The Essential Guide to Catching and Keeping Freshwater Live Bait

The Essential Guide to Catching and Keeping Freshwater Live Bait

Whether in fresh or saltwater, rare are the days when artificial lures will take more or bigger fish than live bait. For many, however, the big issue with live bait is cost and the ability to keep it alive from the point of purchase to the location of use. There’s nothing worse than spending your hard-earned cash on a dozen shiners, for example, only to have them go belly-up before you ever put them on a hook. There is another simpler option, and that is to catch your own.

Quality live baits can be caught almost everywhere. Moreover, with just a little effort, baits can be kept fresh and alive throughout a day of fishing and beyond, which is sure to increase your success over the long haul.

Here are some choice natural baits for freshwater fishing, with tips on how to catch them and keep them lively until it’s time to use them.

1. Earthworms

Few live baits are as effective than nightcrawlers and earthworms.
Few live baits are as effective than nightcrawlers and earthworms. Field & Stream

Let’s start with the basics. Worms are, without a doubt, the most-used bait, and for good reason. They will help you catch everything from sunfish to catfish.

Earthworm varieties range widely from finger-thick Canadian crawlers used for walleyes and bass; to tiny red wigglers perfectly suited for panfish; to neon-green, glow-in-the-dark worms that can work on basically everything.

There are numerous ways to catch worms, including fiddling for them by rubbing an axe blade across a buried stake, electro-shocking likely soil areas, and even baiting the ground with uncooked pork (this also attracts ants and other crawly critters like cockroaches). All of these tactics work, but there are even simpler methods as well.

For example, oversized nightcrawlers can be snatched up at night by simply spraying the backyard lawn with water just before dark and stalking the blades of grass while wearing a red-tinted headlamp. Overturning the rich dirt in leafy flower beds with a rake or shovel, or flipping stones along a streamside will also work, often resulting in enough worms for a morning’s worth of family fishing.

Need more volume? Soak the soil with plain dish soap and water. If that doesn’t work, add a half-cup of bleach to a bucket of water, set your garden hose on trickle, and put it in the bucket. Then place the bucket on your lawn as it overflows. Within minutes, worms will wriggle to the surface. Grab them, rinse them off, and toss them into a container.

Soak as many areas as necessary, but know that both soap and bleach will eventually kill the worms, so it’s best to only grab enough for one day’s use. Briefly storing them in a container filled with rich soil or worm bedding will keep them wriggling for several hours.

A hot worm-hunting location that you might not have thought of is your local parking lot. Check the pavement after a warm spring or summer rain, and you’ll collect enough worms for a week’s worth of fishing.

Out of all the kinds of live bait, Worms are probably the easiest to store. The old go-to metal coffee can works as well today as it did for your grandfather. To access the worms quickly, flip the can and grab the worms that have gravitated toward the bottom. You can store them overnight or longer in the refrigerator, but tell the family first.

There is really no need to feed the wrigglers unless you don’t plan on fishing for a month.

2. Baitfish

Live shiners are an acknowledged big-bass favorite.
Live shiners are an acknowledged big-bass favorite. Field & Stream

Big fish eat small fish, and there is likely no more effective bait than a small baitfish on a hook.

Generally, baitfish selection should vary according to what species you’re using them for. However, the hardiest baitfish are most desirable. Madtoms, suckers, and mud minnows, for example, are so resilient that they almost defy death both while on the hook or in a livewell.

Other baitfish, such as shad and shiners, might need greater care (like extremely clean and well-aerated water) to ensure their survival while being transported, as well as on the boat during a day of fishing.

There are many ways to catch baitfish. Small cylindrical mesh traps baited with bread, cat food, or oatmeal then placed in rivers, creeks, lakes, or ponds, are extremely effective at collecting an assortment of live baitfish like madtoms, dace, shiners, and small sunfish. Using a commercially-available mesh seine is also a good and quick way to catch baitfish from shallow lakes, rivers, and streams. Two people can often seine enough baitfish in a very short time for a full day of fishing.

Umbrella lift-style nets work well on a variety of baitfish, too. Use lift-nets at night around bridge and dock lights, or near submerged lights used specifically for attracting fish. You can also bait tiny hooks (size 10 or 12) with bread and fish for small sunfish and wild shiners in shallow water. This might take a bit longer than other methods, but it is a proven tactic. A cast-net is another efficient tool to catch a lot of baitfish (especially shad and shiners) in short order, but it takes a bit of practice.

Regardless of the method, it is critical to check your location’s fishing regulations concerning baitfish collection and use. In some places, introducing a non-native species of baitfish into a particular body of water might be considered illegal. In others, there might be limits to the number of live baits you are permitted to keep.

While baitfish can be caught almost anywhere, it’s best to target places where they are most likely to concentrate, particularly in spots where waterways are constricted or blocked. In streams, pools, and run-outs just below shallow stretches can be prime places for baitfish to stack. Likewise, below dams (even small ones) and downstream of culverts are also baitfish hangouts.

3. Crawfish

Crawfish are killer baits for both largemouths and smallmouths.
Crawfish are killer baits for both largemouths and smallmouths. Field & Stream

Crawfish are abundant in most bodies of freshwater throughout America, and except in winter, they are easy to locate, catch, and keep alive for a wide variety of fishing. They are great baits for black bass (all species), as well as catfish. Small crawfish baits sometimes tempt walleyes, sauger, pike, and even trout—though the softshell variety is usually preferred by these species.

Crawfish can be caught several ways, with commercially-made wire mesh traps being perhaps the best and most effective method. Bait traps with meat such as chicken necks, wings, or liver, and place them in lakes, ponds, creeks, rivers, ditches, and backwater bayous. Simply tying a hunk of bait to a line will also draw crawfish. They will typically hang onto the bait long enough for you to net them.

If you prefer some hand-to-claw combat, simply wade a rocky-bottomed lake or stream and begin flipping over stones. Allow a moment for the mud cloud to dissipate and look for the brownish craws beneath. It’s best to approach a crawfish slowly from the rear or else you’ll risk having it dart off, tail-first, never to be seen again. It’s a challenging sport if using only your hands, which is why most bait-gatherers prefer small dip nets.

Crawfish can easily be kept lively for many days in a small styrofoam storage container. Be certain to place it in a cool, dry area out of the sun. Use only enough water in the container to half-cover crawfish, and add a few large stones for them to hide under. Change the water periodically and immediately remove any crawfish that die.

For a day of fishing, a small bucket with a bit of water is all crawfish need to survive. They can also be kept in a clean, aerated boat livewell.

