Spring has sprung. Actually, it sprang a month ago in much of the country. With the unusual weather pattern setting record-high temperatures on a near-weekly basis, many of you are no doubt scratching your heads and asking, what’s this going to do to the fishing? By some accounts, it seems to be helping. I’ve had my best spring ever for crappie fishing already. Several state-record bass, largemouth and smallmouth alike, have been caught this spring, as reported right here on Field and Stream. But not all the news is rosy. Ponds could be turning over sooner, causing fish kills. The spawn for walleyes, crappies, and other species could be adversely affected. And there’s still a long summer ahead. So what’s on the fishing horizon? Read on to find out.
Earlier Largemouth Spawn Since bucketmouths typically begin spawning when the water temperature hits 65 degrees, expect an earlier spawn than normal this year. Across much the South, it’s happening right now–and done with in the Deep South. The solution? Plan on sight-fishing–it’s the ticket during the spawn when water clarity allows. Largemouths can require a little finesse when they’re on the bed, especially on pressured waters. A Texas-rigged lizard is the classic bait, but many sight-fishermen opt for pink, white, and other gaudy-colored tubes and creature baits. You’re not necessarily trying to get them to eat; instead, you’re trying to p*** them off. Repeated casts to a bed and bumping the fish with your bait to get it riled up will often provoke a strike.
The Water’s Still Low Because many of the best bass lakes are flood-control reservoirs, they’re maintained at low winter pool levels until later in the spring. Many years, the water hits the magic spawning temperature just about the time the lakes are filled to summer pool. Shallow bushes and laydowns are inundated with the rising water and become choice nesting areas for bass and prime targets for fishermen. This year things are different. Much of the traditional shallow-water cover that’s productive in the early spring is high and dry, as many lakes remain at winter pool. The solution? Low water won’t stop bass from spawning. Look for the right bottom consistency–pea gravel, sand, etc–in the shallows with deep-water access nearby. Anywhere you can find that combination, you’re apt to find a concentration of bedding bass.
Smallmouths Are Spawning Now Smallmouths spawn in cooler, deeper water than largemouths (60 degrees), so in many lakes, you can expect the spawn to be taking place right now, and no doubt winding down in others. Of course lakes don’t warm up uniformly, especially big, deep lakes in the northern United States. The northwest portion of a lake typically receives the most sunlight and therefore warms the fastest. Smallies may be finishing their spawning chores in one area of the lake, but just rounding second base in another. The solution? Sight-fishing works as well on smallmouths during the spawn as it does on largemouths, provided the water’s clear enough to see them on their deeper beds. Toss out a tube with an insert jighead, drag it through the bed and hang on. Bedding smallies that haven’t been pressured are aggressive. Don’t be surprised if one rises several feet to hit a falling tube, long before it ever reaches the nest.
Pleasure Boaters Hit the Water Early Sure, the ski boats, cabin-cruisers, and jet-skis have just as much right to enjoy the lake as you do. But traditionally, anglers enjoy having the waters to themselves on cool April days. Not this year. With the sun baking the shallows to comfortable swimming temperatures, you can expect pleasure boaters to be swarming the lakes en masse, making fishing tough and crowding the boat ramps. The solution? Fish during the week, early in the morning, and even at night.
Walleyes May Skip Spawning Gary Barnard, a fisheries biologist in Bemidji, Minnesota, is concerned about this year’s walleye spawn. “There’s already ice-out throughout most of Minnesota, and though the walleyes are beginning to make their spawning run, the females’ eggs aren’t mature yet,” he says. “Right now, the water temperature is in the high 40s to low 50s, and normally they’d be spawning at those temperatures. But the photo period also comes into play for egg development and final maturing. The fish can’t develop their eggs as quickly as the water is warming up. We speculate that in the years when the temperature isn’t optimum by the time the walleyes are ready to spawn, they reabsorb some of their eggs.” The solution? Walleyes will still make their spring spawning runs into major tributaries and rivers, whether they drop their eggs or not. The classic way to catch these fish is pointing your boat into the current while vertical fishing a jig and minnow along the drop-offs.
Shad are Thick In addition to the early spring, most of the country has had a mild winter. A combo like that helps baitfish like shad, according to Kentucky fisheries biologist Paul Rister. “Shad are what I call ‘spew spawners,’ meaning they just go into the shallows and spew thousands of eggs. They don’t provide parental assistance, but they make up for it by laying many times more eggs,” he says. “And because we had such a mild winter, we didn’t have the shad kills that are normal in a typical winter. The baitfish populations should be thriving.” Abundant shad mean healthy bass and other game fish, but tough fishing, since the predators have such a target-rich environment. The solution? Pro anglers across the country say the Alabama Rig, where legal, is at its deadliest when bass are chasing schools of shad.
Snakes are Out I think snakes are cool. I’ll even catch one from time to time while I’m out and about. But I do have my limits, and the dull thud of a big cottonmouth falling into the boat while I’m trying to fish my favorite creek is one of them. Even non-poisonous water snakes–which can still bite the hell out of you–have nasty attitudes in such situations. Typically, I don’t worry much about snakes till mid-May. Sure, there are always a few of them out early in the spring, but at least I can see them through the budding branches. Not this year. The branches are covered in leaves that are getting thicker by the day–and that is the perfect place for Mr. No-Shoulders to hide. The solution? Improve your casting so you don’t snag and shake tree limbs.
Crappies Head Offshore How will this weather affect the crappie? You guessed it–early spawning. “People talk lunar phases and caterpillars and all sorts of stuff when it comes to timing the fish spawn–but it’s really all about water temperature,” Paul Rister says. “When the water hits 57 degrees, that’s about the peak temperature for spawning crappies. On Kentucky Lake, we hit that about three weeks ahead of schedule, in early March.” The solution? Post-spawn crappies retreat from the shallows after spawning chores are complete and stage around the same deep-water cover that attracts them during the prespawn. Lockjaw is common just after the spawn, but after a week or two, they put on the feed bag. Long-line trolling with tiny crankbaits is a favored post-spawn crappie tactic.
