Time Marches On

The best month for bass is one that many anglers overlook.

5-pound largemouth

Pictured above: Prominent structure, situated perpendicular to a drastic depth change, often makes bigger bass easier to catch. This 5-pounder ate the bait just off the deep end of a fallen tree.

March 23, 1994

Wednesday afternoon, sitting in pre-Algebra—by far my worst subject. It’s the warmest day of the year so far, and I all I can do is stare out the window. It snowed five days ago, but all that’s left now are snow banks and long rivers of meltwater crossing the upper lot at Westborough High School. Mr. Burril opens a window and a gust of spring-scented air fills the room. My mind briefly wonders about bass fishing—seems too early—then my thoughts quickly shift to remembering where I left my baseball glove. I hope I have the grades to make the JV team.
 

March 13, 2012

Saturday morning, I’m having a terrible day. Conditions are perfect and I’m wading the banks of a great cold-water bass pond. My fishing partner, Dave Daluz, is crushing fish (including one over 5 pounds), and I just can’t seem to get out of my own way. It’s been warmer than average the past few days, but a cold front is coming in fast, and strong westerly winds howl across the pond. I step around a small point and cast a tiny crayfish bait into the pocket … nothing. Dave walks up next to me and makes a cast while we talk about our next move. He sets the hook, casting into the same water I have been fruitlessly fishing for the last 10 minutes, and he lands a fish over 8 pounds.

Eric Covino pickerel
Eric Covino with one of the many giant pickerel taken from a small cove off the Connecticut River during a February trip.

February 24, 2011

Forty degrees feels warm in February, but not when you’re speeding up a river in a boat. After a short ride, I’m standing on the front of my friend Eric Covino’s boat, and we’re entering a small cove off the Connecticut River. “Here’s the spot,” he says. I survey the tiny cove and think he must be off his rocker. One week earlier he told me that he and his son had landed over 100 pickerel here. A few hours later, I am a believer. Between three guys, we have boated 106 slime darts, three small striped bass and five largemouths—the biggest fish was a 6½-pound beast of a pickerel. After more than a decade of almost exclusive obsession with striped bass, I can feel a twinge of rekindled excitement. I know myself, and I am about become obsessed (again) with freshwater fishing.

April 20, 1992

It’s Monday of April vacation. I have convinced my dad to drive to me to a reservoir in our hometown on his way to work. It’s a beautiful day. My friend, Jeremy, is supposed to meet me at 7 am, but he’s nowhere to be found. About 30 minutes later, I see his parents’ Isuzu Trooper barreling down Bowman Street. Jeremy hops out, looking tired, but we’re planning to fish all day long. As we walk the shoreline, peering between the shadows cast by the towering pines in the mid-morning light, there are vast schools of young yellow perch filling the shallows. Largemouth bass of all sizes can be seen cruising the perimeter. A giant pickerel lies in a sunny pocket like a log.

It should have been apparent to me, even at the ripe old age of 11, that all of that life didn’t materialize overnight. I grew up with one of the best bass ponds in Massachusetts in my backyard—the A-1 Site as it’s commonly known—but I just didn’t have the experience to make an educated play for these early season bass. I religiously watched fishing shows on Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings, but it’s funny – I don’t ever remember seeing a show that talked about targeting bass in cold water. Looking back, those shows were more about the guests or the lures they were trying to make look good for their sponsors. It was rare to see anyone fishing in adverse conditions, or north of Virginia, for that matter.

It took a lot more time as an obsessed fisherman to build a profile of how a supposed warmwater fish will feed and move after the ice has finally receded. I learned by chasing overwintering stripers and learning to conquer the patience of the crawl. Cold water slows everything down, both bass and baitfish, and this meant I had to figure out how to create enough movement to draw a fish to the lure while also giving it the chance to find and eat it. At first, I mixed up sizes of soft-plastic baits with different light jigheads—trying to find the perfect combo that I could fish very slowly without dragging bottom.

