If you live in northern New England and aren’t into ice fishing, you probably spend the winter dreaming about open water. By the time March comes, my fishing partner, Ben Cayer, and I are so antsy that we launch the boat at the first open ramp on Lake Champlain and freeze for a few hours just to catch a couple of smallmouth. Is it worth it? Maybe. More than anything, it gets us excited for the smaller, shallower inland ponds that will soon open and the opportunities they present to catch the biggest bass of the season.
In deeper ponds and lakes, bass stay in deep water longer before moving shallow. However, in ponds where the maximum depth is not substantial, water temperatures increase faster. When the shallows warm on sunny days, the fish will move up from the slightly deeper grass spawning flats into the shallows.
When there is a warming trend and a few days of sun are expected, plan to work any shallow areas first. A couple degrees in water change sparked by sunlight penetrating to mud and silt bottoms will draw bait and bass.
Early Spring Lures and Gear
When selecting gear and lures, keep it simple in early spring. Look for a reaction bite or work painfully slow to “finesse” bass into biting. Typically, a couple of reaction baits like spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, or lipless crankbaits will suffice. If the fish require a slower presentation, drag jigs or worms a little deeper. Bass tend to group as they wait to spawn, so cover water with reaction baits until you get a bite, then target the area with finesse baits.
For fishing search-baits, such as lipless crankbaits, diving crankbaits, and bladed jigs, I use a longer rod with a moderate action or even a glass rod. A Quantum Tour KVD PT or a Dobyns Rods 735CB, 7-foot-plus, paired with a 6.3:1 ratio reel gets the nod. A Quantum Accurist or Smoke S3 reel also works well and will handle a little heavier line as needed. You can’t go wrong with 15- to 17-pound fluorocarbon for these setups, and a moderate-action rod will cast the baits a mile. The top bait this time of year has to be the bladed jig. Its versatility is unmatched, and by selecting from a variety of trailers, you can modify it for any scenario. For a slower retrieve, opt for a paddletail-style, which allows the bait to be worked slower. A streamlined trailer lets you work the bait faster to cover different parts of the water column.
For a slower presentation, I use a swimbait rigged on a 3/8-ounce Coolbait Lures underspin. This provides more depth capability and the underspin comes through the grass with ease when backing off the bank. The weedless model underspin works well for thicker grass areas, and the heavier 3/8-ounce bait can be used a little deeper and worked faster back to the boat. Additionally, a bulky jig works well for casting to deeper grass – it offers a large meal for big bass and often will provide some of the bigger bites.
For fishing an underspin, you will again want a longer rod, such as the Quantum Vapor (7’4”) or a Dobyns Champion 734C (7’3”) paired with a size 20 Quantum Smoke S3 or Vapor reel. With the jig, pick a heavy fast-action rod with a high-speed reel. I spool up 10- to 15-pound braid to a 10- to 15-pound fluorocarbon leader for the worm and underspin, and either 20-pound fluorocarbon or 40-pound braid for the jig setup.
The first thing I do after locating the warmest water on a small pond is to pick up a lipless crankbait setup and cover some water. The lipless crank is a versatile search-bait that can be retrieved in different ways to trigger a reaction bite. You can cover a whole lot of water – shallow and deep. Look for the cleanest living vegetation in the pond and start working the lipless bait around the deepest parts of it (typically, this will be around 8 feet). Vary your retrieve, keeping the bait around the tops of the vegetation, then try slow-rolling it deeper into the weeds and snapping it out when it gets snagged. Work these areas until you get a bite. It’s critical this time of year to pay attention to the depth when you get a bite because you can usually find fish at the same depth in other locations.
If you can’t buy a bite with the lipless crank, work through your medium and shallow crankbait arsenal, looking for reaction bites. Ticking the tops of the grass or even burying into it is often key this time of year. For a more subtle reaction bite, switch to a bladed jig and run it the same way, searching from deeper edges to shallower areas until you get a bite to give you the clues you need.
If you’re not getting consistent bites on reaction baits, slow it down and present an underspin with a paddle-tail swimbait that you can slowly thump along the outer edge of the vegetation. Again, start deeper and work shallower. If the sun is out and the water is in the 50s, it might not be a bad idea to zigzag between shallow flats and deeper grass. You might also try a “wildcard” bait – such as a jerkbait – that can be worked shallow and deep using varying retrieves. It may work when all others do not.
Going Big on Small Ponds
As March leads into April, keep track of the areas on small ponds that lose ice first and target these locations to fish the pre-spawn bite. This is the best time of the year to have a crack at the biggest fish in the pond because they are shallow and they will be feeding. Even after a front pushes the fish back a little deeper, they will still be catchable.
Mix up cast-and-retrieve options with slower presentations and cover both shallower and deeper water—especially where the deeper water is close to spawning areas. Don’t be afraid of the grass. Work around and through vegetation and remember that ripping baits through clumps often triggers bites. Do not be afraid to work shallow water on sunny days, especially areas with dark mud and silt bottoms. Wood and rocks are a bonus, as is proximity to a drop-off. Sometimes, a channel that offers only a foot or two of additional depth can funnel fish moving from deeper water to shallow areas.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from fishing small ponds, it’s that even though it might seem too early for bass to move out of deeper water, the early spring sun can have a drastic effect on water temperatures in shallow areas. The fish can be found in these shallows, and they will be biting.