Early spring fishing can be feast or famine. Fish are often tightly grouped, but that also leading to a lot of dead water. Location can be everything, and sometimes you have to rely on subtle hints to get you to the right one.
Lets start with the obvious. Anytime I fish a lake that has current, I’m going to check there. They’ll often stack up where the current slacks off, like a spot where a river or creek dumps into the lake. But don’t overlook holes or bends in rivers. Anywhere there is an eddy it can be good. Picking up edges of the current seams or the first depth change off the river mouth are often really productive. New, highly oxygenated water into the lake really draws both the food and the bass into these areas. They are also one of the best places to catch a mix of largemouth and smallmouth.
Remember these fish are there to feed, and at times they feed recklessly. A friend and I once caught the same 5-pound bass an hour apart at one of these spots, the first time on a lipless crankbait and the next on a jerkbait. Hitting these areas multiple times a day is important as they can often turn on and off for no apparent reason.
Early in the year, bluegills like to congregate in coves, dredged out channels, “ponds” off the main lake or holes in a flat. They’re the primary forage in a lot of northern natural lakes, so keying in on the places they are hanging out will lead you right to the bass, especially the largemouths. Soft plastics, jigs, and blade baits are my go to lures in these areas.
As the weather warms, find areas with dark mucky bottoms and lily pad stems. A dark bottom and sunshine will begin to warm the water quickly and the bass take no time to respond to that. If lily pad stems are in the equation, that’s even better. A favorite way to catch them in these areas is Texas rigging a plastic. And peg your sinker — the bait will follow the weight down into the mud and out of the strike zone.
Do some research on the water you’re planning to fish, and note it has a warm water discharge. If it does, it will almost certainly be full of fish. The increased water temperature will have their metabolism rocking and they will be on the feed.
Don’t underestimate any form of hard cover. Rocks and laydowns are bass magnets during the spring. They offer a bass shelter and an opportunity to forage, plus they absorb some of the sun’s heat. Isolated laydowns provide one of the best opportunities for big fish this time of year.
Sometimes it isn’t as simple as finding a particular contour, structure, or bait. Just a slight increase in water temperature can turn fish on, or move them shallower during an early spring day. Always pay attention to where the warmest water on a lake is, and constantly check back with productive areas as the day warms.
I’m always on the lookout for bait, on many of the natural lakes that means finding the bluegills. Pay attention to where the ice fisherman gather on a particular lake. If the bluegills were there in the winter, it’s likely they haven’t moved far. Keep an eye out for fish-eating birds: Loons, cormorants, mergansers and gulls are a great indication something is around to eat. I’ve also had another less-obvious bird lead me to schools of fish. Barn swallows will often be swooping around a section of the lake in early spring. They are feeding on midge hatches, which will draw the bluegills in, and the bass will follow.
When all else fails, find a windy area on the north side of the lake and just start fishing. The sun is going to warm that water the most. The warmest water combined with some wind will have some active fish no matter what. Plus it makes it a little easier to gain some confidence in baits that are working and areas that may produce similar results.
Finally, if you happen to be on smaller water, don’t put a lot of stock into fishing right outside spawning areas. It doesn’t take a bass very long to migrate to those areas when a lake is smaller than a couple thousand acres. Finding the food is much more important.