4. Leeches

Few live baits are more effective in freshwater than leeches. All black bass devour them, and they are especially deadly on smallmouths and walleyes. Sauger, trout, sunfish, and catfish all go wild for leeches, too.

Different species of leeches can be found in almost all freshwaters, from clear western trout streams to swampy dark bass bayous in the deep South.

The time-tested way to catch them is with a small metal container like a soup or coffee can. Bait the inside of the can with chicken gizzards, a fish head, or fish viscera, then squeeze the open end of the tin can nearly closed so that larger fish don’t eat the bait before leeches locate it. Secure the can to a bush, dock, or a rock, and check it in a day or two to collect leeches.

Keeping leeches lively is easy. These baits can survive well in a bucket or small foam container with adequate clean water. Non-chlorinated tap water should be used so that the leeches don’t die. Change the water every day. They store well when refrigerated.

Use a container of water, livewell, or bait bucket to keep leeches lively while fishing. Bait containers should be small so the leeches are easier to grab.

5. Frogs

Not all states allow the use of live frogs as bait, so check your local regulations. But live frogs are deadly for bass, pike, pickerel, walleyes, muskies, catfish, and even large trout.

Catching frogs can be a messy business. Many people wade in shallow water or muddy vegetation and simply catch them by hand or with a fine mesh net.

One of the most effective ways to catch live frogs is with a fishing rod. Tie a small size 8 or 10 brightly-colored fly or tiny bream popper to a length of 15-pound-test monofilament. Frogs are voracious predators, and almost every one of them will leap quickly to gulp a bright fly or popper. This is an effective way to catch frogs day or night, and it’s fun to do, too.

Keeping frogs lively for fishing isn’t difficult. Use a standard minnow-style bait container to hold them. Just be sure to keep the bucket out of direct sunlight for long periods of time.

If stowing frogs for several days, use a very clean bucket with holes or a laundry basket. Anchor the container with rocks in the shallows of a small stream or pond, so just a few inches of water is inside. Use some sticks and weeds for cover inside the container and a lid of some type to keep raccoons and other predators out of the container.

6. Crickets & Grasshoppers

Crickets and grasshoppers are easily to collect and keep. They work well on panfish and trout.
Crickets and grasshoppers are easily to collect and keep. They work well on panfish and trout. Field & Stream

Crickets and grasshoppers are superb panfish and trout baits, and they're easy to catch and keep for fishing.

Homemade cricket traps made from plastic water or soda bottles work well. Cut off the top quarter of the bottle and invert it into the bottom. This forms a funnel trap for crickets to enter. Once inside, they cannot escape. Bait the trap with small pieces of over-ripe fruit like peaches, pears, or strawberries, and place alongside barn floors (inside or outside), in garages, or near light sources at night. You’ll usually catch crickets in short order.

If you’re more into hunting them down, grab a small tight-mesh net on a long handle (like a butterfly net) and catch crickets and grasshoppers in farm fields and buildings.

A large blanket made of wool or any fuzzy material is also helpful when catching crickets and hoppers. Simply lay it on the ground in a field on a sunny summer’s day and walk around it to drive the insects onto the blanket. The bugs get their legs caught in the blanket long enough to be captured easily.

If that doesn’t work, a small battery-operated vacuum will also do the trick. Fields, garages, old buildings, and farm structures are usually loaded with crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects. A few swipes with the vacuum will usually catch all the live bugs required for a day of trout or panfishing.

Keep crickets and grasshoppers in a small coffee can with holes punched in the lid for airflow. Place grass, cardboard pieces, a few sticks, and some fruit in the container and your baits will be happy for a long time if they’re kept in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.

7. Hellgrammites & Nymphs

Gather enough hellgrammites for a day’s fishing by using a seine.
Gather enough hellgrammites for a day’s fishing by using a seine. Field & Stream

Hellgrammites and large nymphs are superb baits for smallmouth bass, walleyes, and trout. They’re most efficiently caught using seines in the shallows of rocky rivers and streams. Hold your seine downstream while another angler shuffles around rocks, logs, and other bottom debris a few feet upstream. Hellgrammites and nymphs living under the rocks and debris will dislodge and tumble with the current downstream to the seine.

The seine should be checked regularly for captured baits. Toss them into a minnow-style bait bucket or container with holes.

Baits can be kept for several days, especially hellgrammites, which are hardier than standard nymph species. Stow baits in a minnow-type bucket in flowing creek water.

Written by Bob Mcnally for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

Fly Fishing Tricks To Catch More Smallmouth Bass

Fly Fishing Tricks To Catch More Smallmouth Bass

Hook and land bronzebacks on the fly with these Wild West lessons

I live in one of the most trout-rich states. Idaho is chock-full of blue-ribbon waters, and fly anglers descend upon them ­every spring. I like to target trout as much as the next guy, but I can only dodge drift boats and outrun wading anglers for so long. That’s why I love smallmouths.

Because so many cold-water trout-fishing opportunities exist in the West, smallmouths are one of the most undervalued fly-rod gamefish here. This is ironic. If you look at the drainages of the largest Rocky Mountain trout rivers, the lower half is ­almost always prime bronzeback habitat, replete with a pebble rock and silt streambed, moderate water temperatures, and a big food supply.

For the past few years, I’ve had some of the finest smallmouth sight-fishing trips on water that’s barely 30 minutes from my front door, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons. With so many anglers tossing spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits, and live bait, I’ve had to figure out ways to make flies stand out. To help you catch more smallies on the fly wherever you live, here are three concepts to remember.

Keep it Simple

I love fishing new flies, especially those loaded with modern materials designed to produce extremely lifelike action. I often reach for those patterns first, thinking they’ll be something the bass haven’t seen yet. Inevitably, after a hundred casts with maybe a few chases and a strike or two, I throw in the towel and reach for a Clouser Minnow.

In my experience, bass in moving water couldn’t care less about a fake minnow that moves exactly like a real minnow. Silhouette and motion trump realism and natural color patterns. That’s why a Clouser is my No. 1 fly. It’s inexpensive, simple to tie, and easy to see when sight-fishing in crystal-clear water. Want to simplify things further? Don’t get carried away with too many color combinations. Yellow over chartreuse kills it for me in a wide range of conditions.

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Whip It Good: After the cast, strip slowly, and if a bass follows, pause and let the fly drop. Bryan Gregson

Slow Your Roll

Many of the people I take smallmouth fishing for the first time strip flies at Daytona 500 speeds and get frustrated when a bass follows but never commits. If you think about it, bass see all sorts of fast-moving spinners and lipped crankbaits. Hard baits can appear unnatural, and fish can eventually become conditioned to refuse them. When you make a similarly speedy retrieve with a fly, expect the same reaction from the fish.

