there's no need to study lake maps or read sonar screens. The key is rigging several outfits beforehand:
Texas-rigged 6-inch worm matched with a 3/0 hook and a 3/16-ounce bullet sinker. Go with gourd green and 10-pound monofilament in clear water; junebug and 15-pound-test in stained. Skip the worm under docks, slither it through aquatic vegetation, and hop it over limbs and brushpiles.
Chartreuse-and-white 3/8-ounce spinnerbait with a nickel No. 3 Colorado blade in front of a gold No. 4 ½ willowleaf. Use a medium-heavy baitcasting outfit with 15- to 20-pound line. Run it over and along the edges of grassbeds, through bulrushes and lily pads, parallel to rocky banks, and next to stumps.
White 3/8-ounce buzzbait with a basic aluminum blade. Use the same rod and line as above. Retrieve it over grassbeds and next to wood cover.
Black-and-blue ½-ounce jig-and-pig. Match it with a flipping rod and 25-pound-test line to dig bass out of gnarled root systems, thick windfalls, and flooded bushes. Also punch the jig through grass mats. In cold water, hop it down steep, rocky banks.
Chartreuse- or shad-pattern, shallow-running, square-billed crankbait. Use 12-pound line with a medium-weight fiber-glass rod. Bounce it over boulders and gravel on rocky banks, and run it into any stumps and snags you can find on shallow flats.
Black snagless frog. Twitch it over lily pads and any type of matted vegetation, such as milfoil and hydrilla. Go with at least 30-pound braided line on a flipping rod because bass will pull the frog down into the weeds. —M.H.
LONG-LINE A SMALLMOUTH
If you want to catch the biggest smallmouth of your life, tackle them like lake trout. That is, target the first month of open water (the time of prespawn feeding for smallmouths), buy the biggest shiners you can find—6 inches is about right—and set up on a shoreline that offers access to deep water (25 to 40 feet) and proximity to a spawning bay. Use a ½-ounce slip sinker rigged with a stop swivel, a 2-foot leader, and a No. 2 hook (go with a circle hook if you'll be releasing fish). Bring lunch and maybe a pocket camera, too. You won't land many fish, but the ones you do will be worth remembering. —W.R.
Bounce a Crankbait
If bass are in a funk, try using a crankbait designed to run deeper than the water you're fishing. If it's 8 feet deep, for instance, choose a plug meant for 10 to 15 feet. It will plow right into bottom debris, kicking up leaves and sticks and bouncing off rocks and rubble like a startled crayfish, often triggering bass into striking.
Cast past the area where you expect fish to be, so you can get the lure to the bottom before you reach the cover. Hold the rod tip low and reel fast and steadily until you hit muck or rocks, then work the bait back in a stop-and-go, staccato fashion—reel a few turns, then pause; reel one turn, then pause again, acting like a crayfish trying to escape a predator. Yes, you'll hang up occasionally, but it's worth it for a live well full of jumbo bass. —G.A.
Go Spring Tubing
Prespawn smallmouths are sluggish but won't pass up a slow-moving minnow, which a shad-colored tube jig (silver flecked for clear water, gold for tannin-stained) imitates perfectly. The trick is to drift over 15- to 30-foot depths and cast as light a jighead as possible (1/8 to 1/32 ounce) ahead of the boat. Because it sinks so slowly, the tube extends the vertical presentation, remaining visible longer and increasing its chances of catching the eye of a hungry bass. —W.R.
Inch a Midge in Still Water
Abundant in virtually all lakes, chironomids, or midges, are one of the first insects to get up and moving in the spring. Neither strong nor fast swimmers, midge pupae make an easy target, even for lethargic trout in cold water. This long-leader technique matches up well to the pace of both predator and prey.
Rig a floating line with a 14- to 20-foot leader (the deeper the water, the longer the leader). Tie on a midge pupa pattern such as a Thread Midge, Disco Midge, or a small beadhead midge. Cast out in water from 4 to 10 feet deep, and count the fly down for 20 seconds. Then begin an agonizingly slow retrieve—just barely inch the fly along. Takes are subtle. Should the tip of the fly line so much as pause or twitch, give it the gas. If you snag or pick up weeds, reduce the sink count on the next cast; if you don't, increase the count. It's a painstaking but deadly technique. —T.L.
