Flat water in a pale morning light. Brisk but calm. Golden brown bodies ghosting beneath the surface over sand and rock. A strike. She boils on top, then races toward the break followed by 4 or 5 brethren.
That’s spring bass fishing “up here.” On the Great Lakes and the natural lakes of the North Country, shallow bass rule prespawn hunts. We could fish them deeper, but why? Can’t see them. Can’t watch them fight all the way back to the boat. Not as active off the breaks. Obviously I’m prejudiced, so I asked a few experts to help pick top prespawn tactics.
It’s fair to start with a hair jig. Right after the ice goes off, a bucktail jig has been catching smallmouths for me since the early 1970s. Many anglers may not remember the Nature Jigs from Mister Twister—stand-up heads with bulky bucktail bodies. I tipped the 1/4-ounce jigs with thin black pork strips from Uncle Josh and dragged them slowly along bottom. The jig I use today has evolved into a sleek, sparsely-tied, 1/16- to 3/32-ounce version that still is black. It’s tied by Paul Jensen of Jensen Jigs. We’ve described this tactic in the past. It requires a long, medium-light-power rod, like the St. Croix Avid 8-foot AVS80ML and a large-spool reel like the Shimano Stella STLC2000SFI spooled with 6- to 8-pound braid or 4-pound mono. The jig is rarely tipped with anything, and the idea is to retrieve it so slowly it almost suspends, rarely touching bottom.
At the same time, from right after ice-out until bass spawn, suspending baits continue to be a “universal solvent” for smallmouths everywhere. I’ve employed In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer’s “painfully protracted Pyzer pause” from Pickwick to Rainy Lake for years during spring, and won some serious cash doing it. “The very first bait I try for prespawn smallmouths is a jerkbait,” Pyzer says. “usually a Rapala X-Rap. The key, especially immediately after the ice goes off, is the pause. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange coined the ‘painfully protracted pause’ term as we filmed a TV segment on Rainy Lake several years back. He admits I crushed him that day because he couldn’t bring himself to pause long enough. There’s no such thing as too long. I’d cast out, jerk it a time or two, then pause for at least a minute. Some anglers tell you they’re pausing for 30 or 45 seconds, but if they timed themselves they’d realize it’s more like 10 or 20 seconds.”
We use similar tackle and tactics. I like a 7-foot 4-inch G. Loomis Bronzeback Series SMR 882S-SP with a large-spool reel with plenty of line capacity, like the Shimano Sahara series—needed when a rogue brown trout, salmon, muskie, or steelhead rams your Lucky Craft Pointer and takes off. The reel is spooled with 8- to 10-pound Berkley FireLine with a 5-foot leader of 10-pound fluorocarbon tied in with back-to-back uni-knots. My rule of thumb with early-season jerks is to cast, pull the lure down to its running depth, then set the rod down and eat a snack. Pick the rod back up and barely, almost imperceptibly, twitch it.
“Something about a jerkbait hanging in the upper third of the water column, doing nothing, drives smallmouths crazy—especially in cold, clear water,” Pyzer says. “Sometimes they hit it on the pause, but more often they whack it on the next twitch.”
Guide Mike Karempelis, owner of Walleyes And More, LLC, is a jerkbait believer, too. “On Green Bay, a Lucky Craft Pointer is the first lure I try in spring,” he says. “Suspending jerks are best when the water is clear, and in the mid-40s to about 57°F. If fish have pulled out a bit, suspending baits shine in the 10- to 12-foot range. Very early in a cold spring, you find fish suspended off spawning areas at times. Otherwise, we only look shallow, less than 10 feet on most days. That’s where smallmouths are most active during prespawn.”
Karempelis also favors 10-pound FireLine with a 10-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leader. “The leader helps around zebra mussels,” he says. “And we’re dealing with more pike these days. Work it slowly with long pauses, letting it settle. Bites are subtle. It’s important for the lure to suspend in a horizontal position. Watch the line, make sure the lure doesn’t rise or sink. I think it’s a big thing—having it sit horizontally instead of nose-down or tail-down. A nose-down lure that pops back up after a pause seems to work best in warmer water during summer. The less going on with the lure in cold water the better.”
After the hair-jig and jerkbait days fade with warming water, I often rely on 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jig-grub or jig-worm combos. “The jig-grub continues to put more bass in the boat for me for some reason,” Pyzer says. “A simple 4-inch Yamamoto grub has fallen out of favor with a lot of anglers, but…