20 Hunting and Fishing Skills to Master This Spring

Experts reveal their best hunting and fishing tips, go-to gear, and hidden hotspots

spring fun
Twenty hunting and fishing skills and tips to help you have your best spring ever.Tim Tomkinson

Spring—finally. After a long winter, we could all use some adventure. And right now, there's no shortage of fun reasons to get outside: The ice has thawed and fish are biting, gobblers are strutting, black bears are moving, and morels are popping up like mad. The 20 hunting and fishing skills and tips collected here will help you have your best spring ever

Sure, there’s something to be said for kicking back on a warm beach for a few days. But there’s a lot more to be said for setting the hook into a fat trout, having a lovesick tom gobble at you, or hunting hogs in the dark. With that in mind, here’s your guide to the ultimate spring break.

Stalk a Trophy Bruin

stalking bruin
Black bears are hyper-focused on food in early spring.Tim Tomkinson

Going eye to eye with an apex predator is a thrilling spring hunt—one that spikes to a spine-tingling level when you face a bruin with nothing but a bow in your hands.

Hit the Buffet Black bears have a single-minded focus in spring: food. After hibernation, they spend most of the morning and afternoon feeding. To narrow down a bear's preferred food, keep an eye out for fresh scat. If it's green and yellow, focus on areas with new grass and wildflowers. Darker, blue- or scarlet-colored scat means a bear has found remnants of last year's berry crop.

Search the Slopes The forbs and flowers that bears feast on appear first on south-facing hillsides. Find a spot where you can glass meadows and other large openings in the forest.

Walk Softly A bear's nose is at least as good as a deer's, so pay close attention to the wind. A bear also hears extremely well. Creep quietly during those last few yards. Any errant sound is apt to bring a curious bear, especially a dominant male, in to investigate. Be ready to shoot.

Carry a Sharp Stick Bears are tough animals—and especially dangerous if wounded—so select your shot angles carefully and ensure your broadheads are razor sharp. Fur soaks up a lot of liquid. If you don't find evidence of a hit right away, keep looking. Blood may not appear for 100 yards or more. —D.D.

Stage a Stocker-Trout Attack

stocked trout
Stockapalooza: ­Anglers line up to fish a trout-park hole.Barry & Cathy Beck

For many, opening day of trout season marks the unofficial end of winter. Everyone has their own ritual, from stocking up on their favorite color of salmon eggs, to meeting for breakfast at the same diner. Some guys thrive on the opening-weekend competition when crowds are at their peak, whereas others prefer to attack well after that onrush. No matter where you stand, these tricks will help you make the most of those first three weeks of stocker season.

Opening Weekend That big hole by the bridge is teeming with fresh stockers, and when the starting bell rings, the wall of anglers circling it will unleash hell. If you insist on joining their ranks, lock up a spot at the bottom of the hole. Yes, the top and middle of the run might hold more fish initially, but some of the trout here will get spooked by the barrage of spinners and split shot and anglers splashing around. When the rest of the fish scatter, they're likelier to slide downstream rather than push up. And you'll be there, ready for that wary breeder that hasn't eaten yet.

Second Weekend Crowds often thin out just one week after opening day. Assume any trout that survived the first few days have gotten even more cautious, especially if they've been released a time or two. Rather than target that bridge hole with the same dough baits and in-lines the fish have seen all week, give them a real meal: Tie on a 5- or 6-inch stickbait and work the hole from top to bottom slowly and methodically, varying pause length and jerk speed. There's a chance the monster that's broken off several bait guys will bite, and it won't shake that big lure easily.

Third Weekend By now the trout have had plenty of time to move around, so leave the community holes. It doesn't take much more than a slight depression behind a boulder or along the far bank to hold fish, and it's these spots that many anglers will skip on their way to big holes. The trout holding in these spots are now feeding more like wild fish, so give them a moving target and prospect with a spinner or small jerkbait before drifting eggs and dough. —J.C.