March monster largemouth
Many of the “March monsters” are well-fed, so quite often, the biggest bass of an angler’s season comes during the third month.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t connect the dots on the value of a suspending jerkbait until my trip up the Connecticut River in 2011. I’ve always been a big believer in matching my approach to the attitude of the fish, and these baits ended up becoming the gateway drug for ice-out bass fishing. At first, I was just happy to be catching fish. Hooking up just days after ice-out felt like a bonus, and I didn’t really care that I was primarily pulling dinks.

However, I am also a major believer in observation, and I noticed surprising numbers of freshly dead perch and bluegills floating up on windward shores after a good blow. Looking more closely, there were other smaller baitfish like banded killifish washing up as well. I can’t even offer a guess as to why these fish were dying after ice-out, but it only took a couple of trips of seeing fish washing up, some still barely breathing, to build a strategy around it.

These fish weren’t just swimming along happily one minute and then going belly-up the next. If fish are at all like mammals, then a death caused by cold temperatures wouldn’t come without a struggle. I pictured delirious baitfish trying to fight their own confusion, their instincts to stay alive at all costs being stripped by the grip of the frigid temperatures. As the cold sunk its icy teeth deeper, the fish moved more slowly – feeble attempts to shake the cold manifested in moments of frantic motion. What could replicate this better than a jerkbait? Then, one afternoon I saw it unfolding before my eyes. In a soup of slushed ice crushed by an onshore wind, a sunfish was whizzing around in mere inches of water. Stopping dead for as long as a minute before swimming at bonefish speed in unpredictable zig-zags—the fish was so confused and exhausted that I was able to pick it up barehanded. It all made sense.

My focus then shifted to isolating spots where bigger fish were more likely to be found. I found two types of areas that seemed to be the best early-season producers: steep transitions where deep water rises quickly onto a shallow flat, and deep waters adjacent to known bedding areas that feature living or dormant vegetation like reeds, cattails, or anything green beneath the surface. These spots were even more productive if they featured some kind of long interruption in the otherwise uniform bottom, such as large rock piles, a fallen tree, or (my personal favorite) stone walls. These features seemed to draw bigger fish in, making them easier to find. Fishing the windward shore seemed to up my odds, and frontal passages really cranked up the bite.

approaching front largemouth
Being able to get out and fish during an approaching front can be the difference between a slow pick and a banner day.

The profile of my perfect March bass fishing day is the day before a major weather change is forecast to move through, preferably an unseasonably warm day with a forecast calling for wind, precipitation and a sharp temperature drop that night or the next day. These are the times when the bigger fish seem to move in to feed. These are also the days when I find myself reaching for larger baits. Sometimes, it’s a larger jerkbait like the Vision OneTen Magnum SP or the Jackall Squad Minnow 128; other times, it’s a slow-sink swimbait like a Huddleston 68 Special (ROF 5). These are the days when you can get away with fishing a little faster because there’s something about an approaching front that puts the fish into hunt mode. This doesn’t mean you’re shifting into Whopper Plopper gear, but you can keep your pauses on the shorter side and, quite often, a snappier cadence with how you work the bait will win out.

If you’re not in a position where you can drop everything when conditions are perfect, my experience suggests you’ll be fishing a lot of in-between days—bright, sunny, windy, and colder days. These are the times when I find myself staying with smaller baits like the Lucky Craft Flash Minnow 110 or the Smithwick Super Rogue. These are also the days that can test your patience since long pauses—sometimes 10 seconds or more—are often required. These are the times to pound those steep transitions. I think throwing 20 casts into the same area can actually pull in peripheral fish to investigate, then when I get that first bite, I fish it even harder. There have been countless times when my stubbornness has paid off by fishing a “should be good” spot for 20 hitless minutes and then pulling multiple fish out of it in the next 10.

No matter what the conditions of the day, projecting the right attitude with the bait is the thing I try to really concentrate on. Just the name itself—jerkbait—implies that there should always be some kind of jerking going on. But, sometimes I’m moving the bait with only one-third crank of the reel at a time, keeping the rod perfectly still, just inching the lure along with the reel. Other times, I use hard pops of the rod in groups of twos and threes—pop-pop-pause…pop-pop-pop-pause. These hard pops make the baits zig and zag with each jerk … remember that sunfish? But, more often than not, I’m using controlled sweeps of the rod, moving the bait forward with movements that make it swim forward in 1- to 3-foot segments.

early season largemouth bass
The author caught this solid early-season bass with a Chigger Craw on a jighead.

