Across the country, the pre-spawn and spawn have been running hot and heavy. Us guys up north though have been twiddling our thumbs the last few months waiting for the weather to warm and the ice to thaw so we too, can start chasing those big pre-spawn bass.
With current water temperatures here in Ohio sitting around the mid-40s to low 50s across the state, the pre-spawn is upon us here in the Northeast. One thing I have noticed though since I moved up from the Lone Star State 4 years ago, is that pre-spawn fishing up north is a little different than fishing down south.
Now I am not saying your standard southern big fish tactics won’t work up here. What I am saying is that running with an arsenal of scaled-down baits and slight variants on popular techniques can lead to some great success so here are my top 5 pre-spawn baits for up here in the Northeast.
Pre-Spawn Baits #5: The 1.0 & 1.5 Square Bill Crankbait
The squarebill crankbait, I feel, has a special place in all anglers’ hearts. I honestly do not know a bass fisherman personally who has not caught both a lot of fish on a squarebill and at least one big one on a squarebill. During the pre-spawn the bait is especially deadly. With fish using rocky areas like highways and submerged wood to ambush prey, this bait excels in the because rock and wood are where it excels.
During pre-spawn I am scouring the lake for rocky and woody areas to throw my squarebill, bonus points if you find the combination of both. Up here in the northeast, I like to throw some of the small crankbaits during the pre-spawn. One of my go-to’s comes from a small company back in my hometown of Belton, TX called Cornerstone Baits. Cornerstone’s MX1 Creeper crankbaits are a fantastic 1.5 size with great paint schemes. I prefer these small-sized squarebills because they are great during the northeastern pre-spawn mainly due to all the grass.
These smaller ones don’t dive as deep as your 2.0s, 2.5, or 4.0s which helps with not getting bogged up in the fresh grass and moss covering the rocky areas but still, it dives deep enough to barely tick the top of the grass, rocks, or wood.
Another great area to target early in the year is in the lily pads! Yes, while most of the year you’d have to be crazy to bomb a treble hooked bait of any kind into lily pads, the respawn is a different scenario. During the pre-spawn pad fields usually haven’t grown up full and are much sparser than throughout the rest of the year, but the pad stems are still thick and hard, similar to wood, and retain heat which bass will congregate too. Throwing a squarebill into these sparser pad fields can really get some great reaction strikes and pull fish that most people throwing the same bait will never even cast at.
Squarebill Tackle & Gear
When I first decide which squarebill to tie on, I’m looking at a few variables to help determine the best bait for the situation. The first thing I look at is water color. For dirty, milky water I will choose between a black crankbait, a bright orange or fire craw, or a bright baitfish color if I know the fish are keyed in on a certain baitfish. But usually, it’s between the black for orange craw.
In stained water, I’m looking for red. Its spring, the fish are eating crawfish, and red is an amazing color in the spring so craw all the way. In the clearest of water, I’ll throw a darker red or brown craw as well as certain baitfish if I know the fish are chasing the bait. I like to rig my squarebills up on a 7’ 2 Power (M) Kistler Magnesium. The 2 power is a medium action rod and so it has a lot of tip play yet still backbone to fight the fish in. Add the custom Kistler Winn-Grips and you won’t lose ahold of your rod or your fish. I’ll pair my Kistler rod with a medium speed reel like a Lews BB1 in a 6.4:1 gear ratio. This lower speed allows to slow down when needed but also catch up to fish swimming at me by just reeling faster. For line, I will use between 10-12 pound fluorocarbon. I only use fluorocarbon and base my line on what I’m fishing that day. If I’m fishing sparser cover, 10-pound test. If I’m fishing heavier cover, 12-pound test.
Squarebill Rigging Tip
Almost always, always, always, ALWAYS replace your stock treble hooks. Very few companies use great trebles as stock. Replace the stock trebles with something you truly believe in. That way, when you’re in a tournament or even out fun fishing and you get that fish of a lifetime hooked, you won’t have to worry about your treble hooks letting that fish come unbuttoned.
Pre-Spawn Baits #4: The Bladed Jig
The bladed Jig (also known as a Chatterbait) is honestly one of my absolute favorite baits… period. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, I will always have a bladed jig tied up on the deck. The bladed jig is just a big fish catching machine, especially during the pre-spawn.
During the pre-spawn I try to really cover a lot of water with a bladed jig and focus my efforts on areas on grassy areas that would normally bog up a crankbait or spinnerbait. The blade design on a bladed jig makes it very easy to rip the bait through grass and clear the bait. This violent snap of the bait creates a reaction bite and can force some very aggressive bites. My favorite time to throw this bait is when I am fishing over a submerged weed bed.
Depending on the thickness and depth of the grass I throw either a ½ oz or a 3/8 oz bladed jig and slow roll the bait just enough to get it hung up in the top of the grass then rip it free to get bites.
Another place I love to throw a bladed jig is along rocks. If I am going down a rocky bank and another boat in front of me is throwing a square bill, then I’ll take out the bladed jig and run behind them trying to catch any and all the fish they didn’t pick up with their squarebill. The bladed jig, to me, is the hybrid bait of a squarebill and spinnerbait so besides trying to get a pure reaction strike from ripping the bait through grass I will also throw this bait the same areas as a spinnerbait and squarebill just to keep the fish honest.
