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Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Long Winters Night

I don't remember ever making the decision to fish thru the winter. Every year I still feel that panic every fall to get in that last frantic few trips before winter sets in. But now afterward I still fish. I'll look up startled by the absolute quiet of the streamside woods and realize nothing at all is moving,seeming nothing alive is out there, that I've crossed some line into real and absolute winter. But every cast upstream, every drift of the jig downstream just pulls spring that much closer. I am a fisherman and I fish. It's what I do. I think sometimes that maybe on some subconscious level part of me even sees this winter fishing as the price I pay for the easy fishing that will come later. Some misplaced Midwestern ethic that feels nothing is ever really for free.
You can cheat winter though. I'll have had enough and three or four times during the winter make the two hour drive to the nuclear plant on the Ohio for hybrids. Or take a morning and make some sort of dumpster love to the carp and buffalo that stack up in the discharge of the local wastewater treatment plant. Or, if the years cold enough like this one, chop holes in the ice and haul up startled bluegills on waxworms. But these are just stunts, parlor tricks to pass the time till the real fishing starts.
I don't even mind not catching fish in winter. I do mind the short dark days. For someone used to spending every available second outdoors so much cold darkness can suck the spirit right out of the soul. So I fish. The river is still alive. Just today a friend showed me a sturdy little stonefly crawling on riverside stones. I might even catch the occasional small fish. I am not reassured.
But I know it can happen. The magic of fishing that is. It has in winters past and it can again. There was the day we found bass stacked on a bluff and caught them all day while the other half of the lake was covered in ice. The day the only strike was a soft tap that turned out to be a twenty six inch sauger. Or the big smallmouth that hit a January hair jig swirling in a river eddy like a bat out of hell. And all the while the river keeps up it's inexplicable journey towards the sea as generous or as unforgiving as time. And so we fish. Until, like now we have finally made it thru another winter and fishing, real fishing is at hand.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

It's coming...

Mar 55°F 35°F

Apr 66°F 43°F

Average temperatures for March & April. It's coming soon now. I don't know about you but I'm really sick of this whole winter thing. So let's talk about smallmouth in spring. Right now smallmouth are pretty much completely inactive. Somewhere they can be safe and get out of the current and stay out of the current even if things flood. But give us some moderate weather and then a warm spell of a few days and things will change. In the fall smallmouth start shutting down when the water temps sink into the forties. You can catch one then but it's hard. Real hard. But by late winter they are seemingly as tired of old man winter as we are and you can sometimes get one to bite in cold water if its warmed up just a bit. Try a float n fly or better yet a minnow under that float. your still fishing in that wintering hole but it seems like Ill find them right where the soft bottom of the hole hits the hard bottom of rock or gravel.
Then as water temps climb further, say in the upper forties to low fifties, they begin to move. I look for the first staging areas out of their wintering holes. Spots where they can get out of the current, big boulders, rock rubble, small eddies. My favorite baits in this situation are still hair jigs and grubs but I'll also throw something like a square billed crankbait, especially in the heat of the day. On a warm spring day the water might be 48 at daylight but 52 by four in the afternoon. I try to throw right at something. If I'm fishing a couple big boulders or an old bridge abutment I'll try and bounce my crankbait off it or hit it with my jig. Some days this seems to make a huge difference. Another bait I have a lot of confidence in during this time of transition is a hair jig or jig made of craft fur tipped with a salted minnow. Save those crappie minnows and preserve them in salt. Lay them out in a Tupperware bowl so they aren't touching then cover them with salt. lay out another layer and repeat. I'm also fond of gulp type baits or salted plastics on the back of the jig but the real thing works best for me. Eddies below lowhead dams can really produce right now as well. One nice thing about lowheads is if the bass aren't biting in the eddy saugfish should be biting out in the current.
Next as the water warms thru the mid fifties to sixty the bass will begin to gather in their spawning grounds. Try to find a backwater that has a solid bottom. You need a bottom that when you swipe it once or twice with your wader boots you get gravel or smaller rock. Good places to look are in the lower end of channels behind islands and sometimes in the mouths of small tributaries. Some tribs just pour right into the river over a shallow gravel bar but some have a quiet backwater where they meet the main river that is ideal spawning territory. From the upper fifties to mid sixties is prime time to catch pre spawn smalljaws. Now the bass are very active and a crankbait or a spinnerbait of some sort can really produce. I might start off the day swimming a grub and then switch to a square bill crank or a spinner as the day warms. Smalljaws start to spawn in rivers around here sometime around mid April to the beginning of May depending on water temperature.

In spring a thermometer can be a big help showing you not only where you should be fishing but how. It will be here before you know it now...