North Dakota Wildlife Federation
Springtime is primetime for smallies and the best way to turn things up for brown bass is knowing where they will be this time of year. As waters warm, smallmouth bass make a surge into the shallows and the prime substrate they relate to is an area with gravel and varied sizes of rock. From a natural boulder field to a man-made stretch of rip-rap, these areas become havens for spring smallies set to spawn in skinny water. What draws them there is a combination of the things that rocks provide including warmth, food and cover, and when all three come together, it makes for an ideal nesting site. Exploring these places for some of the year’s fastest fishing doesn’t require anything fancy, but there are a few tricks for getting into the strike zone amidst the craggy cover.
As spring water warms under sunny skies, smallies may make several forays before setting up shop in the shallows. As cold fronts, cloud cover and windy days throw some chaos into the spring pattern, work to target those times before the weather shift to explore rocky shallows where bass are headed from late April into early May. Those rocky areas of the shallows, when they warm up into the low sixties, are where smallmouth head, led by the smaller male bass that will clear out areas around the structure (sometimes up to three feet in width) for a nest. Those rocks – especially darker ones, which retain some heat after a sunny stretch - also provide cover for the spawning ritual and the fertilized eggs that will hatch into fry in the following days, which the male will guard.
In addition to cover for fish, rocky areas are home to all sorts of edibles from crayfish, hellgrammites, and dragonfly larvae to minnows and chubs. This is where the rocky connection between biology and angling can be made. Physically the rocks provide some challenge as snags and breakoffs will likely occur when jigs, plastics, crankbaits and other lures are worked along the bottom to trigger the aggressive spring smash of a bronzeback. Flies, jigs and lures tied in those natural colors – browns, olives, blacks and subdued baitfish hues – will help provide a convincing alternative to the natural forage, while utilizing those styles of offerings that avoid snagging helps limit down time.
Bass jigs with pointed heads slide through the cracks and crevices a little bit easier than a round head or a football-shaped option. Utilize cone-shaped sinkers on tubes, craws and other plastics to ease them through the crags and crevices as well. Square-lipped crankbaits stay a bit shallower and bounce off rocks a bit easier to prevent lure loss. Banana, dart or pill shaped lead head jigs dolled up with curlytail grubs, flash, and other dressings will also slide through snag filled areas a bit easier. When in doubt though, the relatively inexpensive roundhead jig can get the job done and a few can be sacrificed without breaking the bank. For those utilizing the long rod, consider flies with cone or sculpin heads for an easier retrieve through a rock field where smallies are spawning.
Smallmouth bass will return again and again to virtually the same spawning grounds in spring, most of which incorporate some sort of rocky cover. The light-colored beds made from the clearing away of silt and sand by the tails and fins of the fish are easy to see amidst the bigger, darker rocks and boulders in a given area. Make a note of successful spring trips to an area that fish will stage near and spawn in for fast action year after year, but remember to practice catch and release to sustain the resource and allow those spawning fish to get this year’s hatch off.
While each body of water – and even the different bays on a particular lake or reservoir – can be different throughout the season based on weather which has influenced fish movements, rocky shoals and near-shore spawning sites are prime places to check this season. By knowing what smallies feed on and how to best work those imitations around areas of rocky cover it’s easy to add some solid excitement to the season.
By: Nick Simonson