And, we haven’t even talked about pauses yet, which represent the opportunity for the bass to find and attack the lure. It seems that many, maybe even most, fishermen don’t have the discipline to pause the bait longer than 3 or 4 seconds. I don’t know if this stems from impatience, boredom, an innate need to be “doing something,” or a belief that the fish won’t be able to find a stationary bait—but the fact is, nearly all your hookups will come during the pause.

To overcome any ill-conceived notions about pausing the bait, there are two things that I try to keep in the forefront of my mind when doing any kind of fishing that uses periods of non-movement. First, two seconds of observation looking at any fish, anywhere, will show you that stillness is a very common look. In any situation where I’m fishing artificials, my goal is to make my lure look familiar—and a paused, suspending bait looks very natural or familiar to the fish.

The second thing to consider in these colder conditions is that the bass are—on the average—less likely to chase down a bait. The movement you do impart—jerks, pops, short wobbles—are designed to give off vibration and flash, things that draw the attention of any fish that may be holding in the area. This is why I get stubborn when I’m casting into a spot that I really think should give up fish – I believe I can draw them in with enough “action” in a confined area. The pauses give the fish the chance to find the bait. Don’t forget that these fish are used to hunting using a sense that we don’t have. Their lateral lines can sense vibration, yes, but they can also sense water displacement, so a paused bait is still giving off a signature of size and location.

In general terms, the colder the water or the more ordinary the weather is, the longer I pause the bait. I have heard guys talk about pausing their jerkbaits as long as a minute, but I tend to think their internal clocks are a little fast. I doubt I have ever paused a jerkbait longer than 25 seconds, but I will say that seconds start to feel like minutes when you’re waiting that long. Typically, I pause the bait between 5 and 10 seconds—and I count it out while trying to hear the rhythm of a clock in my head. This gives me a reference as I change things up, trying to dial in the day.

Fat spring largemouth
Fat spring largemouth taken on a Berkeley Chigger Craw

I should add that jerkbaits are not the only things I throw to ice-out bass. I have also done quite well using a simple Berkley Chigger Craw threaded onto a football jighead. In fact, this combo has accounted for more of the larger bass my fishing partners and I have landed. The key, I’ve learned, is to fish it so slowly that you want to die. Long pauses again … are you writing this down? And, on those perfect weather days, fishing a slow-sink Hudd swimbait in this same manner can account for some nice fish. Just let it settle to the bottom and swim it forward in 5-foot hops—again, don’t be afraid to let it sit for a long time. The difference with the swimbait is that the hits aren’t as likely to come on the pause.

One of the things I love most about early-season bass fishing is that getting up at the crack of dawn doesn’t usually pay off. In fact, I recommend going out to breakfast first and getting to the launch or stepping into the water around 9 a.m. My best results have come between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Whenever we’ve tried to get out there for first light, all we’ve done is get cold and count the minutes of sleep we sacrificed to shiver.

Give the water a chance to warm up with the daylight. Everything should be slow and move slowly yourself, fishing each spot hard and thoroughly for at least 20 minutes per stop. Keep your presentations slow and work between several different looks with lure size, how “hard” you’re working it, and how long you’re pausing the bait. When you get hit, make note of your presentation and stick with it. I find these late-winter bites to be very satisfying, and some of my largest fish each year were caught long before April Fool’s Day.

largemouth from the reeds
Keep your presentations slow and work between several different looks with lure size.

March 10, 2019

It’s my second trip of the season and I already have over a dozen bass on the tally for the spring. I glance down the shoreline and a daydream materializes within my field of vision. I see myself at age 13, shooting a tennis ball into a homemade hockey net. It’s a perfect fishing day in March, but I’m just wasting a day. I have all the time in the world and have no obligations other than my homework, which most likely wasn’t getting done anyway, I’m clomping around, playing a sport I stink at. I wish I could go back and show myself the way, but I can’t. If I’m lucky, there’s at least one 13-year-old reading this story with a good bass pond within biking range who will take my advice. That would make all I’ve learned, and all the things I’ve missed, worth it.
Don’t sleep through March again.

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