Ice-Out is Early Most years, Great Lakes expert Joe Balog spends 60 to 70 days ice-fishing on Lake St. Clair. This year, he fished 18. Normally, ice-out in his area isn’t until late March. It was nearly a month early this year. “I ice-fished more than anyone I know this year,” he says. “Plenty of guys who usually fish a lot never even went out.” There’s still some ice farther north (as of this April 1 writing, anyway), but even ice-fishermen in Alberta were talking about the final days of the season on various ice-fishing forums. The solution? Get the boat running. Ice-out produces some of the finest walleye fishing of the year, but the phrase “on thin ice” had to come from somewhere.
Trout Streams are Low One concern with many trout streams this spring isn’t necessarily the warm weather, but this past mild winter, which left little snow behind. “Our streams are pretty dry in most of Minnesota because we didn’t have much snow, and as a result, little run-off from snow melt. In fact, the streams in this area are almost at their typical June flows, and it’s looking like they’ll remain at lower-than-normal levels for the duration,” Gary Barnard says. “But since several of our trout species are fall-spawners, the low water shouldn’t have a huge effect on the trout fishery, provided the streams get some groundwater and don’t get too warm.” The solution? The low water and warm weather could actually create some good fishing opportunities in the upcoming weeks. Current breaks and preferred pools will be easier to find, and you can expect a variety of early insect hatches, too.
Season Dates are Off-Target Noodling is my favorite way to catch catfish, but noodling season doesn’t open until June 1 on my Kentucky home waters. In a typical year, the grabbing gets good by the second week of season, when the water temperature creeps into the 80s and the monster flatheads really begin spawning. This year, if the weather pattern holds, I’m betting we’ll miss the peak of the spawn and the good noodling that goes with it by two weeks. If your fishing revolves around a season that’s set with spawn timing in mind, regardless of the species, I’ll bet you have similar worries. The solution? Take a road trip and fish a state where the seasons open earlier. I’ll be grabbing catfish in Tennessee come May.
Ponds Turn Over “In farm ponds and lakes where there is no constant moving water, you could see fish kills as a result of turnover much earlier in the year,” Paul Rister says. “Turnover is a product of thermal stratification. You can feel that when you jump into a lake and the water at the top is warm, but it’s cold down at your feet. The cold water is low in oxygen. Turnover occurs when a big storm suddenly cools the warm water on top, causing it to mix with the cold water on bottom.” If the hot weather continues, waters could stratify much earlier, while frequent spring storms are still in the forecast. That makes the probability of turnover much higher. The solution? Though a turnover may kill a few fish, most will survive. Hang tight just after a turnover, while the water is turbid and dingy, but plan to fish once the pond stabilizes. The fish will be hungry.
Bream are Fattening Up Like other sunfish species, expect bluegills and redears to spawn a couple weeks early in your favorite waters. These fish typically begin nesting when the water hits 70 degrees, so there’s still time in most places. But the prespawn is going on right now. The solution? Big bream eat bugs and a lot of them while they’re preparing for the rigors of the spawn. Fishing just after a heavy spring rain is a great time to catch them. When the warm water spills into shoreline bushes, trees, and even manicured lakefront lawns, it flushes out a smorgasbord of worms and insects. The panfish are quick to seize on the opportunity, and so are savvy anglers. The classic bream-fishing technique of casting a cricket under a cork probably won’t work for much beyond getting snagged, though. Instead, use a long rod (a 12-foot cane pole works fine) tipped with a tiny jig and a mealworm (a hook and split-shot sinker will also suffice) to “dip fish” around the shallow cover without getting snagged.
The Fishing is Fast…Too Fast In many lakes, anglers fall back on routine fishing patterns at about the same time for the same species, year after year. This year is different. The accelerated spring has created the need to buck the norm, since fishing patterns are literally changing by the day. Joe Balog ran into just such a situation on lakes St. Clair and Erie. “We had two months of fishing packed into seven days up here,” Balog says. “Normally, on Lake St. Clair, perch fishing is good at ice-out, and then they spawn, then the crappies move in, then the bass pick up, followed by the bluegills. The Lake Erie walleye bite usually gets going in the middle of all this, too, and on a normal year, it spans from late March through Mid-May. This year, all of that occurred between March 10 and 25. Everything was biting at once, and it was some of the best fishing I’ve ever seen. But now, it’s slowed down quite a bit.” The solution? When it gets good, take your vacation time and hit the water. Like Robert Frost said, Nothing gold can stay.
**The Weather is Relative
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember the weather is local, and the fishing report from one area may not apply to you at all. Dave Yerk, a Montana fisheries biologist, says that although the winter was relatively warm, this spring has been seasonal. He’s expecting a good fishing season. “The snow pack in the mountains drives our entire fishing season, and we have good snow this year,” Yerk says. “Our March was cool, and we didn’t lose much of the snow. The runoff is tremendously important, not only to our trout streams, but also to the reservoirs, where we have walleyes and pike. Most of our reservoir fishing is in excellent shape, and I predict a good year for trout as well. Our ice-out timing was normal. Our rainbow trout fishing heats up in the spring, and typically peaks in mid-April. I’m already hearing some good reports.” The solution? Just go fishing. Spring, regardless of how it looks, only comes once a year.
Spring has sprung. Actually, it sprang a month ago in much of the country. With the unusual weather pattern setting record-high temperatures on a near-weekly basis, many of you are no doubt scratching your heads and asking, what’s this going to do to the fishing?