Insights and Ideas for More Spring Smallmouths

Spring pre-spawn smallmouth patterns are solid across many fisheries throughout the Midwest and Great Lakes. I would argue that there aren’t many natural lakes and reservoirs whose smallmouth bass populations weren’t feeding heavily at this time.
Some of the best smallmouth fishing of the season takes place as waters are warming in spring, wparticularly here fishing seasons are open to catch-and-release-only fishing
The spring thaw, increase in sunlight, and the gradual warming of air and water temperatures draws smallmouths out from their winter slumber. Feeding is their first priority, followed by staging and setting up for the spawn as water temperatures warm into the upper 50’s. The first few weeks of May are a personal favorite time of year as traditional pre-spawn fishing techniques dominate.
With good weather, fishing can be easy, with fish locations and patterns predictable. However, these past few seasons, the months of April and May have been challenging and brutal, with the only real spring season windows occurring for short periods. Coincidentally, the poorer the weather, the worse the fishing.
There are no shortcuts to consistently catching quality bass, but there are certain strategies and methods you can apply to improve your success.
Middays and afternoons
Early mornings and evenings are the least productive fishing periods of spring. Midday and afternoon fishing is paramount to success. Most feeding windows take place during these hours. Waiting for them to open, and fish movements to happen, resulting from a weather change, peak sunlight or a water temperature increase can lead to an amazing outing.
During spring smallmouth trips, we prioritize midday and afternoon fishing, often camping on a single body of water. It’s the worst time of day to be sitting in a car, traveling. In spring, feeding windows can occur multiple times, but will be short. While it’s difficult to predict good or bad fishing, not being on the water at this time of day is a mistake.
Most of my good days of smallmouth fishing and our guide trips take place on sunny days. Sunlight stimulates smallmouth activity and drives their feeding patterns. Because they are visual feeders, smallmouths are most responsive in such conditions and daily time frames in April and May.
Longer is better
Suspending jerkbaits are often the ticket to early-spring success. Lure choice plays a huge role in winning strategies. Few other baits catch early-spring smallmouths better.
When water temperatures approach the mid 40s, my boat often fishes with a variety of Rapala X-Raps and Shadow Raps, Dynamic Lures J-Specs, Strike King KVD Jerkbaits, Livingston Lures Jerkmasters, and no-longer-made Matzuo Phantom Minnows.
Retrieve speed and presentation are paramount to success. Most bass anglers are prone to fish suspending jerkbaits too quickly and aggressively, as these baits are excellent triggers for reactionary strikes. The colder the water, the slower the retrieve.
Under these circumstances, which include cold fronts, we tempt early-spring smallmouths with long pauses between 30 seconds to a minute. To my knowledge, this tactic has been pioneered by famous river guide, Mike Mladenik, and is now being employed by other guides and anglers across the country. It’s deadly when lake smallmouths are lethargic, finicky or suspending offshore. The Shadow Rap Deep 11 and Livingston Jerkmaster are the most effective lures in my box for the long pause.
It can be boring to pause the baits and wait for bites in between jerks. But then a 4-plus-pounder strikes.
Finesse plastics
Ten to twenty years ago, fishing pressure for bass on Wisconsin’s inland lakes was nonexistent compared to today. Back then, fish were less educated, and hundreds of bass rigs weren’t traveling northbound on weekends, holidays and during the spawning season.
At some point in the near future, smallmouths will eventually have enough with most prototypical spring lure choices and overhead fishing pressure. The supply of smallmouth populations in some lakes cannot meet the demand, and this is being observed across many fisheries. Increased fishing pressure is driving smallmouths away from aggressive lures, and potentially their traditional spring locations altogether.
Lures fade in effectiveness. We see it some days on guide trips when conditioned smallmouths reject suspending jerkbaits. Nowadays, many anglers are turning to finesse plastics.
Most of my guide customers show up to fish with me with their favorite spinning rod rigged with a Z-Man TRD, or some other brand’s bitty bite. For countering pressured fish, and seemingly to achieve more bites, anglers are putting down their favorite suspended jerkbaits, lipless crankbaits and swimbaits in favor of more finesse applications. Hair jigs, swimming plastics, finesse tubes, ultra-light wacky worms, assortments of Ned-rigged plastics, and drop-shot rigs are getting more and more looks from smallmouths.
Fishing pressure is undoubtedly changing feeding habits, and catch rates are down.  My boat’s 20-inchers, and 50-fish-trip-days are becoming fewer. It’s more difficult nowadays to catch fish with traditional lures we’ve used in years past. Smallmouths are learning not to strike certain lures and are becoming more cautious. Finesse plastics are catching more smallmouths during the pre-spawn season than ever before.
Dress for success
Many suspending jerkbaits are manufactured and packaged without a dressed rear treble hook. Straight from the package, they catch fish but leave lots of them on the table. You can entice additional strikes by modifying those baits and attaching aftermarket teaser tails. I do this often with the Dynamic Lures J-Specs and Lucky Craft Pointers.
