The wrong plug for earliest topwater action, even though it's a favorite.
Since ponds usually open up later this month, I thought I would post an article about surface action after ice-out.
Ice-Out Largemouths on the Surface
Here in New Jersey, the Delaware and Raritan Canal was built and put into coal barge operation back about the same time Woolrich went into business in the 1830s. Not big barges, mule boats got towed along a path immediately beside the water. Today, the once clean edges of the canal serve as the overgrown haunts of largemouth bass and pickerel. As a teen, I knew of a barge basin alongside the canal near my house in the central region of the state. For more than several years, every late February and early March as soon as the ice had melted, I caught largemouths in this five or six-acre basin pond.
Where I now live in northern New Jersey, some ponds may be ice-free while ice fishermen still dare to go out on northernmost Greenwood Lake, and possibly Lake Hopatcong. If you prefer to fish open water or especially would like to on a mild day, perhaps after a confining winter, ponds give you the early advantage of being fishable. They easily warm when temperatures climb.
Ponds Warm Earliest and Fastest
Ponds and lakes with stained water warm fast. But any pond will warm faster than a lake, unless a lake is very shallow. I learned in my teens that largemouths can be caught on the surface as early as late February in New Jersey. But what still amazes me today is that the water temperature at which bass will take a plug from the surface is downright cold.
For the only topwater technique I know of that will work at 47 degrees, water of good clarity is best since the method is so subtle. A big popper on a hot summer evening may call up bass from six or seven feet down in turbid water, but the method I will disclose cannot do that, certainly not as a popper can. But leave nothing to doubt: a big popper will not work in 47 degree water unless it’s a freak exception I’ve never heard of once happening. However, there is a way to catch largemouth on the surface consistently at that temperature, although the right conditions—a calm, mild evening after plenty of sun has warmed the shallows quickly—happen only a few times at most, very early in the spring. During the first days of March, 1975, my older mentor showed me how to do it.
How to Fish a Rebel Real Slow
“Rapalas are useless.” Joe had told me. “Not only do they wiggle too tight and quick if you try to get the bass to hit on a retrieve—as well as begin to rise very fast if you pause for a split second—the main problem with them is subtler.” He dropped a 2 ½-inch Rebel Minnow into the water at our feet.
He said, “Go ahead, get down near water level and have a look.” The water in the basin was very clear, and I could see that the Rebel floated with most of the body slightly submerged. It sat not so deeply as it would by a 45-degree angle, but only the plastic of the head area broke the surface.
“I’m going to twitch my rod tip very lightly,” he said. I watched as the rear end of the plug lifted slightly and the head barely dipped. Then Joe lifted the Rebel and cast it long with a whip of the light tip of the rod.
“That’s all the action you need to get them to hit on the surface now. Wait about 20 seconds, even longer, between each twitch. By comparison, the balsa wood of a Rapala floats the plug high up and evenly on the surface. It’s entirely ineffective.”
“So by barely twitching the tail up, it takes forever to retrieve a single cast,” I said.
“Uh huh. But if you can’t stand it, retrieve very slowly with jerks and short pauses every two or three seconds. That sometimes does it, too. Especially gets the occasional pickerel.”
Where to Catch Early Largemouths
There were two areas of that basin pond where we caught bass on the surface in March, and these structures turned out to have been archetypal for bass fishing this time of year. The northeast corner got the sun late in the afternoon. Situated very close to the pond’s deepest 12 feet of water, we caught bass there in very cold weather and water and through the ice during the winter. On calm evenings, after at least a fairly mild day and lots of sun, we picked off two or three bass or more from this corner with submerged branches. Some of these fish were nice, better than two pounds. They simply took to the nearest, warmest shallows with some cover from a deep retreat.
The southern end of the pond featured a shallow flat. After several mild days, we took quite a few bass on the Rebel from just about anywhere of about half an acre of one to three feet of water. The bass never arrived there until water temperatures of about 50 degrees and more established in the afternoons and evenings of a couple or a few days.
This fishing represented a set of two patterns we relied on for four years of fishing the basin together. We spoke eagerly each spring anticipating “the bass moving up on the flat.” Either “back in the corner” or on the flat, we caught bass on the surface with the Rebel.
And since the 1970s, I’ve repeated the same general pattern fishing other waters. The earliest warming water, which may be six or seven degrees colder or more the next day with the sort of weather change to expect in March, leads bass to the closest shallows they can access. It’s as though they register that they’ll only be in shallows for a single evening before returning to the depths, so they take to the closest warmed water to them. They wait at least for the second day of warming water before invading a flat, which is both at a further distance from the depths and an extensive area itself, requiring of the bass more motion and burning of calories.
We noticed a significant difference between the temperature of the warming water in the basin’s corner when bass were present, and that of the flat when bass moved over it en masse. Three degrees makes a difference. But not all of the bass in a pond move into the ideal structure area on one of these first mild evenings after colder weather. For one thing, that would be an awful lot of bass in one corner of a pond. About 47 degrees is all that’s needed to draw at least some of the bass into very shallow water and likely into more than one spot. Although a northeast corner soaking up that southwestern sun should be the best spot, bass will be elsewhere, too, and likely some in shallows on the feed. So long as the lure cast to them is a floater/diver minnow type plug that allows the rear to be submerged, they may rise and take it with a dimple as subtle as a trout’s taking a fly.
