Bottom Grindin’, Middle Movin’, and Top Teasin’
By Bruce Edward Litton
By early March, lakes and reservoirs of the Northeast region typically ice-out, largemouth bass lethargically responsive to a variety of lure techniques. Two years ago it didn’t happen until days before trout Opening Day in the New Jersey Highlands, early in April. This year, water has remained open most of the winter, but when ice cover helps compose winter as I like it, shallow, stained ponds open long before lakes and reservoirs, especially ponds with a feeder creek that pumps in runoff to break up ice. Late winter/early spring fishing begins at bottom.
Gravel or hard bottoms of 8-20 feet invite the use of an old standby, the Johnson Beetle Spin, and I could be wrong, but I would almost bet a lot of us have never heard of this spinnerbait with a detaching arm. The Beetle Spin’s insecurity adds special effectiveness for a method I called “tick spinning” during my teens, because the second hand of my watch rotated around the dial almost as slowly as the crank of my reel completed a turn. The cupped Colorado blade just waggles along without spinning. Instead of holding a fixed place, the arm subtly moves about as the jig head crawls over gravel or along hard bottom, not so much imitating a crawfish or any other sort of creature, but creating a very effective presentation that the slow metabolism of a bass responds to regardless of close imitation to anything living down in the cold darkness.
In a toss-up between much more popular tube jigs and the throwback Beetle Spin, I would put my money on the less popular lure bass see a lot less, because the cricketing metal seems just the ticket to getting the attention of metabolically deficient bass, whether or not the bass’s familiarity with tube jigs has anything at all to do with getting more strikes from the Beetle Spin.
Another old standby, in-line spinners achieve performance perfection through the mid-column early in the season for a number of reasons. The most obvious, perhaps, involves lack of vegetation to foul treble hooks. A willowleaf spinnerbait will better suit timber, but residual weeds hold baitfish and bass where a spinnerbait isn’t necessary. That logic is a clue. When a simpler approach suits, it may prove more effective than any added nonsense. A Mepp’s Aglia Long upwards of size 3 or a C.P. Swing 6 pulsing over any sparse tendrils of vegetation remaining near bottom is deadly, since the sleek appearance of an in-line spinner plays to the low key of early season music. Never use Colorado or Indiana blades, if you heed this principle of simple logic, because they emit too much vibration in cold water, so the standard Mepp’s or Blue Fox should be refused.
Perhaps it’s just my personal philosophy. I don’t doubt plenty of bass get caught by use of Colorado and Indiana blades this time of year. And yet, over the course of time, probability proves necessary quantification in relation to applied facts more or less appropriate to actual situations. And even yet, I question my slow approaches further, because I’ve read about largemouths caught on crankbaits burned at top speed with water temperatures in the upper 40’s. One caveat—lots of sunlight is present when this happens, according to the claim. That shook up my presumptions.
Nevertheless, attraction is not always about how loud and flashy a lure. A bass can feel all sorts of vibrations in the water. If there’s chop on top, bass below are quite aware of what they’re going through. As I understand the early season, environmental changes sensed by bass lateral lines need quiet and subtlety—in most cases—to accord with their slow responses conditioned by low metabolic energy. Slow and subtle presentation attracts bass to check out the source and possibly to strike, when a louder or bigger lure gets ignored. Long spinner blades hum along instead of sending more impact to those lateral line senses, attracting just enough attention with water temperatures in the low to mid 40’s or higher.
During a warming trend, at least some bass venture towards the shallows, and a slow to moderately retrieved spinner covers water, finds them and provokes strikes. Don’t pound the banks and docks, shoreline brush or stickups; plumb the middle zones between the depths and shallows. Some lakes and reservoirs have submerged ditches or depressions leading off main creek channels with structural breaks where bass hold feeling not quite ready to advance shallower. Rip rap and stone faces get warmed by morning and early afternoon sun, allowing bass short moves to relative shallows from depths close beneath, spinners effective at intercepting them.
But how is bass fishing complete without surface catches? Shallow water action seems to comprise most of what bass fishing is about, and as a rule, when water temperatures reach and surpass 50, bass invade the shallow flats, docks and other shallow spots. Fifty degrees, however, is no absolute rule. Bass get caught on the surface in water as cold as 47. There’s a specific way to do this, and I bet no bass has ever hit a hula popper chugged along in water this cold.
Steady sunlight throughout a mild or warm day allows water to warm just as evening approaches, to 47 or so. A northeast pond corner or lake cove with proximity to deeper staging points means sunlight will have warmed the area the most, since sun sets in the southeast. Even if the temperature difference is slight, it’s in your favor. Surface, however, must be dead calm and there’s a reason for this, as you may infer.
The Rebel Minnow is a floating jerkbait unlike most others, although perhaps some other companies make lures that fish about the same. The plastic 2 ½-inch Minnow is small enough not to serve much of a mouthful, and large enough to attract bass nearby. It sits on the surface at an angle, rear submerged, only head and shoulders breaking surface tension. By twitching only enough to raise that rear, and then allowing that rear to sink back, enough rippling in the water gets sent in all directions. Something like food is there for the taking. No jerking or popping will work. It’s not a matter of trying to send more vibration bass’s way, but as few vibrations as possible short of none. Remember, bass can feel all sorts of motion, including other fish on patrol. With water just warming enough that a few bass poke into the shallows, something seemingly alive—just barely—on the surface can tease interest out of competitive impulses.
Wait as long as a full minute between twitches, which isn’t easy, but the only way I know to work in water this cold. It’s an exercise in exploring patience you’ve completely forgotten since idle hours and minutes of adolescence, and if a bass comes up and sips as subtly as a trout taking a dry fly, an event has unfolded you may never forget.