Monday, January 28, 2013

Early Spring Largemouth Bass: The Ice-Out Advantage

Ice-Out Largemouths

The Early Advantage

          Some of us who ice fish try to stretch the season out by acts that may either appear crazy or clever, like placing wood planks over water between the bank of a lake and the thick ice mass still remaining beyond edge melt. People have been known to ice fish on an 80-degree March day, although thick, hard ice remained beneath the surface slush. But if the preference is for open water, or a quick fix from short jigging rods to standard spinning, often New Jersey ponds will provide the advantage of open water action while tip-up flags still go up on the state’s northernmost lakes.

Spots that Harbor Spring Fever 

          Ponds usually open up in early March in north Jersey, earlier in central and southern regions. Stained water warms fastest; but any pond will warm faster than a lake, unless a lake is very shallow. In any case, the best action very early in the open water season is usually had late afternoon to sunset after at least a fairly mild, sunny day. A calm water surface can actually invite surface fishing. As counterintuitive as this may seem, an extremely subtle approach to topwater fishing is very effective.

           If the water is broken by a chop, a mild air temperature will mix into the water at the surface. Ideally the wind dies near sunset, but in-line spinners and small spinnerbaits can be especially effective if it doesn’t.

          Usually a single mild day is followed by a return to cold. It’s as if largemouth expect this and move into shallows nearest to a pond’s deepest water, to where they retreat once the cold returns.  The ideal spot for such an evening is a northeast corner near the deepest water with some cover or decayed weeds to attract baitfish. All afternoon the northeast area has soaked in sunlight like a sponge, and the water temperature has reached, perhaps, 47 degrees. Bass and baitfish alike will go to such warmed water like a magnet. So long as the temperature at sunset does not dip too quickly, some amazing wake up action can be had.

          Perhaps a few of such evenings happen very early after ice-out before a real warming trend sets in that lasts at least a few days. As late afternoon water hits 50 and beyond for two or three days running, baitfish and bass have enough energy to range through wide areas. The shallow flats come alive. Many years ago we used to fish an old five or six-acre mule barge basin of the Delaware and Raritan Canal from late February to Trout Opening Day. Often the question was whether the bass were back in the corner or up on the flats. Some good catches were made in the corner. But when lengthy warming trends set spring in motion, we made even better catches in a half acre or so area of 1 to 3 feet of water.  Most of the bass we took from the surface. But there’s a special way to do this. I didn’t discover the method myself; my older mentor showed me.

Special Lures and Choice Live Bait

          The basin with its northeast corner near its deepest water and flat at the southern end of the pond is archetypal for the two kinds of shallows to look for in a variety of waters very early in the spring. We caught a few of the bass in the corner on the surface. Forty seven degrees, the critical point, may be all that’s needed to do this, so long as the water has warmed fast. But by topwater fishing I certainly don’t mean a big chugger or any standard topwater plug; catching bass by summer tactics in 47-degree water is unheard of. The method is much subtler.

          The difference between a plastic Rebel Minnow floater/diver, and a balsa Rapala is absolute. And the division is never so apparent as in early March. Rapalas, when the retrieve is stopped, float upward fast, too fast for cold water.  Rebels rise slower, and a slow retrieve with jerks and pauses every few or more seconds may be effective. As a surface lure, the Rapala sits high and evenly on the surface, and is thusly ineffective this time of year. Here’s why by comparison: the Rebel sits lower on the surface and at a slight angle. Only the head area breaks the skin of the surface. By barely twitching the plug—the 2 ½-inch size has been more effective—the rear lifts. The head dips slightly; but the action that draws bass seems to be that very subtle lift of the rear of the plug almost to the surface. And they don’t clobber the lure; sometimes they will take it with a dimple as subtle as a trout’s nipping a fly.