Go Downtown for Big Browns
When big brown trout in streams swing at sizable streamers, they often miss. For a second chance, don't cast back at the boil. Instead, cast 5 or 10 yards down-stream of where you saw the fish. Why? The trout is going to look for the lost bit of forage where the flow would naturally carry it. Think about it: Dazed prey that's under attack isn't going to swim against the current. —D.S.
GET THE ANGLE ON DEEP FISH
In the high water of spring, deep pools become even deeper, and getting your fly to the bottom is vital because that's where the trout hold. "Right-angle" nymphing can help you reach them.
Use a floating line, and cut the leader back to 3 feet. Cut a 2-inch strand of brightly colored polypropylene yarn about as thick as a pencil. Clinch-knot the leader to the center of the yarn. Fold the ends of the latter together and comb them into a single tuft for an indicator. Then clinch-knot a 4- to 8-foot length of light tippet material around the leader, directly above the point where you secured the yarn. Pull the tippet to seat the two knots tightly together; it should now be positioned at a right angle to the leader. Dress the indicator with floatant. Tie on a nymph and pinch on enough split shot 18 inches above the fly to get the rig down without sinking the indicator.
Lob the fly quartering upstream and fish it back on a dead drift. The light tippet sinks rapidly; the right-angle configuration puts the fly directly under the indicator, maximizing depth and improving strike detection. —T.L.
CZECH YOUR NYMPHS
The "Czech nymphing" method is superbly suited to spring streams, when swift currents and high, turbid water push trout into the banks and down to the bottom. Fishing weighted flies on a short line puts them in the money water fast, and close-range presentations to the bankside zone eliminate the need to wade in difficult early-season conditions.
Your leader should be about a rod length long, rigged with a point fly and two droppers, each separated by 20 inches. All should be weighted, with the heaviest fly in the middle (or closest to the rod if using two flies). With 3 to 6 feet of line outside the rod tip, lob the flies upstream and a rod length out. Keep an almost-tight line and lead the flies downstream with the rod tip, letting them sweep and tumble over the bottom. Watch the line where it meets the water, and set the hook at the slightest hesitation or sideways movement.
When the line straightens out downstream, you're ready for another cast. —T.L.
Troll the Track
It's one thing to read a trout stream, quite another to read a pond. The best advice I ever heard on the subject came from Maine guide Dan Legere, who told me the trick is to troll so that you can look over one side of your boat and see nothing, and look over the other side and see bottom. Ever since, I have made it a point to follow that strip of water around ice-out ponds and have found that good numbers of hungry trout seem to be on the same track. —W.R.
Rob a Bank
The biggest holdover trout in your local river is probably a brown trout finning in the quiet water beneath a sunny, brushy undercut bank. To take your best shot at these fish, approach quietly and jig slowly right below your feet. In clear water, use an inch-long spoon such as a Little Cleo. Let it flutter all the way to the bottom, but keep the bail closed and be ready for a sideways motion in the line: Most strikes will occur on the drop. In cloudy water, nothing beats a nightcrawler, which you don't want to jig so much as lift and drop. —W.R.
Get the Lead Out
Want to troll a small, shad-style walleye crankbait where the sun doesn't shine? Lead in the line, not on it, is the answer. A tool for trout since at least the 1930s, lead-core line is emerging in walleye circles as the ticket for trolling at greater depths with far less line than you'd need with buoyant, elastic monofilament. How so? A color-coded Dacron sheath—a different shade every 10 yards—is wrapped around a lead core, allowing you to put your lure at precise depths. The product comes in 18- and 27-pound-test from sources such as Cortland, Bass Pro Shops, and Cabela's. Although either weight will work, the 18 is plenty to reach about 5 feet per color, regardless of crankbait style.
Set up for trolling upstream in rivers by connecting a small swivel to the lead-core, then a Fireline leader (its strength and toughness helps resist snags and debris) no longer than your rod, which should have some flex to make up for the lack of stretch in the line and leader. Get up to trolling speed (say, between 1.8 and 3.5 mph) and pay out enough to tick bottom, not punish it. Walleyes don't respond well to bottom-bashing lures. —D.S.
