People will often ask me when the best time on the calendar to catch big pre-spawn smallmouth is. My answer is from ice out through the first six weeks of the season. While that may not be the answer they want to hear, it is impossible to put a handle on the best time. Each year is different. One spring will have lots of warm stable weather and the next will see dramatic changes in the weather. However, by paying attention to the conditions and choosing the right type of water to fish you will increase your success.
Water temperature is the key to early season smallmouth activity. Anglers can do well on one part of the river only to find little if any activity just a few miles down stream. The size of the river will also come into play. On a larger river with more current the water will take longer to warm and the best action can occur later in spring.
The first place to see active smallmouth in the spring is in shallow reservoirs or river backwaters. With the water being stained and shallow this water can warm very rapidly. The smaller the reservoir of flowage the better since it will warm even faster. One or two bright sunny days can see the water temperature climb as many as 5 to 8 degrees. On many occasions I have experienced the water temperature rising five degrees in four or five hours.
This is one time when heading out on the water late will work to you advantage and look for the best fishing to occur during mid day when most boats are back on the trailer. In spring nights are still cold in the North Country and it takes a while for the water temperatures to rebound. The more the air temperature drops over night the later the peak smallmouth activity will be the next day. If you experience warm nights look for action to be consistent early in the day.
Shallow bays will have the warmest water temperature but suitable smallmouth habitat must also be present. Look for small bays or backwaters with some rock, rubble, gravel or sand. The best areas will have a mix of hard bottom and soft bottom areas. Shallow water that contains only hard bottom will take longer to warm. However if these are the only options you have they should be fished.
Shallow flats within a bay may hold large numbers of pre-spawn smallmouth but finding large fish can be difficult. Males will fan out over the entire area with no apparent pattern. Females will be close behind but they to will be scattered. The best action will occur at the start of a transition area from hard to soft bottom. On one small reservoir I fish there is a distinct transition from much to rock that runs parallel to the edge of the bay. On the edge of the transition we consistently catch 17-20 inch smallmouth. When we move into the rocky bay be catch large numbers of smallmouth but finding fish over 18 inches is difficult.
If you are looking for large smallmouth you will need to target big fish areas. Over the years I have learned that the largest smallmouth in the river will use the prime areas. For big smallmouth, look for the first area of rubble or rock out of the main current flow. These areas are also close to deeper water. You wonít catch numbers of smallmouth in these areas but the fish you catch will be big. Once you establish a prime big fish area you should be able to catch big fish in the area annually. One small rock point on the edge of a back bay produces monster smallmouth for me each year.
Once you locate an area that has potential to hold a big smallmouth you need to fish it accordingly. It is important to match your presentation with the water temperature and prevailing conditions. Large baits may be very productive in cold water during the fall period but in spring most of my larger smallmouth are caught with down sized baits. A slow presentation is also in order. Most anglers donít catch as many large smallmouth in spring because they fish too fast and use to large of a bait.
Plastics are my first choice for pre-spawn smallmouth and start out with soft plastic jerk baits. These baits will quickly let you know if fish are in the area. With the water temperature being below 55 degrees I prefer a four inch jerk bait. Even though I am using a four inch bait I still use a large number four wide gap hook. Cast the jerkbait tight to the shoreline and let is drop slowly. Watch your line since any line movement in any direction can signal a pick up. If no strike is detected twitch the bait one and let it drop again. Continue this back to the boat. It is important to work the jerkbait back to the boat since pre-spawn smallmouth will follow the bait. Once a strike is detected, wait three or four seconds before setting the hook. If you fail to connect with a fish wait a few seconds longer on the next strike.
Once I locate smallmouth with the jerkbait I will switch over to a grub or finesse jig. The new MedalHead Finesse jig with a tin jighead, silicone skirt and ribbed grub is deadly on smallmouth that refuse other presentations. With the tin jighead being 40% lighter than lead it has a slow drop. When using the finesse jigs I like a six foot six rod and prefer a Lamiglas Certified Pro XS 661. This rod allows maximum sensitivity and plenty of backbone to handle a six pound smallmouth.
Being a guide I also rely on live bait presentations in spring. When hit with a severe cold front which is common up north in the spring. It is hard to beat a jig and minnow. When using a jig and minnow I have had unprecedented success with the MedalHead jigs. These jigs come in both lead and tin and are plated in gold, silver and copper. I the leadhead jig to establish the bite. If the fish are somewhat active the leadhead jig is fine. If the bite is light I rely on the slow drop of the tin jig. Gold and copper are tops for very stained water and silver and gold work best in clearer water.
Rivers are the key to locating big smallmouth regardless where you live. However you need to understand rivers and how smallmouth relate to specific areas. Once you put a handle on smallmouth movement you should be able to boat fish on a consistent basis.
Wisconsin Fishing Guide, Author, and TV Host