The best smallmouth anglers know how the eye-catching enhancement of feathered hooks can tempt bass that might otherwise lose interest at the last moment. We observe this often with Rapala X-Raps. Their inclusion of a dressed rear hook is a major reason behind this bait’s success.
Dressed trebles are beneficial on clear water. On these fisheries, smallmouths have exceptional vision and are able to track baits from afar.
Dressed trebles pulsate, flare out and breathe through the water on every jerk and pause, creating a hinging effect. The rear treble swings side to side, creating further attention.
VMC and Berkley each commercially produce good feathered treble hooks. Some of the best creations, however, are done by fly tiers, many of whom understand the physics and hydrodynamics behind their materials and of their creations. Fly tiers can create with specific hook brands and styles, and often work with higher quality feathers, hair, tinsel and flashabou materials.
For your jerkbait enhancements, make sure the feathers are evenly spread and don’t dwarf the hook, and that the hook size matches the bait’s originals. Too much of both will reduce the bait’s cutting and darting action.
Rivers and flowages
I preach fishing waters that warm fastest. This is no exception in early spring. To catch potentially the most active fish, and to tap into premier smallmouth fisheries, I always fish and guide on larger river systems and their flowages to begin the season.
Compared to inland lakes, river and flowage water temperatures can be up to 10 degrees warmer. While smallmouths in large lakes could still be wintering and dealing with ice-out conditions, smallmouths from these fisheries are likely to be migrating into staging locations and feeding heavily. Year after year, this pattern is my most consistent and reliable for early-sspring trips.
On flowages, smallmouths track along main river channels and old lake basins to aid in their annual spawning migrations. The same adult fish revisit the same spawning sites each season. Our fishing gravitates to expansive shoreline and island flats that contain a good amount of scattered rock and boulders. Smallmouths often pile up along their deepest edges and invade as waters warm further.
These locations are further appealing if within sight of deep channels. Most Wisconsin lowland flowages are sandy and shallow. Hard bottom substrates are very limited. Any rocky shoreline and littoral zone will be a fish magnet along small coves and shoreline pockets with wood.
On river systems such as the Flambeau, Menominee and Wisconsin, water temperature means everything. Ninety percent of the fish will be concentrated in 10 percent of the river or less, assuming water temperatures are colder than 52 degrees. This makes fishing an entire several-mile stretch of river unproductive. Therefore, it is important to know the locations and placements of large, deep, slack-water pools that serve as staging sites. Access these pools by boat or wading.
By the time they warm into the middle 50s, smallmouths migrate further and deeper into the system where they will disperse before settling to spawning sites. Likely habitats in these moving-water environments are laydowns, boulders, rock fields, eddies and current breaks, underwater benthic zones (current breaks along bottom) located along river bottoms, creek mouths and inflows, and manmade riprap.
Rivers and flowages warm rapidly, have shallower depths, are generally nutrient-rich dark water environments, and are proliferated with inflows and outlets that continuously inject warmer water into the system. Their currents, coupled with dark water, warm surface temperatures at a rapid rate. Quite often, the smallmouth’s biologic calendar on these waters is a few weeks ahead of schedule compared with most other nearby lake types and waters. This makes rivers and flowages unique in regards to targeting fish that are well advanced in spring patterns and more active and aggressive than elsewhere . By the time smallmouths begin spawning at these fisheries, turn your attention to deep, colder waters where the pre-spawn bite is only beginning to develop.
Know your subjects
The best fishermen know their subjects. In smallmouth fishing, those who can readily find and fool fish, and best understand their behaviors and tendencies, produce results.
Today, many anglers are consumed by the evils of fishing—prioritizing excessive and impractical gear and tackle with few applications, investing thousands of dollars on electronics they make little effort to learn, and buying boats that require second or third mortgages to help pay for. Most bass anglers are fixated on the wrong things and prioritizing the wrong subjects.
Growing up before I knew what marketing was all about, I was consumed by each of these desires. Nowadays, I fish with some of the best equipment provided to me, and that I can afford to buy. But during my upbringing, what I did differently from most of today’s anglers is study my subjects more than my peers.
I’d read every book and magazine I had access to, front to back, learning about the lives and behaviors of fish. As I learned more and more about my subjects, not only did my appreciation and knowledge for them grow, but my fishing skills improved immensely. Reading is invaluable, but time on the water is the real education, and I have been really blessed to have lots of it.
Today, my home office has become a fishing library, with shelves of books and periodicals authored and published by the best teachers in the history of freshwater fishing. I credit much of my fishing upbringing to these legendary anglers. Today, I still turn to their advice and study from them whenever I feel I’m running into any personal and guiding shortfalls.
Knowledge is power.
Each of the aforementioned lessons are utilized and applied to our spring season smallmouth fishing. Obviously, in addition to them, a lot of other factors and variables must correspond with and come into play. Consider them all, if you already haven’t, and you could have a better spring season than you’ve had in a long time.

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