Drop an Ice Jig
The small spoons normally used for ice fishing are equally adept at catching walleyes when the water is soft. The 3/8-ounce Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon is perfect for pitching to weed edges, where its speed, snap, and sound awaken walleyes better than slower, more tedious baits that also get robbed by pesky panfish. The size is perfect, too, for mimicking juvenile perch that are the targets of both their cannibalistic brethren and hungry walleyes.
Here's another approach: If your sonar marks fish in deeper water, you can drop a spoon straight under the boat, right on them, working the spoon vertically, lifting and dropping as if you really were ice fishing.
Additional ice-fishing lures with crossover appeal are the Jigging Rapala and the Nils Master Jigging Shad, particularly for vertical jigging in rivers. To unite a killer mix of artificial and live bait—giving a larger, bulkier target in turbid waters—hook a minnow in the head on the middle treble, adding a treble stinger if strikes are short, and drop it to the bottom. Lift it up 6 to 12 inches and start shaking. —D.S.
FLOAT A LEECH
A live, wriggling leech rigged on a fine leader is often the temptation to which fastidious walleyes will fall. Nearly invisible fluorocarbon line is perfect for this approach except for one fault: It sinks, thereby waylaying the leech to the bottom instead of letting it levitate a touch, up in the fish's face. The solution is fly floatant, the slippery stuff otherwise slathered on a dry fly to keep it from submerging. Take the felt pad that comes with the floatant and rub the length of a 4- to 8-pound fluorocarbon leader, below a walking sinker and swivel, to provide the lift that puts the leech right in front of fish. —D.S.
Add a Red Hook
Run one walleye crankbait with a red hook, another with a plain one, and the results are uncanny: You'll catch more fish—maybe two or three times as many—with the dash of flash. Red hooks are potent replacements for a lure's front treble; not coincidentally, more fish are caught toward the head of the bait, which yields better hookups. These aggressive strikes, biologists say, can be attributed to the impression of blood. For the hint of a tail, remove the original tail treble, add another split ring, and slip a red ringer on the rear. The visual cue is especially helpful on dingy rivers. —D.S.
WORK THE TIGHT LINE
Everyone knows how to catch crappies when the fish are spawning and conditions are right. Cast out a lip-hooked minnow; crawl a jig through the brush. Bang! Fish on. But before the spawn, or when a cold front blows through, the fishing suddenly gets tougher. This is when tight-lining pays off.
This system puts the weight below the bait, so you can detect even the lightest bites. It also lets you maintain contact with the lake floor as well as with brushpiles and deep flooded timber, where crappies hang out before the spawn and during cold snaps.
Use a long rod (a cane pole, fly rod, or spinning rig will do) and 8- to 14-pound line. Attach a 1- to 2-ounce bell sinker, then tie off size 2 to 1/0 fine-wire gold hooks 18 and 36 inches above that on droppers. You can choose three-way swivels for this, tie dropper loops in the line, or simply go with snelled hooks. Hook 1 ½- to 2-inch shiners through the back or the lip, then drift or slowly troll over points, cove mouths, brush, and other likely crappie staging areas in depths of 8 to 20 feet. Feed extra line as the water deepens to constantly bump the bottom or nudge the brush, but raise the rig if the water becomes shallower to keep the shiners directly beneath the boat. When a fish strikes, simply snap your wrist up to set the hook. —G.A.
Quiver a Jig
Jigs are normally cast and retrieved or vertically jigged with an up-and-down motion. To catch the biggest, wariest crappies, though, sometimes you need to do less.
Using a 9-foot fly rod or a long, light spinning rod and 6- to 10-pound-test line, reach out and plop a 1/32-to 1/8-ounce soft-plastic grub or chenille-and-marabou jig down next to a brushpile, blowdown, dock piling, or bridge abutment where crappies likely would be schooled up in early spring. Hold your arm out with the rod extended so that the lure hovers directly below it next to the cover, and maintain this position. Don't jig it, twitch it, or swim it.
You may think you're keeping it still, but the natural movement of your arm and hand will impart a tremble to the jig. That's just enough to mimic the gentle rotation of a minnow's pectoral fins. It's realistic and deadly. Big crappies in particular find this subtle motion hard to resist.
