Smallmouths tend to school up around deep to intermediate structures before the pre-spawn kicks into full gear.
As winter fades, many kayak anglers throughout New England and other regions are getting to see open water for the first time in months. The period between ice out and the spawn is short in many of these areas, so the fish does not take long to get active and start feeding. Largemouth bass generally use channels, troughs, and ditches to move toward shallow areas that warm quickly. Smallmouths tend to school up around deep to intermediate structures before the pre-spawn kicks into full gear. These fish can be targeted with just a few lures, a depth finder, or a lake map along with some patience. This is how.
The jerk bait is probably my favorite lure for ice-out fishing. It allows you to cover a lot of water and vary your presentation. I prefer to start with deep diving, suspending jerk bait fished with a relatively slow cadence. In this case, a cadence is your “rhythm” with which you move, jerk, and stop the bait, often deemed “jerk, jerk, pause”. The pause is often the key. If the fish are active, I may speed up the cadence and fish the bait faster. If they are not active, I will slow down, sometimes way down, to the point where I am pausing for a count of 15 or more. Generally, ice-out fishing requires slow fishing, so be prepared to slow down. However, slow does not mean boring, as fish will still react to the erratic action of bait.
Additionally, I want to fish my jerk bait near or slightly above suspended bass, but not below them, as bass will feed up on baitfish. Therefore, I may go to a non-deep diving jerk bait (but still suspending) depending on where the fish are suspended and how they are reacting to the bait. Finally, be prepared to get strikes that are not as enthusiastic as they will be in later months. Many ice-out bites simply feel like a heavy weight on the line, as the bass simply takes the lure in leisurely. You may also notice a high number of short strikes. In both cases, be sure to sharpen your hooks before you hit the water and even mid-trip.
When choosing a jerk bait, I generally go for a color that best mimics the baitfish in the body of water I am fishing. Thus, my box is loaded with natural colors, as well as some chartreuse. I prefer a 4”-5” bait fished on 6 lb. – 14 lb. fluorocarbon line; however, I will occasionally use a monofilament line if I want to fish in shallow waters or simply want a slightly different action, as mono has some stretch. Additionally, I prefer to use 12 lb. fluorocarbon for jerk baits, but I will downsize depending on how picky the fish are, the water clarity, and the species. In cold, ultra-clear lakes loaded with smallmouth, dropping to 6 lb. can get you a lot more bites. I also use a jerk bait-specific rod with a fairly soft tip and short butt section. These two features cut down on arm/wrist/hand fatigue and make throwing jerk baits more enjoyable. Although I generally use bait-casting gear, you can throw a jerk bait on any setup, and I recommend an “average” reel speed around 6:1.
The Ned rig has become one of my favorite baits when the bite gets tough, and my fondness for the “rig” and its customizability has grown each year. The Ned is not rocket science – a pseudo-mushroom head-style jig with a trailer. However, the diversity of the bait, especially when fished with a 3”-5” stick worm, is hard to match. Additionally, the Ned's head also comes in snag-resistant versions (with a wire). With this said, although it is still prone to hanging up in some environments, it really excels fishing rocks, light grass, and other covers. I prefer to make long casts slightly past my target when fishing the Ned rig. I then slowly retrieve the bait while erratically hopping it up off the bottom.
I will also vary my cadence and pause during the retrieve, and the same cadence/pause principles that applied to the jerk bait also apply here. If fish are suspended, you can swim it back to the boat while adding some random flicks of the wrist, or you can yo-yo the bait through suspended schools. If the fish are stuck to the bottom and not aggressive, you can just flat-out drag a Ned head, in which case a heavier version is often preferable.
The real beauty of the Ned rig is that you can dress it up and customize it very easily. For example, I have added silicone skirts, deer hair, and rattles to different Ned heads to give them different looks and sounds. Sometimes you just need something slightly different, and by mixing up those types of materials, the traditional look, and various trailers, you can keep the fish curious.
I prefer to fish 1/5 or 1/6 oz. Ned heads, but at times, I will go as small as 1/10 oz. if I want a really slow fall. Most heads are now painted in black or green pumpkin colors and I prefer natural color baits, particularly 3” and 4” stick worms. The most famous Ned trailer is the Z Man TRD, and for good reason; both the TRD and Big TRD worms catch a ton of fish. So do various other worms, craws, and even creature baits. Some of these may be less traditional on a Ned, but a mushroom-style head can give them all a new look. I almost always fish the Ned rig on 6 lb. fluorocarbons with a 6’9” spinning rod made for fishing finesse plastics. I mention the rod length because as finesse spinning rods get longer, they generally get tougher to balance, which often results in a loss of sensitivity when fishing finesse baits. Keep that in mind next time you rig the Ned, or any other finesse lure, and hit the water.
