Make Optimal Catches Now
It’s May and aquatic vegetation is returning to full mass offering advantage by not being as thick as it will soon be. Eutrophic lakes and ponds, and weedy reservoirs with clear water, all offer some of the best largemouth bass and pickerel fishing of the year now. Bass and spinnerbaits go together like women and jewelry, but pickerel and northern pike are attracted to the flash as surely as they have struck in-line spinners for almost a century. I have reason for why I like using spinnerbaits to catch these species in water that is at least fairly clear; this will become evident as discussion progresses.
Everyone hales bass and I have no opposition to this, but I love pickerel and pike for their savage attack nature. It’s as if they possess a much more concentrated focus of attention to unleash with powerful bursts of speed upon prey. Fall pursuits for pickerel are typical and shiner baited tip-ups are popular winter devices, but through spring’s warmer half into summer’s start amazing catches are possible. What adds such appeal is largemouth bass frequenting the same weedy structures just as willing to hit.
Optimal Water Temperatures
Baitfish are re-established in relation to weeds as water temperatures have reached optimum levels for bass and pickerel. Largemouths spawn in 62 to 66-degree afternoon water temperatures. If smaller males remain on beds this month, be assured that females are feeding in a post-spawn mode, stimulated and thriving among weeds rich in forage with water temperatures reaching the 70’s before summer doldrums. Pickerel spawn shortly after ice-out in 47 to 52-degree water but don’t slow their feeding until July either.
It’s common knowledge that cold blooded fish have metabolisms that burn more calories as water temperature rises. So the summer slump seems counterintuitive until you consider that bass and pickerel move less when water warms above their optimal range in order to conserve calories for that higher burn rate. This explains why during August heat spells an evening blitz of bass activity may happen for 10 or 20 minutes. They gang up and feed like mad to gorge themselves on as much as possible in little time to feed that metabolism—then return to inactivity so they don’t burn off too many calories gained by the intake.
Similar to this conservative summer strategy, an individual bass has a built-in response to all conditions to maximize its growth on a lifelong scale. Until water temperatures get above the higher end of optimal—somewhere in the 70’s, probably highest in the south—bass are driven to feed more to take best advantage for their growth and lengthen their lives. In essence, the same phenomenon happens in the fall when temperatures return to optimal. This has nothing to do with fattening for winter; it’s all about maximal growth. The same goes for pickerel and pike, although pike like cooler temperatures, which involves why pike are smaller in New Jersey than northern New York.
Sunlight and Wind are Ideal
During summer, bass and pickerel gorge at times during certain low pressure conditions. But another counterintuitive consideration for fishing now is that direct sunlight typically means better fishing with spinnerbaits so long as a breeze or wind chops water surface. Commotion scatters light and sets a shallow, clear water environment in motion. With calm sunlight, a clear aquatic environment about 15 feet deep or fewer absorbs the light straight into weeds and bottom with no action at the surface exciting life below. Only the weeds benefit directly. So long as depths are fairly shallow, water clear and wind-roughened under sunlit sky, bass, pickerel, and northern pike in some waters, seem to have a very hard time distinguishing a silvery spinnerbait blade from a nutritious shiner having abandoned caution in such an excited environment.
The blade or blades of a spinnerbait reflect light irregularly when rays coming through a chopped surface are scattered. These reflections are variable as chop is varied. With calm surface, sunlight steadily reflects a direct light flow from a blade. Fish don’t get confused by subtle reflection irregularities and an excited environment: they don’t have minds as we do to get confused. Rather, the calm environment is simple and the excited relatively chaotic. The complexities of stirred up environments are all exponents of increased action. It’s not much of a leap to suppose that fish, including forage, are more active as well. My fishing log bears this out. So do the strikes. They tend to be much more forceful with windy light.
Above all it’s that beckoning blade. And the more scattered the sunlight reflected from it, the more it compels. However subtle this difference in reflected light is, it goes along with a relatively chaotic environment, which is the main factor. But I think blade flash of any kind in these rough conditions is more attractive than head and skirt or attached plastic, although many choices between blades that reflect light differently are possible.
