By Rick Lawrence
Early springtime to me always conjures the thoughts of the coming warming weather and increasing water temperatures. I dream of pre-spawn smallmouth (and Pike if I tell the truth) invading the shallows to stage for spawn. This is amazing time for fishing and makes me forget how bad winter was and I neglect all my other responsibilities for the upcoming weeks that follow chasing Smallies.
Each spring is always a little different, and while the annual movement of bass from deep to shallow is predictable, the fish themselves don’t always follow the same prescribed patterns faithfully. Just because they may be shallow doesn’t always mean they’re apt to strike. They still must be coaxed into hitting your lure, but the question is how?
Almost every Smallmouth angler has used a jerkbait, it’s a lure that plays a major role for a winning early spring strategy. Suspending jerkbaits catch early-spring Smallmouth better than most other lures. Part of it is technique, while most is due the fact it can freeze in space and hover motionless in the face of the fish. Since jerkbaits out fish most other artificial baits by a wide margin in spring, their suspense and triggering effects are what Smallmouth focus on most. A good jerkbaits is a key tool to catching fish, and it is not only one of my most effective, deadliest fish-catching presentations for not only Smallies, but Largemouth and Pike too.
The waters of northern Idaho and Eastern Washington contain some of the best inland smallmouth bass fisheries in the U.S. What sets our fisheries apart from other inland waters and many other northern states are the diversity of lakes and rivers, fish populations vary from one body of water to another and the availability of food to grow trophy bass Three- and 4-pounders are fairly common and some 5 to 6 pounders are not out of the question, and catching one of these is possible on any given day.
Once water temperatures reach the mid 40 degree range, Smallmouth undertake their structural migrations from their deeper wintering holes to shallower staging locations. These areas will be in close proximity to spawning grounds with concentrations of fish usually schooled and stacked in groups along the edges of structural elements. In a river this is almost always some kind of current break that has 6 to 12 ft of water. Deeper if the water in clear and shallower if the water is muddy. These locations in lakes may range from rock shoals to large main-lake flats used for a combination of both feeding and spawning. However, spots that are more unique for their physical features, accompanying a mixture of rock and wood habitats, and larger size of the flat, are often the best. Mix these areas along with main-lake areas with avenues to deep open water. This spring movement will last until water temperatures reach 55 to 58 degrees, so this window of opportunity can be for up to four weeks depending upon weather and the fish’s biological clock
The use of suspending jerkbaits largely rose to prominence through tournament fishing and the modifications that ensued. During the infancy of suspending jerkbaits, anglers often customized floating minnow baits to sink and run deeper, and to hang motionless to draw strikes from curious Smallmouth. Since then, we now have more options and opportunities before us thanks to the hard-bait manufacturers specializing in the production of suspending minnows.
For me, finding Smallmouth with these techniques often means speed in presentation, following through with hitting all of my normal spots and efficiency in locating concentrations of fish and camping on them. I typically dissect 10 to 20 spots in a day, a quickly presented hard jerkbait, such as the KVD 300 on spinning gear and size 10 X-Rap with baitcasting gear, allows me to move quickly and eliminate water while remaining efficient to locate Smallies. By combating Smallmouth with a power-fishing approach like this, I’m able to target the most aggressive fish within the concentrated group first.
Considering how many Smallies at this point haven’t seen a lure for months, nearly all fish initially encountered will be aggressively feeding. After showcasing these quick presentations with a KVD 300 jerkbait if the action slows down, I then turn to more subtle and slower jerkbaits when I know I will be camping out at the spot with a nice concentration of Smallmouth the Rapala deep Shadow Rap or the new Rip-Stop are a good choice. Each of these is fished slower and offers a greater level of noise, suspense and will hang in the strike zone.
Equally effective for Smallies and sometimes even better depending on fish activity levels, are the Megabass Vision110 and the Vision 110+1 deep diver as well as Rapala X Raps.These can be fished with the same cadence as the KVD to draw strikes. The Luckycraft Stayee 90 and Pointer series are also great early springtime lures.
Finding and catching Smallmouth with jerkbaits isn’t only a visual presentation for fish, but it’s also a visual experience for anglers. Because the majority of my bites occur on slack line while the bait is suspending, I always keep my eyes fixated on the top 6 inches of my rod throughout the entire retrieve. Regardless of light penetration and weather, it’s important to keep a watch on your line and the rod tip.
Probably the most important part of early spring jerkbait fishing is matching your retrieve to the water and weather conditions. The colder the water is, the slower you work the bait and the longer you pause. In low 40 deg water I start out with about a 8 second pause and adjust up or down from there. I also use softer jerks of the rod tip in colder water so your lure doesn’t snap wildly like I like them to when the water temps are up near 60 degrees. You also need to make sure your lure suspends properly either dead flat or a little nose down for Smallies works good. Test every lure in cold water and add weight or larger hooks to make them suspend properly.
For springtime fishing I always keep multiple rods and reels rigged with an array of hard and soft baits. For instance, one 7 ft. 6, medium-heavy, fast-action casting rod with 30-pound-test Suffix 832 braid tied to a 4ft. 8 pound fluoro leader will be rigged with snap to hook on any of my larger jerkbaits I plan to use. Then, a second rod, a 7 foot, medium-heavy spinning rod with 20 pound test Suffix braid tied to a 4ft 8lb. fluoro leader also with a snap to handle all my smaller jerkbaits like the 08 Rapala X-Rap and a Stayee 90. Another rod will be a shorter, medium spinning rod with 20 lb. braid and 8-pound-test fluoro leader with a Jika rig and a Gitzit tube. Finally, my last is a 7 ft. medium-heavy fast-action spinning rod spooled with 20-pound braid line to handle my Sink-N-Fools, a weightless soft jerkbait. I sometimes fish these without a leader if the water is not super clear. Mono just has way to much stretch in it for a good hook set.
If you’ve noticed by now, this article hasn’t mentioned a color selection. That’s right, because we all have our go to color that we feel confident in and that’s what matters the most. For me it’s a Chrome Sexy Shad KVD300, but these variables don’t really matter once you locate staging smallmouth. Well presented baits with perfect execution in the retrieve with the right cadence, is what matters most and will put fish in the boat.
I’ve caught hundreds of Smallmouth with this technique in warm and calm sunny conditions, and equally in cold, windy, snowy conditions and all times of the year. The success of our jerkbaits in the spring, all has to do with Smallmouth staging and being congregated near spawning grounds and their feeding moods.
Employing a good jerkbait with the proper technique for giant springtime smallies can be very rewarding.