Jigs can present a real learning curve for a lot of anglers, but there may be no better time to learn than just after ice out. If you can grind out a couple of good jig bites in 40-degree water, imagine what you can do when it warms up! Just after ice out, I rig a casting jig in the 1/4 to 3/8 oz. range. I may go heavier if I need to fish deeper water or want to keep the bait grinding on the bottom. I prefer to make long casts on/near/across/along different types of rock structures. These types of rock may include rocky humps and points, drop-offs with cobble bottoms, rock bluffs, steep bedrock outcrops, and various other areas. I target rock because rock holds heat. Those heat sources attract bait, and bass is not far behind. Much like the Ned, I prefer to slowly, but erratically work my jig back to the boat, although I will simply drag some jigs. Later in the year, I will go to bigger, bulkier skirts and trailers, but early, I want to keep the bait streamlined, slender, and fairly small. In many cases, I will trim over 50% of the skirt to cut down on bulk and extra motion, and I stick to fairly compact trailers. I generally use a 7’3” bait-casting rod, a good bait-casting reel, and 12-16 lb. fluorocarbon to fish jigs. This early in the year, just about any reel speed faster than 6:1 will do for jig fishing, especially when fishing casting jigs, although I prefer reels over 7:1 that can pick up line faster.
The drop shot has become a notorious rig/technique for catching deep and schooling fish year-round; therefore, it can be a perfect offering just after ice out. It is a great way to get picky or inactive fish to eat because it is such a minimalistic yet versatile approach. I prefer to fish the drop shot vertically or close to vertically over structures or schools of fish. Additionally, I may even fish a drop shot around wood cover (particularly stump fields) in the ice-out period, as it allows me to slowly target individual stumps one by one.
The key to drop shooting is understanding how deep the fish are situated. If they are on the bottom, then you can drop your bait to the bottom and begin fishing. If they are suspended, try to keep the bait just above the school, as repeatedly dropping the bait through a school of fish can cause them to lose interest. Additionally, if you fish below them in the water column, you are much less likely to get bit. In the early spring, you do not need to impart much action via your rod tip to your drop shot worm. A slight current often does the trick. Again, these fish don’t need to be coaxed with a lot of action. They want an easy, slow-moving meal. Additionally, a worm moving too fast simply will not look right, as nothing in the water column is moving that fast, and the worm will stand out as unrealistic.
In addition to the drop shot rig, the newly popular Damiki rig and even the underspin can be fished in similar ways with similar results. The Damiki requires even less action than the drop shot, while the underspin can be slowly swum or yo-yoed through schools of fish. Regardless of the approach, the key is to stay patient and let the fish respond (or not respond) to each technique. Thus, paying attention to the details of these methods is particularly important.
I generally fish drop shot rigs with 1/8 to 1/4 oz. tungsten weights and extra sharp size 2 drop shot hooks. I typically leave about 16”-22” between the weight and my worm in the early spring. My go-to worms are generally 3.5”-5” hand pours with slim profiles. I may also go to 3”-4” stick worms rigged wacky style or drop shot worms that slightly float upward due to air pockets in the tail. I often fish all of these rigs on 6-8 lb. fluorocarbon on a spinning rod made for drop shooting or fishing these suspending type baits, i.e., a rod with plenty of backbone, a parabolic action, and a fairly soft tip. These characteristics can significantly improve your hook-up ratio, especially when bites can be soft and slow in super-cold water.
During ice out, I may fish two types of cranks, generally in fairly specific areas. When I find fish around gravel, cobble, or boulders, especially rip rap areas, I prefer lipped baits. These lipped cranks dive and deflect off of rocks, and these deflections can generate aggressive strikes. When fishing lipped cranks, I always prefer to start shallow and move deeper. Especially when largemouth fishing, you may be surprised at how shallow you catch bass on cranks during the ice-out period. However, on many days, you need to go to deeper diving models and move further from the bank.
In some areas, such as in channels with suspended fish, along sharp drop-offs and bluffs, near bridge piers, and over deep humps (i.e., humps too deep to fish with a lipped crankbait), I will fish lipless crankbaits. Lipless cranks often do best when yo-yoed around schools of fish, as well as deflected when possible. As a yo-yoed bait falls, it flutters and provides a much different action that can be deadly on suspended fish. Additionally, lipless cranks can produce during the late ice-off period in lakes with emerging vegetation. To yo-yo a lipless crank, simply use your rod tip to rip the bait upward and then let it fall. There are dozens of quality crankbaits on the market, so again, know the baitfish you are trying to mimic and match those patterns, including size, shape, and color. I highly recommend carrying a few lipped cranks for every depth range from 1 foot to 20+ feet, that way you have the entire water column covered. Similarly, I carry a variety of lipless cranks from 1/4 oz. up to 1 oz. for various situations. For example, light baits can be tough to fish in the wind, so heavy baits allow you to cast farther, cover more water, and still get a good, natural action out of your lure.
With all of these baits, be sure to target south-facing banks (which warm fastest), marinas and areas with long docks that extend into deep water, rocky areas (as noted above), deep humps, ditches, troughs, channels, and drop offs near flats. These areas can be easier to find with the help of a lake map, preferably one with contours, or a depth/fish finder. Notably, depth/fish finders can help you locate different types of structures and tell you exactly how deep fish are suspended, which takes a lot of guesswork out of ice-out fishing. I prefer to target these areas between late morning and late afternoon when the sun is out and the water is warming. Fish are generally more aggressive in this window due to the increases in air and water temperatures. Add a light wind, and you have perfect conditions for an ice-out smackdown. However, remember that the water is still very cold, and going for an accidental swim could come with the serious threat of hypothermia. Always wear your life jacket, and use the buddy system when possible.
I am not the most patient angler, but during the ice-out period, patience is key. It may take some time to find the right bite and the right areas with good concentrations of fish, but when you do, your reward will be worth it. There is no better feeling than those first few bites of a new year. Tight lines!