In early spring, leave the main lake and look to the shallowest sloughs for the mother lode of largemouth bass.
I’ll never forget the day it first happened. It was May 1, and I was pre-spawn largemouth bass fishing a clear body of water in southern New Hampshire I had fished many times before. It was sunny and calm, and the main lake water temperature was 58 degrees. The previous two weeks had been unseasonably cool and rainy. Due to these rains, the water in the pond was up about two feet more than normal and I was expecting a typical day of pre-spawn bass fishing – cruising the shoreline looking for wood or rocks that might hold a bit of heat and a few bass. I was not expecting much, just happy to get out to pitch a jig and throw a shallow-running crankbait.
The day was proceeding as I expected as I combed a shoreline with my jig and crankbait for an hour with no signs of any fish life, big or small. I brought up the trolling motor and motored over to a large shallow cove that usually held fish in summer once the vegetation grew up. It was a likely spot to find some pre-spawn bass, as the water should be warmer there. Despite the shallower water in the cove, the temperature was only a degree warmer than the main lake, and given the number of bites I was getting, the fish weren’t there.
I was scratching my head now. This lake held some nice largemouth, but something was off. I had just fished a similar lake the day before with similar water temperatures and similar weather conditions and found plenty of willing largemouth tight to shore. I was just about to head for deeper water, thinking that maybe fish were holding offshore in areas with a little more depth, when I saw some activity on the water surface in a shallow area that I was never able to get into before with my boat. This place was a small backwater connected to the large cove I had been fishing by a shallow, narrow channel. I wasn’t sure I could get in there with my boat, but gained confidence as I went farther and farther thanks to the high water from the recent spring rains.
I had just navigated the channel to where the backwater opened up when two things happened immediately: the temperature on my fish finder suddenly read 63 degrees, and I noticed there were baitfish everywhere. Last year’s yellow perch and golden shiners were swimming on all sides of the boat in huge schools. Ahead of me I could see big, broad green backs and tail fins sticking out of the water as largemouth bass attempted to herd baitfish toward the banks. I felt like I had found heaven, and for the next few hours, I had. There were seemingly hundreds of bass in this small area and many were females from 3 to 5 pounds. I caught 20 bass and spooked twice that many.
This is nothing new. Find the warmest water during the pre-spawn, and you will usually find bass. However, there were two things that made this particular find unique. One, here was an area, normally inaccessible to me in a boat, that was the warmest spot in the lake because its shallow depth and small size allowed it to warm faster than the rest of the lake. Lesson learned: take advantage of high water to get into new areas. Two, despite catching both male and female bass in water temperatures that should induce some spawning activity, I did not see any beds or any fish making beds. This was unusual, as during the spawn males usually come into the shallows first to excavate nests while the larger females wait in deeper water until ready to spawn. These bass had not yet spawned and were not in the process of spawning, yet both genders were in an area where I verified, later that spring, that they do spawn. At the time I encountered them, they seemed more interested in filling their bellies and soaking up some warmth than in the upcoming spawn. Lesson learned: bass don’t read books or scientific articles, so expect the unexpected.
This specific area was filled with matted humps of dirt and clay, some undercut banks, and several beaver huts. Some fish were tight to the bank or other structure, while others were simply roaming in more open water. However, the consistent fact was that they were feeding and shallow, most in less than three feet of water.
When conditions, particularly water temperature and water level, stay constant, fish such as these may remain in the area and be receptive to lures for a number of days and still be in pre-spawn mode; the fish I mentioned earlier were in the same location one week later and still had not spawned. However, during most springs, you will probably have a rather narrow window of time when both males and females are present and not spawning. Conditions must be just right in terms of time of year, water temperature, and water levels. Despite this sometimes brief period, if you strike out using this method at one lake, I have found that another water body just down the road or in another part of New England can lead to a similar and successful outing.
Due to the potentially short-lived nature of this opportunity, anglers can’t be too picky about weather conditions when deciding to fish these areas. Calm days are great, as they allow you to look for fish activity such as surface wakes and fish finning, but they also make the fish more skittish as they are able to see you and your lure better. Days with a breeze make it more difficult to see fish, but the fish tend to be less spooked by your presence. Overall, I have had better success on clear, calm days.
Regardless of the weather, stealth is key. Never run your big motor. Rely on your trolling motor to enter these backwater areas, and once fishing, minimize your trolling motor use and move as quietly and slowly as possible. In some cases, a long pole or paddle is all you need. This is also a great opportunity for New England canoe and kayak anglers to connect with some great bass.
Now let’s talk tackle. I primarily used spinning tackle for this type of fishing and most of the time used relatively light rods and reels, which in my mind increases the fun. Fast-action, medium-power, 6-foot or 6-foot-6-inch rods are perfect for this application. I used Fenwick HMG rods for all the non-topwater techniques I will be discussing here, with the exception of throwing tubes, when I used a 7-foot, medium-power Bass Pro Shops Bionic Blade rod. For spinning reels, any quality light reel such as a Castalia Sharkfin, or Pflueger Patriarch or Supreme XT will work well. For greater sensitivity and increased casting distance, I would suggest using a 10-pound-test superline. Two superlines I have found that I really like for spinning reels are Berkley Nanofil and original Fireline. Regardless of the superline used, I always attach a 4-foot section of 10-pound-test Seaguar Blue Label fluorocarbon leader material to the end. To connect the leader to the superline, I use a Stren knot when using Fireline, and a quality size 10 swivel (such as Spro) when using Nanofil. When fishing the one topwater lure I used, a frog, you want a long rod with good backbone and a soft tip, and a quality reel with a strong and reliable drag. I had good luck with a 7-foot medium-heavy-power All-Star rod coupled with an Abu Garcia Revo reel spooled with 20-pound-test Spiderwire braid tied directly to the frog.