What blade or set of blades you choose makes a difference. The following general guidelines may help, but detailed choices are detailed differences too. A hammered blade, for example, will reflect light more chaotically than a smooth finished blade. Blades attached to swivels by split rings are easy to interchange if you care to experiment. Fishing close to the surface, greater blade vibration tends to be better. Ultimately, a buzzbait would be used at the surface and some have triple blades. But tandem blades on a typical spinnerbait are effective buzzed or fished a few feet down. A combination of Colorado and willowleaf blades causes maximum commotion, which shows that the blades chosen may make more difference in vibration than in how light is reflected relative to surface chop or lack of it.
The ratio of blade size to head weight determines the rate of retrieve at a given depth—larger blades mean slower retrieves are possible. But if you bothered to weigh a willowleaf blade and Colorado blade equally, the willowleaf would produce less resistance allowing a quicker retrieve. Blades produce pressure vaguely similar to aerodynamics, and a spinnerbait with a Colorado blade rides a little higher at the same retrieve speed a willowleaf blade would carry deeper. That pressure from a Colorado blade also releases more vibrations fish can sense by their lateral lines.
I find large, silvery Colorado blades to be especially effective close to the surface, and rather than combine such a blade with a willowleaf (to combine it with a Colorado of the same size would cancel out action), I like them single. This is no more than personal preference. (Confidence and value go a long way for performance.) Fishing big blades three feet down may be effective among growing weed-tops over a flat or next to a weedline. If you sight isolated lily pad fields among milfoil or other vegetation, this cover is great this time of year. Fish the edges and right through whatever openings allow passage. I treat large pad fields as any other weedline unless openings allow a spinnerbait to get through.
In six to 10-foot shallows, a willow leaf blade may be more effective since it imitates quieter environmental action at this level beneath an angry surface, not that these depths aren’t affected at all! Often the biggest bass or pickerel will situate to strike at the bottom of fairly deep weedlines, possibly deeper than 10 feet, and a heavy spinnerbait can be fished effectively at 15 feet with a small blade. In the depths fish tend to have a subtler feeding response and willowleaf blades cater to this. Lighter head weights that retain effective retrieves allow slower presentation to possibly tease reluctance to response. But a problem when fishing weedy flats about 10 feet deep with weeds growing towards the surface is that thick weeds near bottom foul your line and lure. Get a spinnerbait down about four or five feet. Bass and pickerel are not necessarily on the bottom. It’s easier to fish deeper now than in July. Otherwise, the time may be just right on a summer morning or evening for topwaters over the tendrils.
Skirts, Plastics, and Color
Whether or not to use certain skirts or grubs and other plastics in place of them (or with them) are particular choices also. I sometimes use just a four inch section of straight, conventional plastic worm without a skirt, but I love to put on a soft plastic Hawg Frawg. Those rippling legs produce a tantalizing action. Color probably makes more difference as you like colors than fish do, but bright colors in bright sunlight are fitting in a lit up environment below. Bass, pickerel, and pike are not color blind, so color makes a difference. However, so many colors exist that to tell just what “they’re hitting” may be circumstantial. In my own experience I’m better at choosing blades than color.
Having favorites of any kind may hinder further experimentation, but it may protect against confusion, frustration, and such an obsession with technicalities that your focus on the rhythms of fishing itself is overlooked. I think it’s usually more important to absorb the environment you are probing—besides, what you are fully aware of will generate original ideas. So if color is a concern, for example, see if you can get an answer from the lake itself rather than some compartment in your head. This may sound obscure and irrelevant, but on the contrary, relevant ideas always come from actual experience. Favorites make a fishing experience comfortable, secure, familiar, and often efficacious. But they also tend to make us complacent and stupid. If the day is getting slow, chances are it’s you, not the lake. But one afternoon I found that my green Hawg Frawg on a 3/8-ounce head below a big Colorado blade drew so many ferocious strikes the thought of experimenting would have seemed silly to me.