Train yourself to slow your strip speed. If it helps, use less weight on your flies to decrease the sink rate. My smallmouth buddies and I see so many fish strike on the drop that we’ve learned to occasionally stop moving the fly during a retrieve, especially if there’s a fish following close behind. Just let the fly (slowly) sink. Bass can hit before the fly meets the streambed, or when it’s motionless on the gravel for a moment or two. Make the fly behave like scared prey that knows death is imminent, and more bronze­backs will commit.

Catch the Early Bug

What many anglers don’t realize is a lot of slow, warm, shallow smallmouth ­rivers host the same sought-after hatches that get trout anglers jacked up in the wee hours of the morning. Even early in the season, you can encounter many of the same caddis and mayflies in the smallmouth stretches, particularly Hendricksons. As the spring sun heats the water, do yourself a favor and don’t sleep in. Grab a coffee, enjoy the fact that you’re the only trailer on the boat ramp, and spend the next few hours headhunting bass dimpling the surface. Even the slightest rings can be produced by heavy fish, and there’s no greater challenge than landing a 3- or 4-pounder on light tippet and a size 16 dry fly. I’ve caught some amazingly large bass targeting unbelievably small rise forms. If you’re not getting risers to eat, try working a small popper around the sippers, pausing often. You can also try swinging a Clouser through them.

Written by Ben Romans for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

Never Lose Another Fish Fight Again

Never Lose Another Fish Fight Again

Knots fail. Leaders snap. Lures pop free. Whatever the reason, if you spend enough time on the water, you’re going to lose fish—probably some big ones to boot. Even the pros suffer break-offs.

But not too often, because they learn from their mistakes. Here, six of the best share some of those painful lessons so you’re never deprived of another grip-and-grin shot again.

Largemouth Bass

A trophy largemouth takes flight.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Bernie Schultz

Home Waters: North-Central Florida

Credentials: Pro for more than 35 years

Tough Break: On the final day of a big BASS tournament on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, Schultz was in position to take first place and walk away with the prize money. “I had a strong bite going,” he says, “working a Rapala minnow far ahead of the boat, in a boat trail that cut through a massive field of mixed ­vegetation—pads, grass, and reeds. Then I hooked a huge female largemouth that headed straight for cover to bury herself deep in dollar pads.”

Instead of going toward the fish, Schultz tried to yank the lunker free—and his 14-pound mono snapped. “It was a rookie mistake,” he says. “That fish would have won me the event.”

Lesson Learned: “Often, bass anglers after big fish are flipping in heavy cover,” Schultz says. “That frequently leads to fish that become caught in matted milfoil, lily pads, reeds, or flotsam. That’s when many anglers tend to do the wrong thing—trying to muscle a trophy bass out of the cover. Rarely does anything good happen from that.”

In fact, Schultz goes on to explain, when a largemouth bass is pinned in the weeds, that can work to your advantage. “For some reason,” he says, “when they’re stuck, big fish often stop thrashing and just sort of sit there.”

Seeing the fish and its situation can allow a fisherman or his partner to reach down and get a good hold on the largemouth. Of course, bass are often hooked in relatively open water. That’s when Schultz’s other go-to tip for fighting trophy fish comes into play. “Anytime during the fight you feel that fish rising to the surface like it’s going to jump,” he says, “get your rod tip in the water.” Doing this rolls the fish downward and keeps it from breaking the surface—and possibly spitting the lure. But Schultz adds that you shouldn’t “bow to the king,” as anglers do for leaping tarpon. Instead, keep the line tight as you dip the rod.

Steelhead

Steelhead put up tremendous flights.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Frank Campbell

Home Waters: Niagara Region of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and the Niagara River

Credentials: Guide for 30 years

Tough Break: Frank Campbell recalls a day on the Niagara River nearly 20 years ago. He and a friend were catching steelhead on light lines, 6- and 8-pound-test, and with very small Rapala Origi­nal Floating Minnows. Late in the day, Campbell’s buddy hooked a solid fish. “But by that time, we were drifting toward a really turbulent stretch,” Campbell says, “and we saw that it was a big fish, probably 23 pounds.” With the boat spinning in the rushing current, the angler tried to put some heat on the monster. When one of the lure’s hook points snagged in the net’s mesh, the big fish—not yet tired out—thrashed enough to tear loose and was gone.

Lesson Learned: Looking back on that memorable failure, Campbell says the current really forced their hand. Normally, when fishing calmer water, he reminds his anglers to slow things down and finesse the fight whenever they hook big fish. “I’ve landed brown trout more than 30 pounds on little lines like that by taking my time,” he says. If they’d been able to take their time in this case, Campbell is nearly certain they would’ve landed the tired fish. Campbell notes that most anglers have a natural inclination to try a bit too hard, particularly when they know a steelhead or any trout could be a trophy and much is at stake. “Don’t rush it, and you’ll land that fish,” Campbell says. “More big fish are lost when an angler tries to rush them to the net than for any other reason.” He also believes the loss of that fish might have been avoided if they had upsized the hooks on the small lures that were proving successful. Larger hooks would’ve ensured more purchase in the big fish’s mouth, which might have kept that trophy buttoned on when it thrashed at the net.

Walleyes

To land big walleyes, it helps to have a net with a long handle.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Ross Robertson

Home Waters: Lake Erie, Ohio

Credentials: Guide for more than 20 years

Tough Break: Robertson and a friend had lucked into a school of giant walleyes. They’d already caught 23 fish over 10 pounds when both anglers hooked up again. As Robertson netted his, a 14-pounder, he saw his partner’s walleye near the boat—and it was much bigger. “The biggest walleye I’ve ever seen,” he says. Robertson called out, “Stand by! I’m trying to get this fish free of the net!” Just about then, he heard his buddy’s lure whack the outboard cowling after it flew out of the immense fish’s mouth.

Lesson Learned: Looking back, Robertson wishes he’d reminded his partner to go slower in getting the fish to the net. “As anglers, we tend to push fish too much to get them to the boat,” he says, “especially when we see a big one.” Given how hard the lure struck the motor when it popped out, he’s positive that his buddy put too much pressure on the fish.

“Giant walleyes often fight very little, so a fresh trophy can catch us off guard when it suddenly comes alive at the boat,” he says. Robertson adds that although braided line was key to getting deep for the bite, its lack of stretch also requires more vigilance on the part of an angler when fighting a fish. Since that loss of a possible record walleye, Robertson now keeps two nets on board. He makes sure those nets are big, with wide mesh, which creates less drag in the water. And they should have long handles. A 9-foot handle, for example, allows you to reach out and net the fish sooner than you could with a 3-footer. Reaching a fish that much sooner could make the difference between a fish in the net and a potentially perilous boatside lunge.

