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Dominate Your Early Season Fishing Trips
Five tips for multi-species success in warming waters

By Dr. Jason Halfen

The natural world bristles with life in the spring. Your lawn’s formerly brown grass transitions to a lush, vibrant green. Bare branches on trees and shrubs become dressed wardrobes of blossoms and leaves. And beneath the water’s surface, once dormant shallows now teem with life, from the smallest insects to the largest aquatic predators, as the sun’s powerful photons drag water temperatures out of their wintertime lows.

Early season fishing can be a daunting proposition for many anglers. Which species of fish should we pursue? Which part of the lake holds the most active fish? Once we start fishing, which baits or lures might be most effective?

These five tips are proven winners in the spring and will get you on your way to early season multispecies success.

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1. Water temperature is the key. No matter which species of fish you decide to pursue as your season opens, water temperature is the key to success. Surface water that is even just a few degrees warmer than surrounding areas will tend to concentrate actively feeding fish. In general terms, focus your efforts on soft-bottomed bays that are off the main body of water. The best bays will frequently be sheltered from the prevailing wind to minimize the influx of cold water. Within these bays, shallow, near-shore areas are generally better than deeper ones.

Interestingly enough, current from river inlets can be a double-edged sword in the spring: while current will help to attract and retain species like walleyes, cold runoff delivered by river inlets can also reduce local water temperatures and turn the bite off. Monitor surface temperatures with your electronics as you approach river inlets; if you encounter a plume of substantially colder water, it’s time to continue your search in another area.

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2. Think small and subtle for panfish. Many a panfish has landed in a livewell after munching a chunk of nightcrawler or slurping a crappie-sized minnow in the spring. Nevertheless, savvy anglers recognize that they will typically catch more and larger fish by using artificial presentations. Such an approach has the added advantage of making fish far more releasable, as bluegills and crappies are rarely hooked deeply when caught on lures.

Oversized bluegills respond favorably to slender-profile soft plastics, rigged on the same small tungsten jigheads that northern anglers use all winter through the ice. A particularly potent combination is a 5 mm tungsten jig dressed with an inch-long orange, red or black soft plastic tail. Suspend this offering beneath a bobber so that the bait rides near the tops of the season’s first green weeds and retrieve with a series of twitches and pauses to imitate an emerging insect larva or small baitfish.

Early season crappies love minnow imitations. I enjoy presenting a 1-1.5” minnow-profile soft plastic dressed on a 1/16 oz jighead that features a wire bait keeper, which helps to keep the bait rigged correctly on the jig over many fish catches. A long cast and slow swimming retrieve that keeps the bait above emerging weed or standing wood cover can be highly effective. On windy days, suspend the same lure beneath a float, and allow wave action to provide all the swimming motion needed to land a bounty of spring crappies.

My favorite rod for both bluegills and crappies is the 7-foot, light-power, extra fast action Panfish Series Rod (PFS70LXF) from St. Croix Rod. The length of this rod helps to propel lightweight offerings long distances on the cast and moves a lot of line fast to ensure productive hooksets what a strike occurs far from the boat. Its light power rating ensures abundant sport from our panfish targets, yet also retains plenty of backbone to handle the incidental bass and pike that you’ll encounter in the panfish zone. Seaguar Finesse fluorocarbon is an excellent choice.

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3. Early season bass are ready to feast. Cold water bass are notoriously fickle feeders. However, this lethargic attitude is rapidly replaced with an aggressive, predatory stance as water temperatures rise into the 60s. Their rapidly warming environment puts bass on the feed, as they increase their calorie counts in advance of impending spawning rituals.

Hardbaits are excellent choices for targeting early season bass. In southern reservoirs, the LIVETARGET HFC Craw can be fished productively along swing banks as creek channels run from the main lake toward the backs of bays. In the north country, where prespawn bass congregate near shallow weedgrowth, the LIVETARGET Sunfish Rattlebait is an outstanding option. In this situation, a steady retrieve through the tops of submerged weedgrowth in 4-8 feet of water is all that is required to catch and release vast numbers of early season largemouth. The Sunfish Rattlebait’s ultra-lifelike appearance and profile, three-dimensional anatomical features, tight swimming action and high-frequency rattle all contribute to the lure’s remarkable effectiveness.

When fishing the Sunfish Rattlebait, I rig with 20 lb Seaguar Smackdown braided line, which maximizes my casting distance so I can rapidly cover lots of water in search of actively feeding schools of largemouth. I also fish without a leader, opting instead to tie on a cross-lock snap; this strategy makes it far more likely that I will land marauding pike and prespawn muskies that frequent the same bass-infested zones, without breaking off and donating my LIVETARGET offerings to the fishing gods.

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4. Rattle up post-spawn walleyes. Once water temperatures have risen into the 50s, walleyes will have completed their annual spawning movements, but will remain in relatively shallow water in search of recuperative meals. Contrary to popular belief, these fish can be targeted with great success using lures that provoke aggressive reaction strikes. A great place to look for postspawn walleyes is on the edges of near-shore sand flats, frequently in 8-12 feet of water.

Lipless rattlebaits, like the LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait, are outstanding choices for targeting postspawn walleyes wherever they swim. These baits excel at provoking reaction strikes, especially when presented with an active rip-jigging motion. Within this family of lures, the ½ oz size is preferred for beefcake Great Lakes walleyes, while the smaller, ¼ oz rattlebait is a good choice for inland waters, pressured fish, or post-frontal conditions when a more subdued presentation may be required.

Line selection for presenting lipless rattlebaits to walleyes is similar to that used for bass in the bays, with 20 lb test Seaguar Smackdown serving as an excellent foundation, terminated with 2 feet of 15 lb test Seaguar AbrazX 100% fluorocarbon leader. A powerful, responsive rod is preferred when rip jigging rattlebaits. Indeed, the Legend Tournament Walleye “Snap Jig” (LWS68MXF) rod from St. Croix Rod is an outstanding choice for this presentation. This 6-foot-8-inch, medium-power, extra fast action rod is the backbone of many aggressive walleye techniques that you’ll use throughout the season.

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5. Don’t forget the fundamentals. Whether your boat took a long winter’s nap under a blanket of snow, or you fish throughout the year on soft waters, pay attention to the basics of boat and motor maintenance to ensure enjoyable trips in the early season. Arrive at the ramp with a tank of fresh gas, oil for two-stroke motors, and a fully charged complement of batteries. Ensure that your boat and trailer registration are current, and that you possess this year’s license documents.

Planning to fish before sunrise or after dark? Take a moment to check your boat’s navigation lights, as filaments may have snapped during the cold winter months. And for goodness sakes, wear your lifejacket, as the cold waters of the early season dramatically increase the threat of hypothermia and limit survivability, should an unplanned swim be added to your early season fishing trip.

Fishing season is at our doorstep. These five tips are guaranteed to bring you early season multispecies success and help you to build some great memories on the water this spring. Enjoy the fast action while it lasts, as the dog days of summer will be here soon enough!