Bladed Jig Tackle & Gear
The Jackhammer is simply the best, but companies are now making variations that are competing all while at a lower cost. While I still have a handful of Jackhammers in the box, I have a fair share of other bladed jigs like the Thunder Cricket by Strike King, the Primal by Fish Head that is made with an underspin attached, and the TS Bladed Jig by Old Fart Lures which has a copper wire tied half living rubber skirt.
Each one of these is like a different socket wrench. They do the same thing and get the same outcome, but certain situations call for each. For colors, I like to keep it pretty simple. For muddy water I use black and blue, for stained water I use some sort of shad pattern or green pumpkin, and for clear water I prefer natural colors like bluegill or green pumpkin.
Each one of these bladed jigs I like to pair on a pretty stout rod, either a 4 (MH) or 5 (H) power 7’-7’ 6” Kistler Helium. The Helium has a little more of a Moderate tip, so you don’t lose a lot of fish and the rod loads up to ease the shock of the aggressive strikes bladed jigs produce. I like a fast action reel like the Lews Pro-Ti in a 7.5:1 spooled up with either 50-pound braid or 15-pound fluorocarbon. I turn to braid in dirty water or grassy situations and I use fluoro for clear water situations.
Bladed Jig Rigging Tip
When rigging a paddle tail swimbait for a bladed jig trailer, rig the swimbait up-side-down so that the paddle tail is running upside down. This causes the trailer tail and the blade to sync up and kick/vibrate at the same pace.
Pre-Spawn Baits #3: The Lipless Crankbait
The lipless crankbait is an absolute staple in any pre-spawn arsenal no matter where you are in the country. This bait will be one of the most versatile on your deck. You can fish it in grass, rock, wood, open water, shallow, deep, top, middle, and bottom of the water column.
During the pre-spawn though I am looking for that offshore grass to get reaction strikes from those large pre-spawn feeders. I want to fish the bait just slow enough it is barely hitting the top of the grass then I give the bait a hard rip to free it from the grass and clear the bait. After I rip the bait, I slow the bait down until it hits the top of the grass and repeat.
The technique can create a lot of absolutely nasty reaction bites.
The other way I like to fish it is yo-yoing. I will occasionally do this around grassy areas by yo-yoing the pockets and holes in the grass, but I really prefer throwing this technique in deep rocky areas trying to ignite and find a school of pres-pawners. To do this I’ll cast out my crankbait, let it sink all the way down, then ill reel up the slack, and I ‘pop’ the end of my rod handle and this yo-yos the crankbait up almost completely vertical. I let the crankbait sink back down, reel in the slack and repeat.
Lipless Crankbait Tackle & Gear
For the lipless crankbait itself, I try to make it pretty simple when deciding what color to throw. If I want to throw craw colors, I will throw a brighter orange or red if I’m in dirty to stained water and just a plain red if I’m in clearer water. If the craw colors aren’t the juice, then I’ll throw either a black and gold on cloudy days or a chrome blue on sunny days.
For rods, I prefer a Kistler Feel N’ Reel All-Purpose action. The Feel N’ Reel is a graphite/glass composite rod and so it has a fantastic backbone from the graphite, but the tip has a lot of load from the glass. In my opinion, the Feel N’ Reel is the best moving bait rod on the market. I then pair that up with a Lews BB1 in a 6.4:1 gear ratio that way I don’t overfish this bait which is very easy to do. I then spool that up with 15lb fluorocarbon.
Lipless Crankbait Rigging Tip
This tip is similar to the squarebill rigging tip as it is CHANGE STOCK YOUR TREBLE HOOKS. But along with that, I add change them to something with a little difference. The difference could be color of the hooks, a feathered hook, a bladed hook, etc. Just change your trebles to make your bait stand out from the millions of other lipless crankbaits buzzing over the fishes head’s every day. You bait stands out over others; you get bites over others.
Pre-Spawn Baits #2: The Finesse Football Jig
Throwing a jig is easily my favorite way of fishing. Finding fish on a jig bite is what I dream of at night. I believe everyone should have a football jig tied on every time they go out during the pre-spawn. The issue is there is a lot of people who feel the same and so fish see a lot of football jigs over a season. This is why I love to throw finesse football jigs.
The great thing about this is that I don’t have to go get any special tackle, I just use a standard football jig doctored up. To me, the big key to a good finesse football jig is living rubber skirting. To me, living rubber in cold water will out fish a standard silicon skirt 10-1.
The living rubber floats so underwater, the skirt material bulks out and will move and flow with the water current and give off a bigger profile versus standard silicon.
To make my finesse jig, I just take an Old Fart Lures Tournament Series Football Jig and I trim the skirt up around the football head to give it that finesse jig collar and then I trim the skirt down to the back of the hook. This gives a little different look to the football jig that fish has seen a thousand times already. The living rubber than bulks up and adds some extra action to the bait even when you just let it sit still. My favorite areas to throw this jig are rocky points and flats. I slow roll the bait through the rocks and just hang on when the fish bite because nine times out of ten, the fish are inhaling it. If the bite won’t pick up, or it dies down, I’ll start to double pump and pop the jig up off the bottom. I do this trying to ignite a reaction strike and fire up the school of fish.