Rattle in a Monster Muskie

Muskies are famous for their stubbornness, and in the early season, as the fish move through spawning stages, they take that trait to a new—​and often frustrating—​level. Although muskies may not be feeding heavily while they’re spawning, there is something about a rattle­bait burning through skinny water that these fish can’t resist. (Note: Some states have spring closures where muskies naturally reproduce. Check regulations first.)

You'll need a muskie rod with a medium or medium-heavy action that handles 3⁄4- to 3-ounce lures. The baits you'll be throwing are small, so the muskie broomstick isn't necessary. Reels should be strong and fast, taking in a minimum of 30 inches per crank. Spool with 65-pound braid and a 100-pound fluorocarbon leader. There are several choice rattlebait options, but the Bill Lewis Supertrap is a killer. Focus on shallow, warm cover near deeper water. Make long casts, engage the reel the second the lure hits the ­water, and start cranking. You'll know when you have a fish. —M.M.

Beat Those Spring Blues

spring blue catfish
Blue cats will move toward warmer ­water for the spawn.Tim Tomkinson

➞ For a good chunk of the year, catching blue catfish involves probing the deepest holes in a river system. Like many other species, however, they take note of rising water temperatures in spring. Blue cats will move toward warmer ­water and binge-eat in prepa­ra­tion for the ensuing spawn. There is no better time of the year to fish for them.

Instead of anchoring over deep water in spring, execute drift tactics that allow you to probe the bank and skinny water—anywhere from 2 to 10 feet. First, use your temperature gauge and electronics to identify shallow mudflats with the warmest water. Structure like downed trees, rockpiles, and brush are hotspots. After you’ve chosen a stretch of river you want to fish, head upstream and begin your drift, keeping the boat casting distance from the shore.

A slip-float rig is the best way to fish shallow water effectively. Tie a 4/0, or larger, circle hook on a stout leader and adjust the float according to depth. Fresh cut bait such as gizzard shad, herring, or menhaden will get the most bites. Cast your rig upstream, as it will drift faster than the boat. Pay particular attention to structure; the slip-float will allow your bait to remain free of snags. After the float drifts a short distance past the boat, retrieve and repeat. When you see it go down, reel tight, refrain from setting the hook, and get ready for battle. —M.M.

Discover Buried Treasure

spring morel
A hefty spring morel.Tim Tomkinson

x Mother Nature’s kitchen is stocked with delicacies each spring. Here’s where to find three easy-to-spot wild foods.

Morels: This fungus pops when overnight temps settle above 40 degrees. A short shower followed by a sunny day is prime time to concentrate on well-drained ground around dead and dying elm, ash, and apple trees.

Ramps: Look for their bright green tops emerging from sandy soil alongside streams and shady hillsides. A big patch of ramps will reek of garlic and onions.

Dandelions: Great for everything from salad greens to wine. Skip the backyard dandelions where chemicals are likely present. Pick them in the wild at first bloom. —D.D.

Feed Trout an M&M

mealworm fishing
Mealworm and marshmallow.Tim Tomkinson

x The M&M, which stands for mealworm and marshmallow, is a deadly combination for stubborn coldwater trout, particularly stocked fish. While there are several ways to present an M&M, I prefer a slip-sinker rig with a 1⁄8-ounce egg sinker, a micro barrel swivel, and a 12-inch leader of 4-pound fluorocarbon. I finish the rig with a No. 8 bait-holder hook, and slide a mini marshmallow up the shank until the hook eye is covered. Finally, I tip the hook with a mealworm. The marshmallow adds extra visual attraction and keeps the mealworm floating off the bottom right at the fish's eye level. —M.M.

Stalk the Striped Bass Flats

striped bass flats
We’re All Set: A striper angler comes tight to a fish.Jim Levison

➞ You can catch stripers from the beach, off a jetty, or out in the open ocean, but for the fly guy nothing is sweeter than sight-casting to a bass on a shallow flat. The first step in the process is finding a flat that appeals to the fish. In spring, the darker the bottom the better; dark sand or mud will absorb heat faster and, therefore, warm quicker. Because of this, flats are the first places crabs and sea worms will emerge for the season, and the stripers know they can grab an easy meal there with minimum effort. Look for flats in close proximity to deeper cuts or channels the bass can use to escape to deeper water, and start your hunt at the top of the outgoing tide.

