The pre-spawn bite is most unpredictable until the water temperature rises into the low 50 degree range. At that time there is a major movement into the shallows by both male and female smallmouth . When the water temperature hovers in the mid fifties the bite can get fantastic as water temperatures tend to hold steady overnight, even on those cold spring nights.
One memorable guide trip was when my clients and I were hit with a horrendous cold front after summer like conditions had prevailed for about a week. Prior to the cold front the smallmouth went wild as they cruised the shallows. However, the water temperature had dropped six degrees in 2 days and the shallows were void of life. I had some clients that wanted to catch fish, and I knew I would have to pool all my resources the next few days.
We hit the water and the first thing that I noticed was a brisk northeast wind which is never a good wind in the spring. The water temperature was 49 degrees and I did not expect it to rise much during the day due to the northeast wind. I am no meteorologist but after spending thousands of days in a boat, I can predict weather with the best of them. The only positive factor that entered the picture was that there was not a cloud in the sky and I hoped that even if the morning was slow, by mid-day a slight climb in the water temperature might trigger smallmouth activity. It is important to always have a positive attitude when fishing.
For the first three hours my clients tried every lure in my bag of tricks but the only smallmouth brought to the boat was a 12 incher caught on a 1/16 ounce jig and a fathead minnow. I was actually getting a bit desperate, not just in my choice of lures but in my lack of locating smallmouth. One of my clients grabbed a five inch, bright orange deep diving crankbait out of his tackle box and asked me if I thought it would work. Even though I knew the crankbait was too large and wide for catching smallmouth under these conditions, I gave him a nod hoping he would catch a big northern pike.
I commented to my clients that it was starting to warm up, noting that the wind had died down. I looked at my electronics and noticed that the water temperature was now 52 degrees. Next, with the aid of my electric trolling motor, I moved the boat towards a large rock island where the only bronzeback of the day had been caught. Watching my electronics I suddenly saw several large arcs suspending about 2 feet off the bottom in 12 feet of water. We fished the area earlier in the day but we did not mark any fish on the locator. Where they came from I’ll never know. Did they move into the area or were they holding tight to the rocks earlier in the day? One thing was for certain: there was no doubt in my mind that the recent spike in water temperature had something to do with it.
A small rock lip was on the edge of the main river channel and it was a staging area for pre-spawn smallmouth. The smallmouth were stacked up waiting for the water to warm. I told one of my clients to tie on a white Case Sinking Minnow and instructed him to cast it out and let it sink for 10 seconds then give it a short twitch and again let it sink. I also told him that it was important to let the smallmouth engulf the bait for a few seconds before setting the hook. It didn’t take long for my client to yell, “Fish on!” However, in a few seconds his line went limp. I told him that he had set the hook too quickly and that when the smallmouth drops the bait, he should stop and let the bait fall for a few seconds. If the same smallmouth doesn't come back and hit the bait, there is a high probability that another smallmouth will. This deadly tactic allowed us to catch 17 smallmouth over 18 inches with the largest one being a big female that measured 21 inches. This was no accident. We were fishing in the right place at the right time with a bit of help from the sun and the lack of wind.
Most anglers can figure out where the smallmouth spawn but they have trouble locating staging areas, which dictates their poor fishing. They will pound the shallows with a variety of baits not realizing that the pot of gold is only a short distance from their boat. The difference between a successful day on the water and getting skunked is not necessarily in the anglers’ choice of bait but in their choice of location.
On stained water reservoirs these staging areas are the first transition areas from the spawning beds. The transition area can be from rock to sand or muck, a drop off to deep water, a few stumps or even scattered weeds. Just prior to the actual spawn these areas can be stacked with big females on their way to the beds. If the big smallmouth are on the spawning beds they will return to these staging areas after a cold front.
When smallmouth are in the staging areas waiting for the water to warm, they will scatter and be on the prowl. At this time smallmouth will often suspend half way between the bottom and the surface and will respond to a variety of presentations. Since they are scattered the angler will need to keep on the move until he finds a concentration of fish. Once you connect with one fish, slow down because more are nearby.
A cold front will push smallmouth off the spawning beds and back to the staging areas. The difference will be that the smallmouth pushed off the spawning areas will hold tight to cover and the bottom. Anglers can scan the area with their electronics and with smallmouth being tight to cover they assume the area does not hold any fish. What I do is forget about my electronics and fish the staging areas, concentrating on cover and slowing my presentation
As I previously mentioned, the Case Sinking Minnow is my favorite bait for staging smallmouth. I have also had exceptional success with suspending jerkbaits with my favorite being the Yo-Zuri Edge Minnow. The edge Minnow is a universal minnow shape with a twist; it has three sides cut into it. The shape of the edger creates specific angles which reflect light into many different directions like the facets of a gem. The holographic foil adds to the attraction looking like scales falling off a wounded minnow. They also cut through the water like a knife creating a hard “slicing” action allowing you to switch direction on a dime. In any water conditions this looks like an escaping minnow. When retrieved fast the Edge Minnow has a wide wobble; when retrieved at a medium rate it has a wobbling roll, and when a slow retrieve is used it has a slow, tight rolling action. When suspended the Edge Minnow is at its best at enticing vicious strikes.