Channel Catfish

A fat cat gets released.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Brad Durick

Home Waters: Red River in North Dakota

Credentials: Guide for 12 years

Tough Break: Before he set out lines on the Red River, Durick reminded the lone fisherman on his boat not to try to set the hook, since the baits were all rigged on circle hooks. Unfortunately, that message didn’t get through. A rod next to Durick’s client started to bend suddenly under what the guide says was an enormous strike. Before Durick could react, the fisherman reached out and in one motion jerked back with everything he had. But missing the huge catfish wasn’t the end of it. In his rush, the client failed to get a good grip on Durick’s brand-new rod and reel, which launched out of the angler’s hands and fell into the river.

Lesson Learned: Durick rigs his baits only with circle hooks—quite successfully for channel cats—so he emphasizes the importance of waiting for the fishing rod to load up, then keeping it tight and just cranking. Most of the time, you’ll hook the fish. He also recommends using hooks with a gap wide enough to clear the bottom jaw. He explains that catfish tend to pick up a bait and squeeze it in a way that hinders the corner-of-the-jaw set. If the circle hook is large enough, it’ll pierce the bottom of the fish’s mouth for a more secure hookset.

“I’ve had lots of people complain to me of missing hookups,” Durick says. “It turns out this is because their hooks were too small.” And once someone’s got a giant catfish on the line, Durick says he is “constantly preaching the need to keep the fish turned away from the boat when they get the fish close. Don’t let a big catfish get under the boat. It might tangle in an outboard’s lower unit, plus once it’s under the boat, a big cat is harder to net.”

Muskies

Muskie strikes are so rare that you'd better fight the fish just right to bring it to the boat.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Steve Scepaniak

Home Waters: Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota

Credentials: Guide for 28 years

Tough Break: Scepaniak was taking two anglers, Brad and Tom, to a spot on Mille Lacs Lake where he’d seen a huge muskie just a few days earlier. Sure enough, as Brad made a figure eight with a big spinnerbait near the boat, a giant muskie inhaled his lure. The fish cleared the water four times as Brad kept steady pressure and lowered the rod each time—until the fish’s fifth leap, when the rod stayed horizontal. The muskie shook its head one way, and the lure flew the other.

But the heartbreak didn’t end with that first lost muskie. Later on that day, Tom failed to set the hook on a fish when he thought his lure had just snagged some weeds. That mistake cost the anglers their second ­giant of the day.

Lesson Learned: Scepaniak says the loss of those two monster muskies illustrates his two fundamental rules when it comes to hooking and holding onto big muskies. “First, set the hook on everything and anything,” he says. While we’d love every strike to be a rod-thumping whack, ­Scepaniak says that most muskie strikes will be more tap than wallop, and if a lure doesn’t feel right, “they can spit it out in a fraction of a second.” So, the instant the angler feels resistance, he or she has to react with a strong hookset to penetrate the bone-hard mouth of a muskellunge.

Second, when a fish is coming out of the water during a jump—­Scepaniak says that 80 percent of muskies will jump during a fight—­anglers should keep that rod down and not stop cranking. Conversely, he advises anglers to remember to get the rod up when that big fish goes back down.

Had Brad and Tom remembered those two rules, ­Scepaniak says, and had the fish stayed hooked, he would have advised them of his third rule: Back off the drag, particularly if you’re fishing with braided line.

Tarpon

Tarpon will often just and shake their head to shake off a lure or fly.
. Field & Stream

Guide: Mark Bennett

Home Waters: Southwest Florida

Credentials: Guide for 48 years

Tough Break: At the end of a long and so-far-fishless day, outside of famed Boca Grande Pass, one of Bennett’s anglers finally brought a good tarpon, in the 100- to 150-pound range, boatside. “As soon as I grabbed the leader, out of nowhere, a 15-foot hammerhead raised its front half out of the water, like in the movie Jaws, and grabbed that tarpon,” Bennett says. “His hammer actually whacked my hand. It was that close.” The huge shark began shaking the tarpon back and forth into the side of the boat, using the boat for leverage as it shredded the fish, until both shark and tarpon were gone.

Lesson Learned: Big sharks, primarily hammerheads and bulls, are a fact of life for tarpon enthusiasts who fish in Southwest Florida. When encounters with sharks do happen, the concern is less about landing a tarpon to score a release than it is about saving the fish, and Bennett has become an expert at that. Hammerheads—with a dorsal fin sometimes taller than the bow of his skiff—often show themselves before launching a tarpon attack. Big bull sharks, however, are notorious for staying down and suddenly grabbing a fish near the boat. Bennett relies on side-imaging sonar to scan the area while an angler fights a tarpon. “If I spot a big shark moving in,” he says, “I’ll break the line to let the tarpon go while it still might have a chance.” Or, if a tarpon is already at the boat and Bennett sees a shark, he’ll keep the tarpon close to the boat while he motors to shallower water, where he’ll revive and release the fish.

Written by Doug Olander for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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Blades of Glory: The Best Bladed Lures for Spring Fishing

Blades of Glory: The Best Bladed Lures for Spring Fishing

How to catch more walleyes, bass, pike, and muskies on spinner rigs and bucktails

Why do blades adorn so many different lures designed to catch so many different types of fish? Three reasons: flash, vibration, and sound. It doesn’t matter if it’s the tiny teardrop of a walleye spinner or the massive bangle on a muskie bucktail, blades of all shapes and sizes send thumping underwater signals that make big fish hit. All kinds of big fish. Spinnerbaits win bucketmouth tournaments and pull monster pike from northern bays. Bucktails catch more muskies than every other lure combined. Spinner rigs are the classic choice for trophy walleyes, and blade baits dupe the biggest smallies.

While blades work year-round, their ability to draw reaction strikes in the spring is unmatched. With northern lakes just past ice-out and southern ones yet to warm, lethargic fish can be incredibly difficult to catch. They need something to wake them up, get their attention—even piss them off a little. And nothing agitates big spring fish more than a vibrating, flashing, annoying piece of spinning metal. With so many ways to run so many different bladed lures, we asked four of the country’s top trophy-fish hunters to reveal their No. 1 spring blade tactic. Here are their secrets.