Stripers will be drawn onto the flat as the current pulls the warmer water off into deeper water. A moving tide also helps expose worms and crabs. Crab and worm patterns with small dumbbell or bead-chain eyes do a better job of puffing sand and mud on the retrieve, which can get a bass's attention from a distance. Always lead a striper by 8 to 10 feet, and be sure to strip-strike when it slurps your fly. —J.C.

Drift a Killer Craw

In early spring, prespawn smallmouths aren’t usually in the mood to chase a meal. For the fly angler, this often means a slow approach with crayfish flies instead of the fast-stripped Clousers and Deceivers that’ll score later in the season. Two patterns I’m never on the river without at this time of year are the Dead Drift Crayfish and the Gulley Ultra Craw. They cover the most common types of water where smallies hold in spring.

The Dead Drift Crayfish This fly is light and flowing, perfect for hanging below a strike indicator and slowly floating through the soft tailouts and slow seams smallies post in when the water is still chilly. Let the current work this fly, and don't expect the indicator to get ripped under. Hits can be subtle in the early season, so swing on any pause or stutter in the drift.

The Gulley Ultra Craw A double set of heavy dumbbell eyes gets this bug down fast. It's my favorite for bedded fish or bass holding in slow backwaters with muddy bottoms. The wavy body and flapping leather claws undulate with the slightest movement, letting you work slowly and keep the fly in the zone for a long time. Use very short strips with the rod tip down to keep a tight, straight connection to the fly. If you feel any resistance or ticks in the line, strip-strike away. —J.C.

Slam Skinny-Water Slabs

spring crappie
Crappie fishing can be fast and furious during the spawn.Tim Tomkinson

x Come spring, crappies will flood to the skinniest water they can find to spawn. Unlike other species, they won't shut down during this time, and the catching can be fast and furious. A temperature gauge will help you find warmer water, but look on the northern ends of lakes that get more sunlight during this time of the year. Mud bottoms that hold the sun's heat are an added bonus. It's essential to fish shallow—in no more than 5 feet of water. For targeting these depths, nothing works better than a fixed float with a crappie jig underneath. Attach the float 1 to 4 feet above a 1⁄16- to 1⁄8-ounce jighead, depending on depth. You can tip the jighead with an artificial, like a tube; or live bait, such as a fathead minnow. Target brushpiles, stumps, and boat docks. When you start getting bites, don't move. Where you find one crappie in spring, more will follow. —M.M.

Dupe Spring Toms With a Fall Call

When young turkeys get separated from their family flocks, they make a two- to three-note whistle followed by urgent yelps. Known as the kee kee run, this assembly call is the bread-and-­butter sound for fall ­turkey hunting—but it works in spring, too. I ­frequently mix in a few kee kees when I know a tom is close but refusing to gobble. It's natural turkey talk that hunters ­seldom imitate in April. It's best to use a two-reed mouth call with a ghost or similar subtle cut. Simply press the call to the roof of your mouth with your tongue and force air across it in one-second bursts to create the whistling notes. Each note should increase slightly in pitch, and you should follow the whistles with two to four harsh yelps: kee-kee-kee-yelp-yelp-yelp. —W.B.

Hammer Hogs at Night

hogs at night
Pigs are most visible during the early spring.Tim Tomkinson

➞ If a thermal-vision hog hunt isn’t the best time you can have in a Deep South peanut field after dark, it’s damn close. It’s an amazingly effective way to kill hogs, too, but given that you’re firing a high-powered rifle in the dark at living targets you can’t actually see, hiring a competent guide is all but mandatory if you’ve never done it before. I shot pigs for a couple of nights in Georgia with the guys from Jager Pro (706-718‑9789), and they’re as good as anyone. Here’s what I learned.

● Spring Forth Early spring is a great time to hunt, since this is when large cropfields are being planted and pigs are most visible. Once the foliage gets thick, shooting becomes more difficult.

● Use Enough Gun Yes, your 5.56mm AR will kill a hog. But most of your shots on a night hunt will be at 150-plus-pound pigs running flat out, and for that, a 60-grain bullet isn’t enough. The Jager Pro guys shoot AR-10s in .308, and so does just about every­one else who knows what they’re doing.

● Listen Up Most ­thermal-​vision optics are activated via pressure to the eyepiece, and so using them is contrary to what you’ve learned about shooting through a scope. Furthermore, the view through your scope will be a heat signature. Hogs will look like hogs, but deer, dogs, coyotes, and other critters can look a bit like hogs, too. Familiarize yourself carefully with your gun and optic on the range in the daylight. After dark, when your guides tell you to do something, listen to them. —W.B.

Rig a Finesse (and Lethal) Drop Shot

finesse drop shot
Fire Away: An angler targets spring bass.Brian Grossenbacher

Even during the best fishing months, there are times when bass won’t respond to anything but the subtlest finesse presentation. This is doubly true in early spring. Largemouths are sluggish and picky in the cold water, so you’d better know how to use a drop shot and finesse worm if you want to catch them.

A drop-shot rig is simple to tie. Although commonly associated with fishing deeper water, it will score big spring largemouths around any structure at any depth. Lighter spinning tackle is the way to go, spooled with 6- or 8-pound fluorocarbon line. Attach a No. 1 or No. 2 Gamakatsu hook to your line with a Palomar knot, leaving a 4- to 30-inch tag end, depending on how far off the bottom you want to fish your worm. After tying the hook on, pass the tag end through the eye of the hook again and pull tight so the hook sticks out perpendicular to the line, facing up.

Finish the rig by tying a drop-shot weight to the bottom of the tag and threading a Zoom Finesse Worm on the hook. —M.M.

Roast a Wild Piglet for the Best BBQ

wild hog sandwich
A small pig is perfect for roasting on the spit.Tim Tomkinson

x Bite into the stringy chop of a rank wild boar, and you'll learn why serious pig hunters like to shoot the little ones. Wild pigs grow fast: A 2-month-old shoat weighs around 30 pounds, just big enough to have gained a little fat and young enough for fork-​­tender barbecue. A pig that size (shot in the head) is the perfect pig to roast on the spit, or to split down the middle to fit on the racks of your smoker. —W.B.

Shoot a Gobbler With a Trail Cam

turkey trail cam
Set up trail cameras a few weeks before the season.Tim Tomkinson

➞ One of the best farms I hunt has a couple of small fields a half mile from where turkeys like to roost. It’s not a place to hear much gobbling, but you can almost bet on turkeys gathering to bug and strut in the fields at midmorning in the spring. So a few weeks before the season, I begin monitoring the fields with trail cameras. I put them about thigh-high on posts, usually on a knoll so they can capture images from a wide area, and pointing either north or south to minimize lens flare from the harsh midday sun. I set the cams for a three-shot photo burst and a 10-​second triggering delay. If there’s a strutter showing off, it doesn’t take long to get his picture.

Your turkey cameras are best checked after dark or before daylight, when birds are on the limb. Better yet, use a wireless setup that will text turkey pictures to your phone.

My Moultrie Mobile system is compatible with a number of newer Moultrie cameras, and it works on the Verizon network, which is pretty reliable—even out here in the sticks. A turkey text is one I'm always happy to see. —W.B.

Find the Walleye Honey Hole

walleye spring spot
In early spring, walleyes will be close to incoming streams and creeks.Tim Tomkinson

x When it comes to walleyes, there’s no easier time to find them than now.

On rivers, find the closest tributary. Walleyes will be close to incoming streams and creeks for most of early spring. They’ll stage outside of inlets before the spawn, pile into the shallowest water to mate, and hold tight to trib mouths after the spawn.

On lakes, if your impoundment has tributaries, target them. Any canals, including those lined with houses and docks, will also hold fish. If no such areas are available, shallow bays are prime spawning haunts. Walleyes in the skinniest water will likely be mating; those in adjacent deeper ­water will be in pre- and postspawn stages. —M.M.

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