The pre-spawn period is a time of change. Bass are migrating between areas and fickle spring weather causes them to move up and down in the water column and to continually change their attitude. Fishing success this time of year calls for flexibility and the ability to pattern bass effectively. It also involves using the right set of tools. With that in mind, we’ll look at five types of lures that together can deliver success under a wide range of pre-spawn conditions.
In the minds of many bass fishermen, the pre-spawn period is “Rogue time.” Often, that legitimately means casting a Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue, which was the original suspending jerkbait and has a subtle rolling action that is especially effective when the water is extra cold.
Other anglers favor one of the more modern jerkbaits. Several jerkbaits look similar to one another and offer same general appeals for pre-spawn fish, but each has a unique dart, wiggle or roll when it’s pulled or jerked, and posture when it’s motionless. All suggest baitfish that are winter chilled or even dying.
All can be kept in the strike zone for a long time, eventually drawing strikes from bass that, like the baitfish, are moving more slowly than normal because of cool water temperatures.
Jerkbaits work well over points and humps that are adjacent to spawning areas but close to deeper water. Bass suspend in these types of areas as they stage for the spawn. They won’t aggressively chase baitifsh, but they’ll gladly nab an easy meal.
The classic spring jerkbait presentation is to cast the lure past the structure or over the top of it, reel quickly to get the bait to its diving depth, jerk the rod a few times, pause the presentation, and then jerk a few more times. Important variables include the sharpness of rod pulls, which can range from mere twitches to hard jerks, the cadence, and the lengths of pauses.
Don’t fall into a rut with some particular cadence and assume the fish aren’t around or biting a jerkbait. Experiment with presentations and take mental note of what you have been doing any time a fish strikes.
The pause may be the most critical part of the presentation during early spring, and the cooler the water is, the longer the pause typically needs to be. Many fish (if not most), hit jerkbaits that are suspended dead still, knocking slack out of the line and hooking themselves.
Jig & Craw
When bass move up onto sun-warmed riprap banks, position themselves beside dock posts or hold tight to natural rock areas prior to the spawn, a finesse jig allows for a slow presentation of a subtle offering.
When pre-spawn fish work their way up ditches or roam up points that connect deep winter areas with spawning flats, a football head jig come into play. Either style of jig imitates a crawfish and can be fished slowly. Whatever jig style you choose, pair it with a chunk or a soft-plastic crawfish, matching the color scheme of the jig and the trailer.
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For clear water, it’s hard to beat some form of green. Good options for stained water include browns and oranges. A black and blue combination works well for legitimately dirty water.
For choosing trailers, consider the profile and the amount the claws move when you move the bait. Generally speaking, a slightly smaller profile works best when the water remains fairly cold, but if you’re fishing where the bass grow extra large or where the crawfish tend to be big, a bigger trailer might be best.
If you do want a slightly reduced profile but like the claw action and general look of a certain type of crawfish bait, simply shorten the body a bit before you string the trailer onto the jig’s hook.
Key words for any early-season jig presentation are “slow” and “low.” Any lifts or hops must be slight, and often the absolute best presentation is a legitimate drag, with the jig remaining in contact with the bottom from the time it sinks until you reel it up to make another cast.
In fact, even a normal-seeming drag isn’t slow enough sometimes. That’s when you need to pull the bait only inches at a time, with a pause between every drag.
If a lake has submerged vegetation that begins developing early in the spring, the “Trap bite” comes into play whenever the sun bakes grass-covered flats even a bit and fish begin moving up onto them.
Whether you opt for the namesake traditional Rat-L-Trap, a Cordell Spot or a slicker finished bait such as a Strike King Redeye Shad, a lipless crankbait has a tight wiggle that effectively imitates winter-chilled baitfish and creates sound and vibration to help the fish hone in on the lure.
Because running depth is not controlled by a bill, you can swim a lipless crankbait just over the top of the grass whether that’s a foot deep or 10 feet deep via retrieve speed and rod positioning.