Northern Pike: Roll the Cabbage

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Steve Scepaniak pike fishing guide Steve Scepaniak

The Expert: Steve Scepaniak, pike and muskie guide Home Base: Lake Mille Lacs, Wahkon, Minn. Contact: Predator Guide Service

Go-To Lure: Ruff Tackle Rad Dog Spinnerbait

Lake Mille Lacs is renowned for its toothy predators, and while longtime area guide Steve Scepaniak focuses mainly on the lake’s muskies in summer and fall, he turns his full attention to huge pike early in the season. “There’s no better time to score a giant than in the spring,” he says.

And there’s no better lure to catch them with than a big spinnerbait. “Of the 700 or 800 pike over 40 inches I’ve had in my boat, I’d say three-quarters of them have come on spinnerbaits.” For every one of those spring spinnerbait fish, the lure was allowed to sink in the water column for a few seconds before the retrieve. “This is the most important detail for catching pike now,” Scepaniak says. Other times of year, a fish may come up to grab a lure, but not in the spring. “Getting it down to them is the key.”

By now, pike are done spawning, but they haven’t left the shallows. “In April and May, large post-spawn females will hang in back bays before moving out as the water warms,” says Scepaniak, who starts targeting these fish when water temps are in the low 60s. “The first thing you have to do is find the cabbage,” he stresses. Keep your boat around 12 feet deep, and look for the vegetation in 4 to 6 feet of water. Almost any cabbage bed will hold at least some pike in the spring, for a couple of reasons. “First, the structure of cabbage provides optimal ambush sites for pike,” he explains. “Second, the broad leaves of cabbage produce lots of oxygen, which attracts zooplankton and phytoplankton, which attract baitfish, which then attract northerns.” Scepaniak works large spinnerbaits low and slow in the water column to ply the deeper cabbage leaves. “Run it just fast enough so that the blades are barely spinning—no faster,” he says. The lure only needs to give off a little vibration. “The pike will home in on that, and eat.”

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Rough Tackle rad dog lure Ralph Smith

Pro Tip: Switch Blades

Scepaniak uses a number of commercially made spinnerbaits at this time of year, but every one of them, including his favorite Rad Dog, gets one mandatory alteration. “I switch out every blade on every spinnerbait to a No. 8 Colorado,” he says. “The immense vibration of that big round blade is essential to catching big pike.” Most pike and muskie spinnerbaits have a small split ring where the blade is attached, making it easy to change them out. “All it takes is some spare No. 8 Colorados and some split-ring ­pliers to get more vibration—and catch more fish.”

Muskies: Burn a Buck

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Mike Hubert muskie fishing guide Mike Hubert

The Expert: Mike Hulbert, muskie guide Home Base: Lake St. Clair, Roseville, Mich. Contact: Mike Hulbert

Go-To Lure: Joe Bucher 700 Series Bucktail

Running bucktails for muskies often involves huge, double No. 10 ­Colorado blades. But not at this time of year, says Mike “MJ” Hulbert, who’s known for boating trophy muskies. “In spring, I throw small, weighted bucktails at stupid warp speed to get reaction strikes from fish that aren’t yet fired up,” he says.

Regardless of where you are, muskies will spawn in the weeks after ice-out in back bays and shallow flats—and that’s where they’ll stay for a while, recuperating in a lethargic post-spawn phase. “I try to pick them off before they head back out to open water,” Hulbert says. “I focus on rocks, riprap, and newly emergent green weeds in 3 to 6 feet of water.” Weather can be a huge factor too. “I’ll start targeting these fish when the water creeps into the 60s, but I also pay particular attention to warming trends, when the water may spike a few degrees,” he says. Southwest winds and rising humidity usually mean better action too.

No matter what the conditions, the real key lies in getting these torpid, zoned-out, post-spawn giants to wake up and react. That’s where burning small bucktails comes in—but there’s a trick. In order to achieve warp speeds while still keeping these relatively light baits under the surface, Hulbert puts some weight on. “No factory bucktail is heavy enough for this application,” he says. “If you’re a tinkerer, you can cut the shaft of the bucktail, slip on a 3⁄4-ounce egg sinker, and retwist.” If not, just attach a 3⁄4-ounce bell-shaped bass-casting sinker with a small split ring, placing it near the skirt where it won’t impede the blade action or hookup ratio.

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Butchertail bladed lure Ralph Smith

As a side benefit, that extra weight greatly improves casting distance. Covering a ton of water is key to this tactic, so making bomb casts is a must. Or as Hulbert puts it: “The one who casts the farthest is the one who gets bit.”

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Walleye fishing spinner bait with crawler Bill Lindner

Walleyes: Spin the Spawn

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Ross Robertson walleye guide Ross Robertson

The Expert: Ross Robertson, walleye guide Home Base: Lake Erie, Toledo, Ohio Contact: Big Water Fishing

Go-To Lure: Silver Streak Crawler Harness

Lake Erie is synonymous with donkey walleyes, and no one is better at catching them than guide Ross Robertson. “In April and May, I’m buying nightcrawlers and fishing spinner rigs,” he says. “Crankbaits can smoke fish under certain conditions, but trolling a spinner rig gives me the versatility to catch fish all day during various stages of the spawn.” The spinner’s blades get a walleye’s attention, but even if that fish is finicky, the scent of live bait combined with a slow presentation often seals the deal. “The crawler is the closer,” says Robertson.

On big lakes, he targets walleyes that spawn near the main reefs. On smaller lakes and rivers, he keys on tributaries and smaller reef structures. In both areas, fish will trade to and from the spawning ground, and Robertson nabs them on the move. “I focus on the first transition to deeper water,” he says. “In this zone, fish can be anywhere from 12 to 40 feet deep, so it’s important to use your electronics to pinpoint fish.”

Walleyes are slow-moving now and often glued to the mud. “Spinner rigs can be trolled on or just off the bottom to reach them,” Robertson says. “The key is to make very subtle changes in boat speed to vary the depth and get your rig where the fish are.” Speeding up or slowing down even 0.1 mph can have a huge impact. “As a rule, 1 mph is a good place to hover,” he says. Then just add or subtract. But not too much: “At any speed lower than 0.7 mph, the blades stop spinning; faster than 1.4 mph, and the rig lifts too high off the bottom.” The trick is to find the sweet spot. You’ll know when you get it right, Robertson says, because you’ll start slamming walleyes.

