Written by: Kip Vieth, Wildwood Float Trips
Winter is the time to dream of warm summer days spent drifting down Midwestern rivers and watching the country’s largest smallmouth bass attack poppers. Those are great images to draw on, but when we do this, we are skipping perhaps the best opportunity to target some of the largest fish of the year. Pre-spawn is the best time of year to focus your efforts in getting that true smallmouth of a lifetime. The big females are at their heaviest and eager to eat before the rigors of the spawn set in, so they can be very aggressive this time of year. They are trying to build their reserves for the spawn. If you want to make it happen, here are the five key factors to getting the job done.
1. Water Temperature
Here in Minnesota, the long winters can be hard on everyone. When those warmer temperatures of spring hit, everything begins to awaken from the long sleep of winter. This is true for river smallies, as well. When the water temperatures start to hit the high 40s or low 50s, things really start to get cooking. Smallmouths begin to migrate to their spawning areas, often traveling miles from their wintering holes. Once they have reached this area, they begin to stage for the big event, and this is when the angler in pursuit of a large smallmouth should be on the water.
The big females need extra fuel to get them through probably the most grueling time of the yearKnowing this, they put on the feed bag to add that important extra. When the water temperatures get to a steady 58 to 60 degrees, that is when the spawn actually begins. Then it’s time for anglers to back off and let the fish finish doing their thing. The females finish their job and go off to rest and recuperate from the spawn. Catching larger fish after the spawn can be hard, since they usually take a week or two to get back to eating on a regular basis. The smaller males stay and guard the nests. Please do not target nesting fish. Many studies have shown that when a fish is pulled from their nest, it only takes a minute for the entire nest to be raided by crayfish or other predators. Please exercise some restraint when fishing during this time of year. The best time to be fishing is when the water temperature is between 48 and 55 degrees.
2. High Water
Warmer weather and spring rains often cause rivers to get high and dirty. I have had clients look at the river with these types of conditions and question whether we should go out at all. I have to remind myself that a lot of clients are trout anglers, and they just are not used to fishing in these situations. I have a saying this time of year: “Just sweat the really big stuff.” By “really big stuff” I mean really big water. If the river jumps a great deal, then we are going to have issues. But if it’s just normal spring conditions, let the games begin. Don’t let the high and dirty water freak you out. It has a good effect for the most part. It pushes the fish into the shallow water looking for relief and baitfish to eat.
3. Quiet Water
In high water, the fish are looking for any kind of quiet water to help preserve that important energy they’ll need for the spawn. These areas are also their spawning areas. Look for any kind of current break. Start looking for any kind of quiet water as you float down the river. Eddies, spots behind islands, wood piles, and little back bays are all great places to start looking for holding fish. If it’s quiet, you need to explore it.
4. Fish are Concentrated
The high and quiet water helps to concentrate the fish. That being said, they are still only in certain places. It’s important to remember that the fish are in the spawning mode. Only certain habitat makes for good spawning grounds. The best way to find them is to fish those quiet spots. If you’re new to the early season, it is important to fish likely spots until you find them. During the pre-spawn if you find one you’ll usually find more. I have slid into a small quiet bay and caught 10 fish all 18 inches or bigger, with several reaching the magic 20-inch mark. The great thing about finding those magic spots is that they seem to produce year after year. That’s their spawning area, and they don’t forget it. Rivers do change, however, so don’t be surprised if one year they’re just not there as in years past. That’s the great thing about a river: there is always something new to learn.
5. Fish Slow and Loud
If you have gotten this far in the article, you have probably noticed that everything in the spring is somewhat related. Fly selection also has to do with all these elements. When you’re looking for that magic fly, think of the factors we have already described. The water is cold and, most of the time, dark. The fish are holding in quiet water and are concentrated in these areas. I think the biggest two factors are the cold water and the lack of clarity.
When I am fishing the pre-spawn, I usually fish some kind of minnow pattern. The 3M Minnow was designed to be fished very effectively during this time of year. You want a minnow that has as close to neutral buoyancy as you can get, so when you stop stripping in, it hangs there. You want that fly to look wounded and hurt, like it’s an easy meal. Remember that the water is still cold and fish are cold blooded creatures. Their metabolism is not like it is in the middle of summer. They’re a little slower and when working your fly, remember that. The strip and flash get the smallmouths’ attention and when the fly does the death roll, the fish have a very hard time saying no.
Don’t forget about topwater presentations, which can be very effective. I like big poppers and divers; a big bang and a long pause seems to be the most effective retrieve. With the darker water and colder water temps, you want to make some noise to help the fish find the fly. Slow and loud is the way to go. I have had days when the air temperatures are in the mid-forties and drizzly. Now, no one would think that a topwater bite would be happening, but it has. I always try topwater presentations for at least a bit every day.
If a minnow or top water bug aren’t working, then it’s time to dredge. If we have to go there, the fish are very lethargic. I basically go slow, and I mean slowly crawl something along the bottom. A Clouser or Crayfish pattern seem to work the best when all else fails. Creep the fly along and watch your leader. The eats are often very slight, so it is very important to set on just the slightest tick.
The pre-spawn period is one of the best times to target big fish. Keep these five things in mind and start to explore.
Kip Vieth owns Wildwood Float Trips, in Monticello, Minnesota. Check out his excellent “10 Tips for Catching a Musky on a Fly.”