I used a host of plastic baits fished in different ways with great success. The most productive bait I used was a 4¼-inch Bass Pro Shops Stik-O-Worm, a Senko-type soft-plastic bait. I either rig it Texas style with an Eagle Claw 1/0 barbed weedless baitholder hook or wacky style on a size 2 Gamakatsu baitholder hook using an o-ring. My favorite color was watermelon gold flake, which in my mind looks like the sides of a juvenile yellow perch. If fish were particularly wary, I would cut the Stik-O-Worm in half and wacky rig it.
Drop-shotting worked as well. A size 1 or 2 Gamakatsu split/drop shot hook and 1/8-ounce weight in combination with a Hag’s Tornado, Zoom Baby Brush Hog, or a Mayo’s drop-shot paddletail did the trick for me. There are a lot of applicable plastic baits out there for drop-shotting, so try a few and find out which ones work best for you. My most productive colors were watermelon or green pumpkin, but make sure to research the most prevalent prey fish in the water you plan on fishing in order to aid in your color selection.
Presenting small tubes on light tackle with a gentle entry into the water was deadly. I used 2¾-inch Bass Pro Shops Teaser tubes in calm conditions and 3½-inch Strike King coffee tubes when the wind was up. I Texas-rigged the tubes and either fished them weightless on an extra wide gap hook or with a 1/8-ounce tungsten worm weight and a sinker/rigging stop a few inches above the hook. (Both Lazer and Bass Pro Shops make good affordable versions of these latter two products).
I also did well with a Carolina rig using a mojo-style sinker. Mojo sinkers are long and thin, allowing them to slide easily through rocks, weeds, and brush. I constructed my rig by tying a 3- to 4-foot fluorocarbon leader to my superline using a size 10 swivel. I like a palomar knot when tying most superlines to a swivel or hook, but make sure to use a double palomar knot when using Nanofil. Next, I threaded a 1/8 or 1/16 ounce Pro-Jo weight from Top Brass onto the leader followed by a red bead and then a sinker/rigging stop, which I kept about two feet above the end of the leader. Finally a #1 light wire hook, such as Gamakatsu straight worm light wire, completed the rig.
A number of different Texas-rigged plastics will work using this method and I had good luck with Zoom Centipedes, Hag’s Undertaker Jr’s, and 3½-inch Don Iovino Reapers. (These Reapers are a great finesse bait, but make sure to rig them so the hook point is positioned to come out the flat side or the bait will go in circles.) You can fish this rig by simply casting out and letting it sit for a minute or two or by slowly dragging it back toward the boat by gently lifting your rod.
As mentioned, the one topwater bait I used was a frog, although I am sure something like a Zoom Horny Toad would have worked as well. For frogs, I had good luck with both a Spro Bronzeye frog and a Snag Proof frog. Colors that worked well for me were both white and black. A light touchdown and a very slow straight or walk-the-dog retrieve worked best. It takes some cool nerves to keep a steady retrieve in place when a huge wake starts toward your frog from ten feet away! These didn’t fit the bill every day, but when they wanted the frog, they absolutely destroyed it. I imagine a small buzzbait fished slowly would have done the trick as well.
I also had good success with a Mann’s Baby 1-minus crankbait, which runs less than a foot below the surface. I didn’t spend nearly enough time using this bait, but plan to do so in coming years. Similarly, a weightless Zoom Super Fluke rigged Texas style with a 3/0 or 4/0 EWG hook and a 4-inch worm on a shaky-head jig will be something I try more this year.
This type of fishing can be frustrating, and I was constantly questioning what type of cast to make. Long casts obviously allowed me to cover more water, but I tended to spook more fish. Conversely, short casts spooked fewer fish but covered less water. Your decision on casting distance will depend on weather conditions (calm or breezy) and fish reaction. In either case, accuracy is key, as is getting your lure to splashdown as quietly as possible. Remember that this is, for the most part, finesse fishing at its best. I feel that using lighter spinning reels and rods and line, such as mentioned earlier, are really important in helping you present your lure as “meekly” as possible.
If alerted to the presence of a fish, try to cast slightly to either side of it or just a little short of it, but never over or past it. A quality pair of sunglasses will help greatly with locating fish. Otherwise, alternate between casting to structure and randomly fan casting around the boat. Typically, once a fish sees you, it will be very difficult if not impossible to catch it. However, moving off and fishing other areas and then coming back to that spot later can pay off. Most bites, when a topwater lures is not involved, come as a slight tap or with the line simply moving.
Fishing in this situation and with these techniques is incredibly fun. If there are fish near where your lure touches down, you will typically see a wake that is either headed directly at your lure or in the opposite direction. Even when you accidentally spook fish, it is exciting as they lunge away leaving a huge wake in the shallow water that will make your jaw drop.
This spring, if conditions are right, get out in New England and fish for some pre-spawn backwater largemouth bass. If you have the same results as I did, it won’t be the last time!