Another great suspending jerkbait from Yo-Zuri is the Sashimi. The Sashimi jerkbait can be used with a stop and go retrieve and / or a twitching motion. It is the only jerkbait available that continues to attract fish even when you stop your retrieve. It actually rocks back and forth when stopped and once this action has subsided, the added feather tail hook continues to pulsate, looking like a real fish’s tail moving. While all this is going on, the body color is changing from one color pattern to another attracting fish from a distance, especially in clear water. Other good jerkbaits include the Lucky Craft RC STX Jerkbait and the Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue.
Tubes are also deadly on staging smallmouth both on their initial migration out of deep water or after they move out following a cold front. Smallmouth will hit a tube regardless of the weather conditions. Drag the tube across the bottom with an occasional pause. If you have short strikes and can’t set the hook on a smallmouth try downsizing your tube. Another favorite tactic of mine is to cut the tentacles of the tube in half. This will shorten the overall length of the tube, bringing it closer to the hook and increasing the number of hook-ups.
The old reliable Wacky Worm rig will catch smallmouth under just about any situation and an early season cold front is no exception. My favorite spring Wacky Worm rig is a four inch Case magic Stick with a number 2 Kahle hook under a red O ring. By using the Case O-Wacky Tool to place the O ring on the worm the angler will cut down considerably on the number of worms that are used in a day of fishing.
When fishing a Wacky Worm I will leave some slack in the line and watch for any movement. If you have a tight line, a sluggish pre-spawn smallmouth can sense the slightest resistance and drop the bait. When watching your line, remember that even the slightest movement is probably a pick up. When you see line movement, drop your rod tip and slowly reel up the slack. Set the hook with an upward sweep and don’t try to cross the smallmouth’s eyes. Too fast a hookset will result in a missed fish.
Your choice in line will decide how many fish you will put in the boat. Although popular with many anglers, braided line is not the best choice. Braided line does not sink as fast as fluorocarbon or monofilament line and since you don't want to weight your Wacky Worm, you won’t get down to the desired depth, especially if you have any current. Monofilament line is a good choice since it will sink, and the stretch in the line can help an angler who sets the hook too fast. The ideal line is a Hybrid fluorocarbon/monofilament line. The fluorocarbon sinks with the slightest amount of weight making it ideal for finicky pre-spawn smallmouth. Many of these hybrid lines are specially designed for a spinning reel. Trust me, hybrid line will out fish braided line while Wacky Worm fishing by at least 3 to 1.
Along with your choice of line, your choice of rod is also critical. The ideal rod is a six foot six or seven foot rod with a moderately fast action but with enough power to handle a 20 inch smallmouth. If your rod is too light, you won’t get a good hookset. My preferred rod is a Smallmouth Series Plus 6'6" medium light action rod with a fast tip for finesse presentations. This rod is ideal for finesse presentations when fishing four to six pound test fluorocarbon or monofilament line. When fishing with light line I prefer to use a spinning rod as opposed to a casting rod.
Transition areas can be prime staging areas for big pre-spawn females. As water temperatures rise during the day females will start to roam the shallows and continue doing so until the sun starts to wane, causing the water temperature to reverse its procedure. Once the water temperature drops only a few degrees the female smallmouth begin to move. As they move out of the shallows they will often stack up along the first transition from soft to hard bottom and on many reservoirs this is usually a steep rock shoreline.
Big smallmouth will hold tightly to the steep rock transitions overnight and remain there the next day until the water temperature warms. Even if the transition is not present smallmouth will use steep rock banks as migration routes from deep to shallow water. Most anglers will launch their boat and head into the shallows and pass up the honey hole. The smart angler will stop at the transition, cast a suspending jerkbait, soft plastic jerkbait, grub, jig and minnow or a crankbait and start the day with a few big smallmouth.
Don't make the mistake of passing up the transition in the morning and heading for the shallows. You might catch a few small males while fishing the shallows and you might even have some fun, but if the water temperature drops overnight the big fish will not be there. If you wait to fish the transition until late morning you will also find a lack of big fish. As the day progresses and the water temperature rises a few degrees the temperature will trigger smallmouth to head back towards the shallows. This might not be a quick movement and the fish will spread out and be tough to locate, making for tough fishing.
By late afternoon smallmouth will be back suspending off the edge of the transition and be very catchable. In fact, the first time I caught big smallmouth relating to a transition was in the afternoon when the bite in the shallows had stopped. I had about an hour left on a guide trip and decided to give a steep rocky shoreline a try even though I had fished it several times before during the day with little success. I had my client cast a crankbait, hoping to kill some time before heading back to the boat landing and then bang, after the third cast he connected with a 20 incher, which was the big smallmouth of the day. No, I did not keep the big fish for last even though my client might have thought that.
Pre-spawn means Big Smallmouth! As long as you put in your time and have patience. For more information on catching smallmouth bass, visit my website; www.bigsmallmouthbass.com.