          The Rebel Minnow straight out of the box works this time of year. But I have wondered what results plug modification may yield. To tinker and experiment for as much time as this would require I have never tried. Perhaps a Rapala with weight on the rear treble would be a start, to achieve an angle relation of the plug to the surface as steep as 45 degrees. But I would think the action would not be subtle enough, and have no inclination to even try it. But who knows what someone might come up with otherwise.

          With the Rebel Minnow as an obvious favorite, my second favorite is the Johnson Beetle Spin. This method inversely complements surface fishing and works in cold, deep water. It’s just like barely dragging a jig right on the bottom, except that the spinner arm makes it somewhat snag-free, and mostly the barely turning small Colorado blade seems to attract pick-ups. It works with a very slow retrieve on cold days in the 30's or 40's. Stay with the 1/8th-ounce size.

          On days in the 40's and 50's, particularly when some chop scatters light beams, the blade of an in-line spinner reflecting sun near, but not necessarily at the bottom of a lake or pond, can draw strikes. I remember as a youth I felt surprised that a C.P. Swing retrieved at medium speed in 45- degree weather could catch bass. Spinnerbaits work, too. I prefer small ones this time of year. Particularly they are good in cover.

          Suspending minnow-type plugs can be just the ticket in shallows warmed into the upper 40's, but not quite breaking into the 50's: sometimes letting the plug hang motionless for a minute or more results in a take. Very subtle twitches can give life to a plug that otherwise hangs very loose. Larger plugs like the Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue may have their moment especially on big bass warming their eggs before the spawn. The Rogue sits at a slight on the angle on the surface, too, and can be fished similarly as the smaller Rebel.

          Live bait really deserves more than just a passing reference for bass fishing this early. I get in the mood for it; there’s something naturally appropriate about putting a live shiner out to be devoured in the cold. Of course, almost all of us who ice fish use live bait; and there’s no stigma about not getting a fish to take a man-made artificial. I feel that seeing a twitch in the line indicating a take and then watching line pay out as I open the bail is thrilling. The combination of more natural movement on the line than by artificials—of the shiner on the hook and of the take and letting the bass run for at least ten or fifteen seconds—with the cold, bleak March environment yields a feeling of connection with life that is exquisitely subtle, which lures cannot match. I’ve tried live shiners in the summer and it is not the same feeling.

          For live bait only use shiners or some other type of minnow. Killies work if you can get them, but they don’t have the shiny scales to reflect sunlight and to possibly provoke reaction strikes. To get the shiner down to 10 or 12 feet all that is needed is a leader loop attached to a size 8 snap swivel. Patiently let the shiner swim its way down to the bottom. Give it a minute or two. Then work it with slow, two to three-foot lifts of the rod. Let the snap swivel get pulled about a bit down at the bottom. Even on very cold, mile-high sky days fishing the deepest water of a pond this way can work.

          Otherwise, try spots oriented to deep water. Perhaps the shadowline of what is a weedbed in the summer seven feet deep near 10 or 12 feet of water, maybe the outer edge of a brushpile extending out from a bank towards such depths. The sides of a point may hold bass. A channel trough along a steep bank can be dynamite. Fish methodically—find bass—but keep it very slow with shiners.

We Just Don’t Call it the Pre-Spawn

          Not until April. Pre-spawn is thought to be the period of about a month before bass actually spawn around May. But by now, this present time named ice-out, eggs are growing in females and they need energy to grow and mature. It’s quite likely that hormonal influences in the females provoke them to feed a little more in 47-degree water in the spring than they would in 47-degree water in the fall. That largemouth fatten up for winter to protect against cold is a myth. Largemouth are cold blooded, do not hibernate, and we ice fishermen know very well that they feed—and move—all winter. Fisheries research has shown that with dropping temperatures in the fall largemouth do store energy as fat rather than as protein. But there is no evidence of weight gain of fat for the winter; rather, it is some other correlation with reducing metabolic levels.

          At any rate, I have never caught a bass in 47-degree, sun warmed water on a Rebel at the surface in the late fall. Those fish are headed downward in the fall. And in the early spring they are risin’ in the sun.






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