It’s also a bait you can cast long distances and keep moving to cover water without necessarily having to swim it at high speeds.
The simplest lipless crankbait presentation involves nothing more than casting and winding, usually with the rod held relatively high, and at times that’s the best way to work the lure.
Typically, you want the lure to barely tick the tops of the weeds, so if you’re not feeling weeds at all, you need to slow the retrieve. If the bait starts hanging, speed it up and raise the rod tip a bit.
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An alternative approach that triggers strikes when the bass aren’t going for the straight retrieve is to kill the bait periodically, allowing it to drop into the vegetation and hang, and then rip it free with a snap of the wrist. When the bait pops up out of the vegetation, it prompts reaction strikes.
The most popular lipless crankbait size is 1/2 ounce. For matching bigger forage, appealing to larger fish or getting a little deeper, some anglers also make heavy use of 3/4-ounce or occasionally even 1-ounce versions.
In terms of colors, bright red works very well during the spring, maybe because it suggests a crawfish. Basic chrome with a blue or black back also works well.
The crankbait is arguably the most difficult style of lure to define and peg to a situation for pre-spawn fishing because crankbaits vary so much in character. Differences in size, profile, wobble and diving range create huge variances in the appeals of different cranks and consequentially the situations for which they are best suited.
That said, several styles of crankbaits lend themselves nicely to pre-spawn applications. Two of the most classic crankbaits for fishing in cold water, inclusive of the pre-spawn period, are totally opposite one another in character.
A Rapala Shad Rap, for example, is tight wiggling and has a very narrow profile to suggest a cold-slowed baitfish and look like an easy meal. A Storm Wiggle Wart is round-bodied and wide wobbling and pushes a lot of water as it kicks among rocks like a rooting crawfish.
Several crankbaits, of course, fall between the extremes. A Bandit 200 or similar bait that is medium in size, diving depth and wobble, works nicely for covering water and hitting banks that are near spawning areas and that fish move onto during warm spring spells, especially when a bit of wind or cloud cover makes the fish more aggressive.
The best colors depend largely on conditions and the way a crankbait is being used. For clear water and fish feeding on shad, natural shad patterns are the way to go. For kicking around riprap or other rock cover, browns, oranges and greens work well because they suggest crawfish.
In either case, adding a strong dose of chartreuse creates far greater visibility for cranking dirty water. One major difference between the early spring approach and the way you might crank a bank a little later in the year is that you generally want to grind the bait along slower, keeping the rod low to keep it hitting cover without having to crank it quickly.
Bump as much stuff as you can with every presentation, and generally work the crankbait as slowly as you can without forsaking good running action.
The shaky head allows you to cover a lot of territory and a range of depths by casting shallow and working it down structure.
The drop-shot lends itself well to vertical presentations when the fish push a little deeper and get extra fussy. The Carolina rig works well for working the deep ends of points, which pre-spawn fish move up and down with changing conditions.
Locations largely dictate rigging, but some sort of finesse worm setup becomes a good choice any time conditions suggest that fishing might be tough.
That could be a high-pressure system delivering bluebird skies and falling air temperatures.
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It could be heavy pressure from other fishermen or even extra clear water. Any small-diameter worm that’s less than about 5 inches long and has simple tail configuration fits into the finesse category.
Distinctions among finesse worms include actual diameter, the softness of the plastic, available colors and tail configurations. Because finesse is the operative word, tails that don’t flap to hard, and small-profiled worms tend to work best.
For the same reason, the most productive colors tend to be natural and translucent colors like watermelon seed and salt-and-pepper.
As with the jerkbait, a pause can be important to just about any finesse worm presentation this time of year. Work the bait a bit and then hold the rod completely still, with the line tight enough to feel everything going on without moving the bait.
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You might feel a lunge or a light tick, or the line might just go slack if the fish picks up the worm and moves toward you. If anything about what you feel changes even a little, set the hook!
Note: This article originally posted in March 2016 and has been updated.