Pro Tip: D.I.Y. Spinner Rig

For over-the-counter spinner rigs, Robertson likes the Silver Streak Crawler Harness, but for optimum success, he suggests that you take the time to make your own. “I start out with 20-pound Sunline fluorocarbon because it’s durable and stiff, which means fewer tangles, and because it runs better at slower speeds.” The most important element of the rig is a super-sharp hook, he says. “I go with a No. 2 Gamakatsu octopus for the front hook and a No. 8 round-bend Gamakatsu treble hook as the trailer.” For the hardware components, Robertson prefers Dutch Fork quick-change clevises and No. 5 Spro power swivels. “Finally, I get plenty of No. 5 and No. 6 Colorado blades and No. 8 Indiana blades in a large variety of colors and finishes so I’ve got plenty of options with my finished rigs.”

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Bass fishing blade baits Lance Krueger

Bass: Be a Blade Runner

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Dave Lefebre bass elite pro Russ Scalf

The Expert: Dave Lefebre, BASS Elite pro Home Base: Lake Erie, Erie, Pa. Contact: Dave Lefebre

Go-To Lure: Steel Shad Blade Bait

It’s not every day a BASS Elite angler shares his secrets, but longtime pro and Pennsylvania native Dave Lefebre told us that he’s been using blade baits in the early season on the sly for years—and that he’s zeroed in on a spring pattern that slams trophy bass during their spawning transition. Throughout most of the country, both largemouth and smallmouth bass are in some phase of the spawn in April and May, but their exact location and activity level varies. “You can’t pick a more complicated two months to fish,” says Lefebre. You need a versatile lure to score. “My go-to now is a Steel Shad blade bait in any natural baitfish color.”

When targeting smallmouths, he looks for steep breaks adjacent to spawning flats. “Any irregular features such as small points or humps will sweeten the spot.” Early in the spring, he pinpoints fish on these deeper structures with his graph, and then vertically jigs the bait right under the boat. As the spawn progresses, he moves up onto the spawning flats and makes long casts with the same bait to cover lots of water quickly. “I use a fast, straight-line retrieve to pull reaction strikes.”

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Steel shad fishing lure Ralph Smith

For largemouths, Lefebre focuses on structure in 2 to 5 feet of water. “Old dead grass from the year before or new emergent grass will attract spawning fish,” he says. He starts with the deepest grass first, focusing on any irregularities. As the water warms, he again moves up and dissects the flats, looking for holes, sand, and grassbeds. His approach here is similar to that of working a bass jig. “I pitch the blade out to the target, let it fall to the bottom, snap it up a few times, and repeat,” he says. If the bait catches grass, give it a sharp pop to clear the hooks and continue your retrieve.

Bass are not actively feeding at this time of year, so the key is to goad them into striking. “Blades are the best reaction baits on the planet,” Lefebre says. Their ability to sink fast, produce high flash and vibration, and closely imitate a minnow are a proven combination for inactive fish. “You can fish a blade anytime of year, but it’s my deadliest bait in the spring.”

Pro Tip: Add and Subtract

Lefebre makes his blade baits even more effective on spring bass by making a pair of tweaks. First, he likes to introduce a little extra flash. “Models like the Steel Shad are available in a ton of different colors, but adding a bit of reflective tape is quick and easy—and it can make a huge difference,” he says. His second tweak is to remove the front hook. “This is the one that snags most frequently. For covering a lot of water around docks, logs, and vegetation, having only a back hook makes life easier, and it doesn’t seem to affect my hookup ratio.”

Written by Mark Modoski for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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Breakout Hits: The 20 Best Fishing Tips for Early Spring

Breakout Hits: The 20 Best Fishing Tips for Early Spring

Cabin fever driving you crazy? Our early season fishing guide is here to help. These expert tips will help you catch more bass, trout, bluegills, crappies, catfish, walleyes, and more

Winter’s grip is loosening. You’re dying to fish. Unfortunately, those super-early-season bites can be the toughest to score thanks to cold, dirty water and sluggish targets. Have no fear. This quick-hitter guide to early-spring fish locations and habits will get you on the fast track to a bent rod. Just remember to check local regulations, because season openers for many species vary state by state.

Blue Catfish

Where: Virginia guide Chandler Puryear says that some of his biggest James River fish fall in the winter and very early spring. During these times of year, he’s targeting depressions within shallow flats as well as shallow structures, often in less than 10 feet of water.

Why: Blues remain active when the water is cold. Since forage like shad and herring become scarce now, they won’t pass up an opportunity to feed when they get it. Though Puryear still catches fish in deep holes, many cats slide shallow where the water will be slightly warmer.

How: It’s hard to beat soaking forage native to the body of water you’re fishing. For Puryear, that’s gizzard shad. The fresher and bloodier the chunk, the more likely it is to get sucked up.

Bluegills

Where: According to Wisconsin guide Tim Hyvonen, if some green weeds survived the winter in your home lake, you’ll find bluegills concentrated in and around them. If all the weeds died out, the fish will often suspend in 8 to 15 feet of water.

Why: Hyvonen says that at this time of year, bluegills just want to be in the warmest water they can find, so don’t overlook areas with green vegetation as shallow as 2 feet. Since the north ends of any lake or pond often receive the most sunlight, Hyvonen says they’re a good place to start.

How: As the water temperature ticks up, bluegills will start to feed heavily in preparation for the spawn. Hyvonen sticks to the tiny ice jigs he has been using all winter, tipping them with wax worms, but now he presents them under a slip float.

Brown Trout

Where: Early-spring conditions often mean high, cold, and dirty water for trout anglers. Under those conditions, veteran New York guide Joe Demalderis knows that he’s going to find browns tucked in tight to the bank. If the water happens to be flowing at more normal rates, he concentrates on slower water with some depth.

Why: Demalderis says that browns are pretty shut down until the water temperature begins climbing into the 40s. Since browns don’t want to expend energy, soft banks and holes are where they flock. What’s important to remember, however, is that the fish won’t be overly aggressive.

How: Nymphs that mimic early stoneflies and Baetis mayflies are always safe bets; however, Demalderis cautions not to rule out streamers. The trick to success with them is to make precise casts to likely holding areas and work slowly. Jigging the streamer in place is very effective in cold water as well.

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Cold Calling: In most early-season fisheries, particularly in the North and Midwest, success with any given species hinges on slow presentations and finding water a ­degree or two warmer than the main body. Brian Grossenbacher

Chain Pickerel

Where: When the ice melts on lakes, bogs, and ponds loaded with chains, it’s hard to go wrong targeting shallow water that has access to deep water close by. If there are remnants of milfoil or decayed lily pads in the area, that’s a plus. If not, concentrate on stumps and deadfalls.

Why: Pickerel will slide shallow to soak up the extra bit of warmth the sun provides during the heat of the day. Their forage will be shallow at this time of year too. Don’t be shocked to find them waking after your lure in less than a foot of water; however, deep edges near shallow flats are also prime.