Strikes may come almost instantly, or up to a few minutes after you lower the jig. When your patience wears out, swim the lure around to the other side of the tree or brush, hold it still there for another minute, and then head to the next blowdown, dock piling, or bridge abutment. —G.A.
THROW THE FAST PITCH
You can catch more crappies by playing fast-pitch than other anglers do by dangling live bait from multiple rods. A 10-foot Zebco Slab Seeker rod with a light spinning reel filled with 8-pound-test monofilament makes an ideal pitching outfit. Match it with a 1/8-ounce Crappie Pro jig dressed with a 2-inch Yum Wooly Beavertail in Carolina pumpkin-and-chartreuse or black-and-pink. Hold the rod straight up and let out about 11 feet of line. Then execute an underhand pitch to fallen trees, bushes, stumps, and brushpiles. With practice, you'll be able to drop the jig precisely where you want it. Suspend it at whatever depth the crappies are holding (from 1 to 11 feet) by raising or lowering the rod tip. If you don't get a bite in 10 to 15 seconds, pitch to the next target. The method is fast, efficient, and deadly. Crappie guide and tournament angler Todd Huckabee refined this tactic on Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma, and scores with it everywhere he goes. —M.H.
Give It a Squeeze
Puny panfish tubes are just that—puny—and typically lack the heft for getting much below the surface, let alone for casting. But sometimes, they're all that crappies will take. To counteract the plastic's buoyancy and bulk up the minuscule jighead (1/32 ounce, for instance), squeeze a split shot on the hook shank before sliding on the tube. The jig will fall better, and you'll have a much straighter and more sensitive connection than you would if the shot were directly on the line. —M.H.
Spin the Bays
After ice-out spawning, northern pike hunt shallow, warming bays for baitfish and panfish, which are about to begin their own spawn. In-line spinners make the best lures because they cover the greatest area. Use silver and white in clear water, gold and yellow in stained. Keep the spinners light, 1/3 ounce or less. Otherwise, you'll have to reel too fast to keep them off the 5- to 10-foot bottom. With 6-pound-test and a light-action rod, you can cast them into the next zip code—and enjoy a white-knuckled fight from each pike you hook. —W.R.
SWEEP A JIG
As ambush predators, pike remain ever alert for vulnerable prey. This is reflected in their penchant for biting off the hooked perch you had pegged for the frying pan. You can capitalize on this tendency by using a jig, which closely imitates the falling-righting struggle of injured baitfish. Work the lure with a sweeping motion and use bright colors, active materials (marabou and flashabou, if possible) and an enticing trailer—a plastic worm with a flutter tail, twin twist-tail grubs, or best of all a freshly killed shiner or a 5-inch slab of meat from the side of a sucker or panfish. You may find, as I have, that these jig combos work best on days when other presentations come up empty. —W.R.
Jerk a Pike
Most anglers pitch spoons and large spinners at pike, but sometimes—especially in the cold waters of spring—even these normally aggressive fish are too sluggish to chase a lure. Slower presentations can be the ticket for catching early-season northerns that aren't in mangle mode. A jerkbait is the perfect solution. Soft-bodied jerks like the Dave's Super Shad can be slid, stopped, twitched, and noodled past a moody pike. The erratic action of a jerkbait suggests a wounded baitfish and can make a northern go postal. Use brightly colored (red, yellow, silver, perch), non-weighted lures in the 6- to 8-inch range. —S.B.
Fish the Dark Water
Northern pike love weedbeds, but on many springtime waters, weeds can be tough to find. In the absence of vegetation or structure, pike will often use dark, or stained, water for camouflage as they wait to ambush baitfish. Not only do such areas hold nice northerns—fishermen frequently ignore them.
Perhaps the best place to find stained water is a river mouth. Clouded by spring runoff, the water of an entry stream also creates a dropoff that provides depth and concentrates bait-fish. Another hotspot is a shallow, mud-bottomed bay, especially one on a lake's northern shore. Because these south-facing waters receive more spring sunlight, they warm quickly, attracting minnows and other forage species.
Anchor well off the mud line (the visible mark where clear and stained water meet). With no structure to hide them, pike are wary of boat noise and angler silhouettes. —S.B.