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Much is made of the fundamental rites of spring, and I’ve noticed that a lot of people have personal traditions that surface once the back of winter is broken for good. For some folks, spring is a time of getting things done, and we all know someone who’s gearing up right now for some serious spring-cleaning. But, if I had to choose between spending a balmy April morning beating the rugs and reorganizing the pantry, I’d definitely choose . . . fishing! In fact, with April 1 just three days away, I’d say that the brooms and the Windex could stay in the closet a little while longer. After all, spring lasts till the first day of summer, doesn’t it?
This kind of angler’s logic buys me the chance to spend the first few Saturday mornings in April on the water somewhere, and that was my plan all along. It’s true enough that the best fishing of the year is yet to come (May and mid-June are far better), but when the powers that be declare April 1 as the official opening day of the open water fishing season, how can anyone expect you to stay home and clean the blades on the ceiling fan?
The general consensus is that, opening day or not, April 1 is still too early for good fishing, and most years that is all too true. But, there are years when, thanks to what’s known as an “early” spring, the streams and rivers around us are low, clear and warm (meaning in the low 50s): Ideal conditions for trout and salmon fishing.
If I have a choice, I’ll go for salmon in a river somewhere just because I like being on a stream in spring, I like the clear, cold water and I really like the way a salmon puts a serious bend in my fishing rod. Salmon hit hard and start flying right away – it’s great to see them jump and twist in the air, and they are so bright and silvery – just the kind of excitement you want after a long, cold, dull winter.
These days, finding a place to go that isn’t already overrun with other fishermen can be a challenge, but the salmon take care of that. These are not fish that can be caught on just any lure or bait whenever you happen to feel like it. They can be downright picky at times, especially in early spring, and most anglers get tired of the challenge and quit after a few luckless hours. The key is to be persistent, try different baits and cover every bit of water you can reach, long and short, shallow and deep. It helps, too, to wait till the water temperature is in the mid-40s to 50s.
One study conducted by long-time Maine fisheries biologist Ken Warner showed that the peak of salmon movement in April and May occurs when the water temperatures reaches 40 to 45 degrees – kinda cool, but that’s what salmon like! Studies have also shown that salmon can’t or won’t survive when the water temperature rises above 75 degrees (which isn’t likely in most typical streams and rivers where salmon are found). Cool, fast and clean – those are the basic standards for a good salmon stream.
Keep in mind that it doesn’t take much of a temperature change to make a big difference in the fishing. For example, when much of a stream is too cold for good fishing, there may be a stretch that is open and touched by the sun, raising the water temperature the few degrees necessary to trigger a response from the fish. I’ve seen this happen many times on rivers where, in the shaded deep holes, nothing would bite, but in the sun-drenched riffles, salmon would be jumping all over the river throughout the day.
I’ve even noticed that salmon will seek out small pockets of sunlit water and suspend within those pockets even as the patch of sunlight moves upstream or down through the day. The fish will usually be found in the tail end of such “sun pockets” because the water temperature will be slightly higher in that area. Just drop a lure or fly into the water well upstream of the sunny spot and let it drift down to the waiting fish. The window of opportunity will be small and short-lived, but salmon are quick fish and will have no trouble finding and hitting your offering.
The real secret to catching a fish this early in the season is to be patient and persistent. There’s nowhere else the fish can be except in the water, so you have that going for you. Just remember that we’re coming out of winter, the fish are still relatively dormant and don’t feed much or often, and until the water warms up to that magical 50-degree level, you’ll have to drop a bait or lure pretty much right down their throats to get a reaction.
The most productive method is to bait a hook with a night crawler or small shiner and just drop it to the bottom of a deep pool and wait . . . and wait. You might end up waiting half a day or more for a hit, but if you persist you will eventually catch something. I have watched trout and salmon approach a bait when the water was cold and high, and it amazed me to see how lethargic they were and how slowly they moved when taking a bait. A fish that, in warmer weather, would zoom in and out to hit a lure now just follows it slowly, like a submarine at idle speed, and takes the bait only after much deliberation and casual inspection.
If you are in a rush to make that first catch of the season you’re probably going to bypass 100 trout for every fish you put in the net, so slow down and let your bait do the work. Do what you can to get your baits and lures close to the bottom, and let the fish find them at their own pace. When reeling in lures or flies, bring them in a foot or so at a time and then let them flutter in place for several seconds. I have caught some nice fish on lures during that short pause sequence, sometimes nearly at my feet with only a few inches of line out.
It’s not necessarily about catching fish, anyway, at least not during this first week of the season. Get out there, get your feet wet and enjoy the warming spring atmosphere. It’s what you’ve been waiting for all winter!
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