How: Stickbaits, jerkbaits, and in-line spinners are all top lure choices. Cast them around any shallow structure and over the drop, working them back from deep to shallow.

Channel Catfish

Where: Early-season channel catfishing can be some of the best of the year as long as you’re strategic about where you wet a line. In rivers, focus on slow eddies and soft banks. In lakes, sheltered coves or the lee sides of points are often productive.

Why: The winter months are hard on channel cat forage. Species like shad often experience some level of die-off when temperatures drop. However, decomposition slows in icy water. This means that come early spring, cats waking from the cold have lots of dead baitfish on the bottom to eat. These dead forage species often collect in areas with little to no current.

How: Although matching local forage is always wise, hungry channel cats are not likely to snub baits like chicken livers even if they’re predominantly feeding on winter-killed baitfish.

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Crapshoot: Looking for early-season crappies? Start your hunt in deep creeks. Tom Martineau / The Raw Spirit

Crappies

Where: According to Kentucky-based tournament pro Tony Shepherd, it’s hard to beat a creek with depth and plenty of structure in the early spring.

Why: Crappies move to shallow flats to spawn when the water reaches the upper 50s, but they tend to congregate in creeks prior to making that shift. Shepherd says water clarity is a big factor, noting that in clear to lightly stained water, he’ll find more fish around stumps and stake beds along the creek banks. If the water is dirty, they’ll be suspended in deep water within the creek.

How: Shepherd predominantly relies on tiny jigs at this time of year, noting Jenko’s Fringe Fry as a favorite. He’ll fish them on a 1⁄16-ounce jighead and run them 2 or 3 feet behind a 1⁄2-ounce sinker. He says this rig gives the jig the best action when slow-trolling, which he leans on to cover lots of water.

Flathead Catfish

Where: Early spring is far from a peak time for flatheads, but according to ­Pittsburgh-area flathead ace Joe Gordon, if he had to hit the river in March, he’d go straight to the nearest warmwater discharge.

Why: In any water that’s below 55 degrees, flatheads are pretty comatose. Gordon says early-season success relies solely on finding the warmest water you can—even if it’s only a degree or two warmer than the rest of the lake or river—and hoping for one or two bites.

How: According to Gordon, ­although flathead fishing is a nighttime game most of the year, hunts now should happen during daylight hours. Live baits might score a bite, but fresh chunks are likely to produce more hits, especially if you downsize them a fair amount and use smaller hooks to make the morsel as effortless as possible for a cold cat to suck up.

Lake Trout

Where: Veteran Colorado lake trout guide Bernie Keefe says that when the ice comes off, you’ll find lakers very close to their food source, which often means shallower than you’ll find them for most of the year—a big plus for shorebound anglers.

Why: Lakers don’t have to retreat to the depths to find the colder water they prefer in early spring. Subsequently, during this time, forage like suckers and smaller trout will be shallow, looking for warmer water. Though the scenario is fleeting, it’s during this window that Keefe scores monsters in as little as 3 feet of water.

How: Early spring is arguably the best time of year to hook into big lake trout with many methods that would be impractical later in the season. Keefe casts soft-plastic swimbaits and crankbaits in areas where deep water transitions quickly to shallow shelves and flats. Catching lakers on big streamers in these areas is also possible for the devoted fly guy.

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Largemouth bass won’t move into shallow water until it begins to warm up to 55 degrees. Tom Martineau / The Raw Spirit

Largemouth Bass

Where: Depending on where you live, largemouths could be very shallow or very deep. It all hinges on water temperature, making anything from shallow flats to deep channels and offshore bowls likely hotspots.

Why: Largemouths move shallow to spawn when the water hits 55 degrees. In the South, that can be as early as late ­February, in which case early spring can be prime for hunting bass on beds. In the North, bass are often suspended in deep water and chasing shad schools after ice-out. In the places in between, pre-spawn fish gravitate to and feed in deeper channels and along drop-offs close to where they’ll eventually spawn.

How: For suspended fish, ­vertical-​jigging slab spoons and bladebaits can be highly effective. True pre-spawners often fall to squarebill cranks banging off cover, while bedded bass will attack ­almost any swimbait or soft plastic you drop on the bed.

Muskies

Where: To find early-season muskies, you’ve got to find water that’s warmer—even if only slightly—than the main lake or river. This makes protected bays and back eddies excellent places to hook your first of the season.

Why: Forage like suckers, carp, and bluegills gravitate to the shallows following ice-out, and muskies know where to find their food. Muskies are also cold-blooded, so the warmer their body temperature, the more likely they are to feel the urge to feed.

How: Slow presentations can be most effective in the early season. Opt for lures like Bull Dawgs, crankbaits, and glide baits that can be worked with a wide range of speed, as opposed to bucktails that have to be cranked quickly to maintain their action.

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When panfish and suckers move into shallow water after ice out, big muskies looking for a meal will follow. Jason Arnold

Northern Pike

Where: Early spring can be a riveting time to target pike. In many areas, sight-casting to giants is a real possibility, and you’ll often find them in shallow, weedy water. Trophies can fall in 5 feet of water or less.

Why: Shallow water heats up a lot faster than deep water, and once the ice is gone, big pike know they can warm up by sliding into coves and onto flats. All the forage species they crave are doing that too, which means you can experience a true feeding frenzy in hardly any water with high-caliber fish that will spend the rest of the year down deep.

How: If it moves like food, there’s a good chance an ice-out pike will try to kill it. Anything from huge streamers to topwater lures to glide baits and soft plastics that skim enticingly over the shallow weed tops is worth casting.

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Rainbow trout begin thinking about spawning when water temperatures hit 40 degrees, so watch for fish migrating up and through riffles. Sam Zierke/Lance Krueger

Rainbow Trout

Where: Assuming the river is running high and cold in the early season, rainbows are going to move to the banks to get out of the heaviest flows. However, if the river is running at a normal level, rainbows are more apt to hold in faster water than browns at this time of year. Classic riffle water and choppy runs with medium speed and depth can both produce.

Why: Rainbows spawn in the spring as soon as the water temperature breaks 40 degrees, often making redds in the riffles above pools. It’s largely frowned upon to target these fish. However, because spawning can occur in waves, you’re still likely to hook some in less spawning-friendly areas.

How: Black stonefly nymphs are hard for rainbows to resist, but sometimes a juicier meal like a Woolly Bugger makes the play faster. Fish it slowly like a nymph, letting it wave and breathe in the current. Running an egg fly or San Juan worm ahead of it is never a bad idea.