Finesse Football Jig Tackle & Gear
When I decide on jigs and colors, I always go with an Old Fart Lures TS Football jig. For colors, I like the Big Money color for clear water, Hot Sauce color for the clear and stained water, a custom Green Pumpkin Purple for stained water, and black and blue or a custom black and purple for dirtier water. For trailers I just try to find something that matches the hatch and has good kicking action. Gary Yamamoto Twin-Tail grub, Reaction Innovations Spicy Beaver, and Strike King Rage Craws are some great starting baits for trailers.
For rods, I like a nice stout rod to really drive the hook home. My go-to Jig Rod is a Kistler KLX 5 Power Rod. The 5-power rod is a heavy action rod, so it has plenty of power to set the hook even when fish deep and around structure. For a reel, I like to pair it with a Lews Pro-Ti. The Pro-Ti is a 7.5:1 gear ratio which is needed to catch up to fish when they knock slack into your line. For line, I like to spool up with 15-17-pound Fluorocarbon.
Finesse Football Jig Rigging Tip
When trimming the bottom of your jig skirt use the scissors at an angle. You want your skirt material to be relatively the same length but not a clean-cut, so add some randomness to how the bottom of the jig is cut.
Pre-Spawn Baits #1: The Drop Shot
The drop shot is arguably the best finesse technique there is and one of the best fish catching techniques period. Being a smallmouth guide on Lake Erie, there is not another technique that I would have more faith in to catch fish in any situation more than the drop shot. The ability to put a bait in front of a fish’s face and just shake it until the fish gets annoyed and bites is truly amazing.
In my opinion, the drop shot is the most effective tool to catch smallmouth year-round.
While some baits may catch ‘em better on one day or another, ultimately the drop shot is hard to beat. During the spring season, our weather is unpredictable. We can have blazing hot days, snow and ice days, and some days experience all 4 seasons of the year. These drastic swings cause havoc on the fishing and can really make for a tough bite in otherwise great conditions.
The drop shot can be your equalizer! There is not much to say about a drop shot because it is honestly extremely easy to fish. You can cast and pop it, cast and drag it, fish it vertically, or just drift it behind the boat. The key will be in the water clarity and forage of the lake. Always try to match the hatch and darken/lighten your bait relative to the water clarity. Take your drop shot and go find those areas on the first contour breaks on main and secondary points and get to fishing.
Drop Shot Tackle & Gear
For drop-shotting, my favorite rods are the Kistler Magnesium in the 1 (ML) or 2 (M) power. I prefer the 1 power for when I am vertically fishing because it has a ton of tip and you can work the bait like crazy and never move the weight. I prefer the 2 power when I am casting my drop shot as the tip I still soft but not too soft to get the rod caught and hung up in every rock, stump, or weed bed it comes across.
Both rods have great backbone and tip, so you rarely lose fish with is amazing when you are throwing a size 1 or 2 drop shot hook. I’ll pair those rods with the Lews Mach 2 Spinning reel in the 200 size. The Mach 2 is a fantastic 10 Ball bearing reel and has a high-speed retrieve (for a spinning reel) at 6.2:1. Add all that up and put it in a reel that is only $79.99 and is a great cosmetic match with that same bright green Winn-grip handles on the reel as well as Winn-grips on the rod and you’ve got the perfect rod and reel combo.
I spool those up with 10-pound test braid and a 6-10 pound leader depending on the day and personal preference. I use a 1-2 size drop shot hook and throw ¼-1/2 oz drop shot weights depending on the depth and wind/current of the area I am fishing. For bait, I just try to find the best thing that matches the hatch around. For example, on Erie the Berkley Powerbait Maxscent Flat Worm in Goby is the absolute juice but there are other areas it doesn’t perform as well as a Roboworm or a Zoom Trick worm so it really is a matter of trial and error mixed with a lot of confidence in what you’re throwing.
Drop Shot Rigging Tip
When rigging your drop shot make sure you rig everything straight. If your knot is not lined up straight with your hook then your bait will spin on the fall and when you’re using light line, twisting could result in breaking off and losing fish.
Pre-spawn is the best time of the year to catch both a lot of fish and big fish. Unfortunately, with major weather swings and a ton of fishing pressure, the bite can get rough up here in the Northeast. That’s why I believe taking a more finesse tactic to your standard popular pre-spawn patterns can result in catching more fish than the other anglers around you. Pre-spawn fish are active and feeding heavy. Now is your chance to go catch your new PB or get better at some new techniques by catching a lot of fish. The Northeast has some absolutely amazing, world-class fisheries so remember if you’re having issues getting bites this spring, try to scale down some of your favorite tactics and you’d be amazed how powerful finesse fishing can be.
Stay safe, go fish, and tight lines!
This article was contributed by an ANGLR Expert
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