Major Movement into Shallows and Set-Backs
As soon as the water is going to hold at about 50 degrees or better late in the day, a much larger number of bass move into shallow water. If the pond has a shallow flat, find bass on it. Likewise for lakes once they’ve warmed similarly, although structures, particularly those that lead from deep water into shallow flats, may be more complicated and interesting.
Impoundments have creek channels. Large impoundments have many channels which lead back individually into shallow coves, while very small impoundments have only one. In some lakes, very subtle channels—ditches—run between shore and the main channel leading back into a cove. Sometimes such ditches can be sighted on the shoreline where they enter the water. Bass use channels and ditches when available to lead them onto flats. It’s a good idea to learn where these structures are, and to fish them closely. Bass will sometimes be reluctant to move out onto to a flat, and remain staged in a channel. Particularly large bass use the edge of a channel or scoop of a ditch as an ambush point. If you can find cover associated with a channel or ditch, that’s better. If the water has good clarity and is six feet deep or fewer, calm and warmed, the surface approach with a low sitting floater/diver may be the best device to coax a lunker to rise and slurp that plug down.
Lakes and impoundments often have a structure which combines the two archetypes of shallows with immediate deep water access, and an extensive flat: shallow humps, which may be the best spots you can fish, particularly in larger reservoirs where bass winter in water as deep as 40 feet or more well away from shore. If a wintering area is near a hump with a fairly broad shallow area on top of it, excellent fishing may be had.
In any case, if the water temperature is falling, the best approach may be live bait—shiners. Getting bass to strike lures is of course not impossible in very cold water with dropping temperature. But we’re in awe of nature in part because of its order, and it’s as certain as any immutable law that no bass will take a plug on the surface in extremely cold water. There’s a world of difference between 40 and 47 degrees. It is true that by evening after a mild day, right about sunset and shortly thereafter, the water temperature may have already begun to slip. But on beautiful days that have quickly brought that surface temperature into the upper 40's without too sharp a dip of the air temperature at sunset, the fact of warmed shallows keeps the bass in them until the effect sharply reverses.
Fishing lakes and impoundments is, at least in one respect, easier than fishing ponds: on board a nice boat the electronics tell you a lot. Topographic maps are much easier to find for large waters, too. However, locating the deepest water of a pond isn’t difficult. Tie on a half-ounce jig, cast it, count off its descent. It will drop at about two feet per second. This may result in approximate measures, but you can certainly find the deepest water by the longest count.
As earlier mentioned, it’s always possible that pond bass will move out of the pond’s deepest water and into two or more adjacent shallow areas on one of these mild evenings. Check a number of areas, even shallows not so likely to produce, so long as you have time. But fish the floater/diver with great patience. It’s not easy. Inevitably some bass are going to be caught on the retrieve. It may just be too tedious to always retrieve the plug by barely moving it all the way back for the next cast. Either way, remember that this is ice-out. Keep it slow.
Ice Out Considered as Pre-Spawn
We usually do not think of ice-out as the pre-spawn period. Water temperatures are still a long way from the upper 60's of spawning time. Here in North Jersey bass don’t spawn until about early May, if that. Pre-spawn time is thought to be April, but the eggs in females have begun to grow by ice-out, and these bass need energy to grow them to size within a couple months or so. It’s possible that bass, particularly females which account for the lunkers, are particularly motivated to feed as soon as the water reaches into the 40's just after ice-out in order to compensate for the added metabolic demand of their egg mass. There may be a hormonal response in the females that drives them to feed more since eggs require more calories to produce than sperm requires of males.
Although bass have a cold-blooded metabolism, metabolism and temperature are not an absolute regulator of activity as such. Hormones may increase feeding activity very early in the spring relative to less feeding activity in the late fall with the same water temperature. Fishery research has established that while bass store energy as fat rather than protein when water temperatures drop in the fall, no evidence exists that this is to protect against the cold of winter. Since bass are cold blooded, that doesn't matter, and neither do they hibernate, nor cease altogether to feed under ice, as ice fishermen know well. Rather, this shift to fat from protein somehow correlates with slowing metabolism; bass do not go on a fall feed in order to fatten up for winter as if they need it in lieu of feeding. Nor have I caught bass on the surface at 47 degrees in the fall, not even on a mild, sunny day with rising water temperature.
Besides, regarding metabolism as not being the only determinant of feeding activity, it’s obvious that bass feed for other reasons than what the water temperature is. The approach of a low pressure system stimulates feeding activity, for example. Conversely, other conditions put them off the feed. It’s also true that in waters rich with forage, bass grow faster and bigger because they feed opportunistically.
Whatever the case may really be, ice-out is a significant time of awakening after a stable freeze. The days usually remain cold with little sign of spring becoming visible in early March, but even a single mild, sunny day can critically change the bass environment in the favor of an angler who may otherwise just be glad to get out of the house. Very good catches can be made, and possibly some of the year’s largest. But the Rebel and other plastic floater/divers available on the market may not be the final word on this surface technique.
I have never bothered to experiment with modifying plugs to see if I can increase the effectiveness of this cold water angle. The Rebel straight out of the box seems perfect enough, but I don’t really know if a touch up may do one better. It would seem as if the obvious candidate for modification would be the banished Rapala—some weight placed on the rear treble. Surely an angle of the plug’s rear to surface as steep as 45 degrees could be achieved with enough buoyancy remaining in the plug overall. Whether or not the right rear-lift action would remain, I doubt. But for those who love to invest time in tinkering and experiment, I would have to agree that plug modification for ice-out largemouths seems an interesting endeavor.