Redfish

Where: Early-spring red locations vary depending on where you are in the country, though as a general rule, expect the big bulls to be well offshore. Smaller reds, however, often school up in the backcountry shallows, providing some of the best sight-fishing opportunities of the year.

Why: With the exception of the Mississippi Delta and a few other locations, genuine bull reds can be tricky to find. Along the Atlantic Coast, however, cold water temps often force the smaller nonmigratory reds to seek out warmth en masse. That means in places like North and South Carolina, it’s possible to find dozens if not hundreds of reds together in one cove or channel.

How: A piece of fresh shrimp on a jighead or plain hook will rarely get snubbed. If bait isn’t your game, opt for jigs and weighted crab and shrimp flies. Work slowly for these often lethargic fish, letting your offering puff sand and mud as it moves.

Seatrout

Where: Many speck hunters roll their eyes when you mention March. Although it can be a tough time of year, huge opportunities exist on skinny flats if you know how to time a mission just right.

Why: Seatrout spend the winter in most of their range holed up in deep water. Come March, those first few warm days of the year will prompt them to feed, and they’ll move onto the flats, even if only for a brief window during the day. Because forage can be scarce at this time of year, it’s not uncommon for them to hit anything that moves.

How: Topwater Spook-style baits and rattling baits draw these sound-oriented predators in like a magnet. If you want to add some scent to the equation, a fresh shrimp worked under a loud popping cork can be downright deadly.

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Smallmouth aren’t overly aggressive until the water temperatures warm, so work baits along the bottom. Tom Martineau / The Raw Spirit

Smallmouth Bass

Where: In swollen, dirty rivers, smallmouths will congregate in the paths of least resistance, which is typically tight to the bank in areas with slower current and moderate depth. In still waters, target deep holes with quick access to shallow feeding grounds.

Why: Smallmouth bass don’t spawn until the water reaches the low 60s. Prior to that, they’re often grouped up, so if you find one, you often find a pile. These pre-spawn fish are ready to feed, though they’re not always overly aggressive, often making finesse tactics critical.

How: In lakes, a bladebait can work wonders for fish hugging the bottom in deep water. A slowly dragged tube will also score in this scenario. In rivers, forcing chilly bass into a snap ­decision can be the ticket, making spinnerbaits and swimbaits prime choices.

Snook

Where: Late winter and early spring are tough times for snook, according to Port St. ­Lucie, Florida–based Capt. Zach Miller. During this seasonal transition, it can be difficult to come up with a consistent pattern. Bites can come anywhere, from under shallow docks to on the bottom in deep water. It all depends on temperature.

Why: Miller says that all the snook will ultimately make their way to inlets to stage before running the beaches to spawn. When they stack up in those inlets, the fishing can teeter on too easy. Prior to that staging, however, the snook are in limbo and often change location throughout the day. As a general rule, if the water temperature is below 70 degrees, finding them shallow is unlikely.

How: According to Miller, if you find a snook tucked under a dock or along a seawall now, it’s probably not going to pass up a live shrimp or pilchard. If the temperatures are too cold for them to be there, he’ll switch to flair jigs or weight those live baits and probe transitional ­areas along channel edges in anywhere from 8 to 30 feet of water.

Steelhead

Where: Not nearly as many anglers play the spring steelhead game along the Great Lakes shoreline as do the fall. That’s a mistake. To bow up now, concentrate your efforts on deep pools, tail-outs, and runs with moderate flow, particularly at the low ends of rivers.

Why: While some Great Lakes tributaries experience a spring run of inbound steel, most are holding fish that have been in the river all winter. These “drop-backs” will feed heavily on their way back to the lake. The trick is timing your attack. A quick jump in water level is ­often the catalyst that gets these fish pushing downstream.

How: Spring steelhead will eat egg beads, egg flies, and spawn as quickly as they did in fall and winter. However, drop-backs can be more aggressive than they were during the cold months, and therefore much quicker to smack a swung streamer or in-line spinner.

Striped Bass

Where: Although it’s possible to connect with migratory stripers in the ocean in very early spring, the majority of anglers hunting stripers now are after the resident fish that post up in back bays and rivers throughout most of their Northeast range. Depth and water temperature play the most vital roles in their success.

Why: Pre-spawn stripers often congregate in deep holes at the low ends of rivers, or in channels adjacent to shallow tidal flats. If the mud on those flats is dark, all the better, because it will absorb more sunlight and warm the water on the flat faster. While early-season bass may not be super-aggressive, they do need to feed, often giving anglers a quick window of opportunity as they turn on during tide changes or sometimes during slack tide.

How: Stripers can be lazy at this time of year, which is why bloodworms, clams, and sandworms are some of the most productive baits. These are the natural menu items these fish find on the flats, and it takes little effort to eat them. Soaking these baits is the fastest route to your first striper of the year, but don’t rule out smaller soft plastics around warmwater discharges or any time the water temperature jumps above 45 degrees.

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Walleyes spawn in the spring, so look for fish congregating around tributary mouths. Lee Thomas Kjos / The Raw Spirit

Walleyes

Where: Walleye guide Ross Robertson fishes the ice hard, but as soon as that ice is gone, he wastes no time firing up his boat. In the early open-water season, he’s concentrating most of his efforts on mudflats adjacent to deeper water and around river mouths.

Why: Walleyes spawn in spring, and while they won’t get busy until the water rises above 50 degrees, they stage and stack close to where that action will eventually happen. In closed bodies of water, that’s in areas with transitional depths and a soft bottom. If there’s a river entering your home lake or reservoir, you’ll find walleyes stacked at the mouth prior to running up to spawn. Likewise, in large rivers, the fish will run smaller tributaries to spawn, making creek mouths prime targets for early action.

How: No matter where you target your walleyes, Robertson says, slow presentations are key. He’ll often anchor and, using vertical ice-fishing tactics, drop a jig tipped with a minnow. Slow-trolling crankbaits close to the bottom can also be highly effective.

Yellow Perch

Where: Ready for that first fish fry of the season? To get things sizzling, target shallow areas of the lake right after ice-out. If the shallows in your local water feature some rocks and vegetation, odds increase that the perch are piled in.

Why: Unlike other species, yellow perch don’t develop their eggs until right before they spawn. That means they have to feed heavily to keep up their weight and help those eggs grow. Their food sources are going to hang shallow, which is also where the perch will spawn.

How: When the water is still ice-cold, lean on jigs and spoons, and work them very slowly near the bottom. You may find that a more aggressive presentation scores more bites, but start slow and increase your speed until you dial in exactly what flips their switch.

Written by Joe Cermele for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream