Early Season Bass Tactics from Top Bass Pros

To fish like a bass pro, you need to think like a bass all-star...Fortunately Field & Stream is here to help. Last season, we launched the bass boat and spent the day chasing lunkers with Mike Iaconelli, Kevin VanDam, Gary Klein, Dean Rojas, and Randy Howell. These pros, all contenders in this month's Bassmaster Classic, opened their tackleboxes and let us in on their best early-spring tactics for big bass. Here's how they fish when big-time money is on the line. First up is Mike Iaconelli.**** Mike Iaconelli: The Jerkbait Pause and Twitch
In my first hour with Mike Iaconelli, I've watched him boat five fish, the largest being around 5 pounds--a good tournament bag for sure. What surprises me most about fishing with him is that the man has two gears: stop and go. No doubt, tournament fishing for Iaconelli is often a full-tilt, full-contact affair. But underneath the gonzo façade, he is an exceptionally cerebral angler, and as such he's one of the most talented finesse fishermen on the pro tour. In the early season, he frequently turns to the subtle art of working suspended jerkbaits to mimic dying baitfish, eliciting strikes from large, wary bass. "Early season is an awesome time for jerkbaits, especially in clear, cool waters," Iaconelli tells me. "Jerkbaits appeal to those fish in transition, as they move into spawning coves and pockets. But you have to use the right bait. In winter, it's countdown, sinking jerkbaits. For prespawn fish, suspending jerkbaits are best. And postspawn, you switch to floaters." Outfit of Choice
Iaconelli recommends a 6- to 61⁄2-foot rod with a shortened butt section to accentuate wrist movement. He likes a baitcaster with a lower gear ratio (5:1 or 4.9:1), which forces a slower retrieve, spooled with Berkley Trilene 6- to 12-pound fluorocarbon. He says that clear water, less cover, and deeper casts call for a lighter line. Target Zone
Finding staging fish is fundamental to fishing jerkbaits effectively. Iaconelli begins by locating the deepest, most vertical points on the lake--places with 45-degree banks and dropoffs, dam faces, and so forth--then connects the dots to nearby shallow spawning flats. "The fish are going to travel from Point A to Point B along contour breaks on the lake bottom, like old creek channels. You also want to stop and fish secondary points like humps on the lake bottom and along long docks and other structures that intersect the lake near spawning grounds. Also look for emergent grasses." Winning Tactic
After you make the cast, "it's all about cadence," Iaconelli says. Retrieve the line with abrupt jerks and pauses. "The real key is the length of the pauses. The colder the water, the longer I make my pauses; the warmer the water, the shorter the pauses. Try different cadences. Jerk, jerk, pause for 10 seconds. Then jerk, jerk, pause for 20 seconds. Then jerk, pause five seconds, jerk. The fish will tell you what they want. Once you dial it in, stick with what you're doing because on most days, the cadence that works will stay the same." Go-To Lure
Ike's top lure in the early season is a Spicy Shad Laser Lure jerkbait ($20; laserlure.com). When you're fishing for prespawn bass with a jerkbait, it's imperative that the bait suspends in the water column, and the lure pattern must match the natural forage. In northern lakes, where the main forage is often perch or bluegills, choose greens and oranges. In southern lakes filled with shad, colors like pearl and golden-emerald fare best.
Mike Sudal
Kevin VanDam: The Flat-Bait Pump and Fall It's 7 a.m. on Lake guntersville, and I'm in a 20-foot Nitro bass boat thundering along at 50 mph, with the five-time Toyota Tundra BASS Angler of the Year--Kevin VanDam. Minutes after the boat jumps on plane, VanDam's affinity for the full-speed, fast-action brand of fishing that has made him famous is hard to miss: He makes a beeline for a shelf, kills the engine, jumps on the bow, and starts gunning cast after cast with a lipless crankbait--one of VanDam's favorite early-season lures for big large­mouth bass. "The main attraction of a lipless crankbait at this time of year is that largemouth bass seem to be especially susceptible to flat-sided baits," VanDam tells me. "Even though the water is still cold, the bass know their food is in the shallows. If you find them concentrated, and make the right retrieve at the right depth, a lipless bait can dominate in the early season." Outfit of Choice
VanDam pairs a 7-foot medium-action (or medium-fast in grassy cover) Quantum Tour KVD rod with a Quantum Tour Edition 100PT reel. He carries several crankbait-specific rods rigged with different weighted baits and different line sizes to cover any depths--smaller diameters for deeper casts, thicker for shallower casts in cover. For example, in 6 feet of water, he'll use a 1⁄2-ounce Red Eye Shad on 10-pound fluorocarbon. "I like fluoro because it doesn't stretch as much as mono, and it gets baits deeper. Heavier line rides higher, and it helps to slow my retrieve down, which is important in colder, early-season water." Target Zone
Focus on edges of spawning flats along ridges and points where fish stage before they move in and spawn. Also look for vegetation like hydrilla and milfoil. "In early season, you find fish grouped tightly in small packs. You're not going to catch one here and there. You find five or six at a time--bang, bang, bang!" Winning Tactic
The No. 1 asset of a good bait, says VanDam, is the way it drops in the water, ideally without too much erratic flutter or falling on its side. After you cast into the target zone, pump the rod as you retrieve to accentuate the fall. Keep the line tight to maintain contact with your bait after long casts, and mix up your retrieves to cover different depths. "The closer to cover the better. I'll fish a lipless crankbait 10, 12, or 15 feet down if I think that's where the fish are." Go-To Lure Depending on water depth, VanDam likes to fish a 1⁄4- to 3⁄4-ounce Strike King Lipless Red Eye Shad crankbait ($5.40; basspro.com). Matching colors to local forage and seasonal water conditions is paramount. "A primary forage in early season at many lakes is crawfish, so I like to go with browns and tans. In lakes with grass and shad, chromes work well. I once won a tournament in Florida yo-yoing a chrome Strike King crankbait through the grass."
Mike Sudal
Gary Klein: The Force-Bite Lizard Flip The experience and skill Gary Klein has picked up since his early start on the pro tour is hard to miss: The guy is an absolute master when it comes to flipping trick casts in tight spots and sight-fishing to laid-up bass in the shallows or heavy cover. It's a combination of pinpoint precision, a strong sense of feel, and gut instinct that allows him to turn big bass at close casting range. "In the early season, when I know the largemouth bass are in shallow water, around visible targets, or in heavy cover, I like flipping weighted soft-plastic baits best," says Klein, who has qualified for the Bassmaster Classic an astounding 28 times in his 30 years as a pro and claimed Angler of the Year honors twice. "It gives me accuracy advantages. I can force a bite, and I get immediate control of the fish. Eighty percent of the largemouth bass that bite my lure early in the season didn't bite it because they were hungry." Like I said, the guy's a master. Outfit of Choice
Klein fishes an 8-foot, heavy-action Quantum Tour Klein flipping stick with a fast taper, revolving guides, and a parabolic bend. "You want a rod that allows you to cast with pinpoint accuracy and detect strikes with feel, and at the same time has the reserve power to lift a hooked fish out of thick cover." He also uses a Quantum Tour Edition PT baitcaster reel with a thumb-bar switch and 25-pound fluorocarbon or 40-pound braid. Target Zone
Flipping and pitching are best for fishing the shallow water--5 feet deep or less--that Klein targets. "I like to fish protected spots like downed logs, stumps, and other cover." Klein notes that currents can be a key factor, especially in the early season when spring storm runoff raises lake levels. Find shallow water with cover and current, and you've got a hot zone for flipping or pitching jigs. "Current does two things to fish: It puts them either on the bottom or behind something." Winning Tactic
The difference between pitching and flipping is simple: Pitching involves lowering your rod tip, creating a pendulum swing with your casting arm to launch the bait toward the target, and controlling distance with your thumb on the spool. With flipping, you make the same basic cast, but with a predetermined length of line. Use your nondominant hand to strip line from the reel to measure out an exact distance to your target. Engage your reel and use your nondominant hand's thumb to control the amount of line moving through the guides. Your hand never loses contact with the line, allowing you to stop the bait in an exact location. Go-To Lure
Klein's top producer is a Texas-rigged Berkley Power Lizard ($4; berkley-fishing.com). Consider water clarity when selecting colors. In dirty water, darker hues tend to work best. In tinted water, you'll want natural forage-matching colors like green-pumpkin and brown.
Mike Sudal
Dean Rojas: The Frog Swing and Skip "Fishing a topwater frog means you're either going to be a hero or a zero," Dean Rojas tells me. "It's rarely an in-between approach." He had me at hero. Before I arrived in Alabama, I was most excited about fishing with Rojas to learn his signature tactic: skipping a topwater frog far under cover where you can reach bass that are less inhibited and less pressured by other anglers. "When bass are suspended in 4 feet of water, it's just as easy for them to go up 2 feet and grab something off the surface, as it is to go down 2 feet and pick something off the bottom," says Rojas. "If you get it in a spot where the bass are, but they're not seeing a lot of other baits, your chances of hooking up are better than most people realize." After a few pointers from Rojas, I was able to skip a frog under a dock like a pro. It requires both effort and finesse but pays off. Outfit of Choice Rojas uses a fast-action Quantum Tour Rojas Frog rod, a PT Tour edition Burner reel (7:1 gear ratio), and 65-pound braided line. "You want your reel set at or near free-spool. Too much tension on the line will kick the frog bait over to the left [if you are casting right-handed]. When you cast, the bait's momentum carries line out the end of the rod in a straight direction." Target Zone
Rojas's bread-and-butter approach is to cast frog baits into the hardest-to-reach places where the bass aren't seeing a lot of imitation baits. Zero in on protected bays and pockets in the lake with structure where the water warms. Also listen for natural frogs. Overcast, rainy, and windy is "frog weather," according to Rojas. On sunny days, seek out shadows and shade pockets. The best frog bite happens in the afternoon. Winning Tactic ****To make that hero cast under the dock, follow Rojas's routine: (1) If you are right-handed, position yourself so your target is to your left. (2) Set up at least 20 feet away from the edge of the dock. (3) Visualize where you want the bait to land--perhaps another 20 feet past the edge of the dock. (4) Swing your rod flat and level, keeping the trajectory low to the water. (5) Stop the rod tip so it ends up pointed at your target. (6) Once you deliver the bait, give the fish time to react. (7) Retrieve slowly and steadily with pauses. Mix your pauses, between two and five seconds long. Keep your rod tip low on retrieve, so you are in contact with and in control of your bait. Go-To Lure
Not surprisingly, Rojas uses his Bronzeye Signature Series Frog ($10.40; spro.com). "Topwater frogs are big-fish baits. When I connect, I know I'm going to weigh a big bag." Throwing a frog shouldn't be confined to nearshore fishing. "A frog will work when bass are busting shad in the middle of the lake in the morning. Topwater is topwater, and reaction strikes happen in this situation on frog baits, too."
Mike Sudal
Randy Howell: The Swimming-Jig Weedbed Rip Swimming jigs is a relatively new technique that's catching the attention of many bass anglers. It's also catching a lot of big fish--something Randy Howell demonstrated to devastating effect. This shallow-water presentation is productive in standing vegetation, he says, and it can provoke reactionary strikes from bass hunting cover in prespawn mode. "This is a big-fish technique that works best before the spawn," says Howell--who, after finishing sixth overall in the 2009 Bassmaster Elite Series, is an early favorite for the title of this month's Classic. "When I won in Dardanelle, Ark. [in the 2004 Elite tournament], it was early April, and the fish were in prespawn mode. I tried this approach and could just tell that swimming jigs hadn't been done there much before. The fish were all over it." Outfit of Choice
Howell likes a Quantum Tour Edition PT 6-foot 10-inch, heavy-action rod, along with a fast-retrieve (7:1 ratio) Quantum Burner reel and 50-pound braided line. "You're intentionally throwing into heavy cover, so you want a straight, heavy setup from the rod to the reel to the braided line. It's a fast-moving technique, and it's important to keep the jig at or near the surface. Without a very fast reel, you can't do that effectively." Target Zone
Head for standing shallow water--no more than 5 feet deep--with vegetation, like water willows that grow sparsely along shorelines. You can also swim a jig effectively in and around downed timber, provided that the water depth is shallow. "It's a reaction bite," says Howell. "My first target for this technique is usually the vegetation bass gravitate to, such as hydrilla and milfoil. As a second option, I'm looking for fallen trees. When the water is clear and shallow, and the bass are spooky, I'll stay away from the target and make a 20- or 30-yard cast." Winning Tactic
Throw your swimming jig into the vegetation and immediately start snapping and popping the rod tip to give your bait a nervous, erratic motion. Howell says the bass will often bust on the jig as it swims just below the surface. He adds that you want your bait to stay on the surface or close to it--no more than 2 feet deep, max. Go-To Lure
Howell goes with a 3⁄8-ounce Lunker Lure Original Rattleback jig ($2.49; basspro.com) and adds a Yamamoto 5-inch twin-tail grub ($7.49; basspro.com). "I often begin with a white flash or silver Mylar to imitate shad in moderately clear to stained water. If it's very clear, I'll use brown-orange or pumpkin-orange. And on low-light days, I'll choose a straight black setup. I always match the color of the jig and tail closely."
Mike Sudal