Habitat Behaviors and Getting a Spinnerbait at Them
The color of largemouth bass tells us what they like best—aquatic vegetation. The same goes for pickerel and northern pike, although pickerel particularly are weed addicts. They need residual aquatic vegetation in order to spawn. They aren’t caring in the way bass build nests and the males furiously protect eggs and fry. Pickerel drop eggs in residuum; the males fertilize them, and go on their way.
Almost always pickerel stage from weed cover to ambush prey. I have caught three pickerel in the Delaware from rock structures, but it’s almost an absolute rule that the rare pickerel in this river stay among the weeds of slow stretches and pocket backwaters. However, as with largemouths, branches, fallen trees, or stumps combined with weeds are especially attractive to pickerel. Being elongated in shape, pickerel mold in to submerged branches. Their color may even shift to a dark golden hue.
Cast well beyond wood cover, then run a spinnerbait right against it and stop the retrieve. The blade or blades will flutter as the lure falls. Often the strike comes just as you begin retrieving again before the lure would touch bottom. Another trick to try is banging wood with the lure, retrieving faster as you work the lure right into a branch then let it drop. Works for both species.
Unlike bass, pickerel will sometimes follow a spinnerbait to the boat and stay in place near the surface in full view. A few things to do include changing the direction of the spinnerbait and pulling it along boatside to provoke a strike, moving the spinnerbait in a figure 8, or grabbing a rod with a Senko worm rigged wacky with hook in the middle and just pitching it to the fish. I’ve found the latter method to be most effective. Yes, pickerel take Senkos, but make sure you use a 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader.
Pickerel and pike are not as accurate at attacking prey—or lures—as bass. This is our fourth counterintuitive issue. Bass are swimmers. They have nowhere near the agility of pelagic swimmers, but they coordinate on their targets well from relatively open water situations. Pike and pickerel are ambush predators that use cover. They rely on a burst of initial speed to strike prey rather than suck and swoosh it in as bass do. Pike and pickerel contract their bodies in a sort of instantaneous, springing spasm and shoot for the target—or miss it. Since they often rush from two or three yards, the prey may move significantly off the aim fired at, even though pike and pickerel do judge motion for that aim. But pickerel especially don’t give up. If a spinnerbait was clipped or missed by a foot or so, closer to it the predator quickly turns and attacks again. But oddly similar to mammalian play, after initial attack a pickerel sometimes seems clearly to miss a lure by intent as if it senses it’s not food, but exercises aggression anyhow. If a pickerel comes after a shallow running spinnerbait a second time and misses it, speed up the retrieve and the fish may be provoked into a savage direct hit from behind.
Horse Them from the Mess
Pickerel in New Jersey and New York eutrophic waters and reservoirs grow to five, six, possibly as large as 10 pounds—the former world record nine-pound, three-ounce fish came from New Jersey’s Pinelands. To imagine a grand average, they run about two pounds smaller than largemouths in our region. Like bass, when hooked they dive at the nearest, thickest weeds. If you can’t horse a fish from tangles of thick stems and weed mass, slack line between the lure on the jaw and the mess the line is buried in will result very shortly in head shakes and hook leverage against weeds that head is buried in. This would free the fish, which is why I use 15-pound test Power Pro braid. On a medium power rod I could pull a six-pounder from certain loss. Braid diameter is thin enough to cast freely as six-pound test mono gets a lure out a long way.
A seven-foot medium power spinning rod with a fast action tip propels spinnerbaits such distances that Power Pro is good for its lack of stretch too. I’ve missed hits on long casts with mono I wouldn’t have missed with braid.
It’s a great time for spinnerbaits. In my scheme of things the best time; I rely more on crankbaits and jerkbaits in the fall. The weeds are here and spinnerbaits weedless, but space between tendrils is just enough not to foul retrieves much and force you to switch to a worm or topwater plug.