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I took my own advice last week and spent a few days (some very hot and in the 90s, some very cool in the mid-50s) fishing for my favorite fish, the smallmouth bass. Well, the waters I ended up fishing had more largemouths than smallmouths, but the action was as hot and heavy as I’ve seen it in years. There may be something about this “El Nino” stuff, though I’m far from able to explain it. All I know is I caught a 15-inch bass on my very first cast and pretty much had a fish on every five minutes or so after that!
What makes bass fishing so good at this time of year is that both species are busy spawning. They build nests (essentially clearing away the mud and debris on the lake or pond bottom where they lay their eggs) and then guard them for several weeks till the young fish disperse. These nests may be mere inches off the shore (more about that later) and in water that’s just ankle deep, yet it’s possible to catch fish over 5 pounds – regularly – in such thin water.
I fished one pond out of a 16-foot Old Town canoe with two other anglers and, at one point, all three of us had bass on that were 20 inches long or more! I won’t name the ponds we fished because I’d hate to see them turned into tournament sites (not because tournament fishermen will catch all the fish but to avoid the heavy traffic and wake action that such events often generate).
By the end of the morning we had boated and released over a dozen bass weighing over 3 pounds, and twice as many in the 12- to 15-inch range. This is good fishing, indeed! In fact, many trout waters are considered “excellent” if you catch more than one trout per hour! We caught (conservatively) 50 fish in three hours – and they were still hitting hard when we left the water at 11 a.m.
In spring, bass will hit like that all day because guarding a nest is tough work. I have watched bluegills sneak in and try to eat the young bass fry even while I’m fighting a just-hooked bass. I quickly release the fish and let them get back to their business while I paddle on to the next hotspot.
One thing that hasn’t changed about bass fishing in the 50 or so years I’ve been doing it is that they are invariably found in shallow water near shore and in close proximity to any kind of obstacle – rocks, logs, stick-ups, log jams, under overhanging trees, fallen trees and off points of land. Truth be told, it’s a good idea to fish every inch of water along shore, and cast as close to shore as you can – even up on land if necessary! One of my biggest bass this trip took a fly-rod Jitterbug that I’d tossed onto dry land, then “jumped” back into the water. The hit (a splashy, explosive one) took place less than a foot from dry ground! These fish are holding very close to shore, so keep that in mind as you paddle along. Don’t let your boat or canoe stray so far off shore that you can’t reach dry ground with your lure.
Most bass will hit within the first few feet of your retrieve, but some will take the lure as soon as it hits the water. I caught several bass this past week that seemed to be waiting for the lure to arrive – it never seemed to hit the water, it just disappeared into the waiting jaws of a hungry bass!
One point I discovered to the chagrin of one of my partners, who had neglected his equipment all winter. I noticed that many of his hooks were tarnished, rusted or at least very dull, and he lost several fish after hard hits just because he hadn’t taken the time to polish and sharpen his hooks. I happened to have a hook hone with me so I spent about 30 minutes catching bass after bass while went feverishly through his tackle box, sharpening every dull, corroded hook he could find. That’s work that’s better done in winter work, folks, not on the water. One of my best bass of the day came from water he would have been fishing had he not stopped to maintain his lures. Of course, I made sure he knew what a great fish he’d missed – that’s what fishing buddies are for! I even let him hold it up for pictures!
The lures that worked best for us include the 3-inch silver Rebel, the yellow Mr. Twister Teeny spinnerbait, the Arbogast fly-rod Jitterbug and a Texas-rigged 8-inch rubber worm. We fished open water near shore with great results, but also saw fish jumping in the weedy shallows, so we each kept a rod rigged for weedy and weedless fishing. The largest fish of the day, in fact, came up with a handful of lily pads and milfoil. Bass like the weeds because baitfish, frogs and other forage species abound there. You don’t get as much of a fight out of the weed-bound fish because they tangle quickly, but it is fun to watch that initial splash when they take the lure and it’s a nice surprise to find a 5-pounder mixed in with all those weeds.
Spring bass in Maine may be taken only with lures and should be released immediately so the bass can resume guarding its nest. It helps to release the fish right away, too. One nice fish we stopped to photograph was literally stolen out of my hand by a giant snapping turtle! I was holding the fish in the water and slowly lifting it for the “dripping water” shot, when I felt a hard tug. A turtle with a head the size of a beer mug had snuck up and latched onto the fish while we were photographing it! I rescued the fish, shooed the turtle away and released the bass on the other side of the boat – such are the travails of the Maine spring bass angler.
Needless to say, the bass are on the feed bag right now. It’s light enough in the morning to get out at sunrise and be home in time to go to work, so find a way to take advantage of this unique angling experience. Just watch out for those snappers!
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