For a lot of freshwater anglers, ice-out is the best time of year to be out fishing. There is no more drilling holes to fish; you can finally pack away the ice gear and cast around a bit. It doesn’t really matter what you are fishing for because every species becomes more active at this time. It is all about fishing the right spots, though. To have success it is crucial to find those favorable areas and fishing them at the right time of day or night. The right baits obviously come into play as well. So be sure to re-spool those reels that you packed away last fall and get ready to catch some pigs because the time is now!
We all are antsy to take some casts and work baits along, just remember that early-on the fish are sluggish. Slowing down that presentation can really help your productivity. As rough as it may be for you, the fish are lethargic and won’t give chase to faster retrieves. Another good idea to get fish on your bait is the use of scent/attractant. It adds just a little extra something to your bait and creates a scent trail in the water. Fish may be willing to go a little further in search of that snack if it smells “right.”
The Crappie Connection
A springtime favorite target species among many anglers is crappie. At ice-out these fish become very active, but you need to know where to look. During this time period crappie can be found in shallow backwaters and coves. Finding a place that also has woody cover and/or trees is even better. These areas warm-up the fastest especially if they are in the sun most of the day and have a dark bottom. Dark-bottomed areas warm-up faster than sandy flats. Usually it’s from dead and decaying weeds from the year before that cover the lake bottom. Being a few degrees warmer than the main lake helps a lot in the spring. The sun also stimulates plankton growth. This activity attracts baitfish, which in-turn draws in the slabs.
The preferred method by a lot of anglers is a live shiner set under a float. Crappie cruise around and gobble up shiners, so multiple rigs can go at once and then things suddenly stop. There are many ways to fish with a float when crappie fishing. Crappie like to chase baits upward, so if you don’t have bait, put a small grub or other micro soft plastic on a jig head. Now put that one afloat and snap the rod tip sharply to make your float pop like fishing for snapper blues. The jig head will swing and then settle under it, and that’s usually when they hit.
Bettin’ on Bass
Bass are another popular species that not only tournament anglers like to target at ice-out. Fishing for bass is a bit different than crappie, though you may catch one while targeting the other. Smallmouth bass are found in deeper water holding near structure like humps and boulder piles. Largemouth bass do not act the same as smallmouth and wander towards similar areas as crappie do. Largemouth are a warmer water species than smallmouth bass so their patterns are a bit different.
Eventually all bass will come up off of their winter haunts and transition to main and secondary lake points. Examples of a main lake point is an area that is associated with the connection of two separate parts of a lake (main lake to a bay). A secondary lake point is an area on the lake that’s not associated with a main lake point but is another area of interest (creeks, bays, channels, etc.). It is key to identify these points in order to locate fish. Bass are slow moving at ice-out and won’t venture far to change depths due to temperature or pressure changes caused by unstable spring weather. Look for flats less than a football field away from their winter homes. Fishing the edge of flats right near the drop-off to deeper water is a great place to start looking for bass as things start to warm up, and also if a front moves through. Bass transition to and from these points based on water temperature and barometric pressure, so it’s a good place to try if the weather isn’t cooperating, and the bite is tough.
Once you’re on the bass you just need to get them to bite. Most people go with the low-and-slow technique that they left off with in the fall. A favorite of mine is fishing hair jigs. In cold water, nothing looks more natural than natural hair. I usually change it up between bucktail and fox hair depending on water temperature because each one acts differently, but regardless of type, black is the color of choice. Ripping blade baits is another option, and the vertical approach can be quite productive early-on. Sometimes you can find a hole the size of a car that holds a half-dozen monsters huddled together. One-by-one they will fall for your offering as it thumps upward and flutters back down into their faces.
The last bait that I love to use for this time of year is a jerk bait. It is a versatile bait and is a lot of fun to fish when varying retrieves. Start off with a twitch, twitch, pause, followed by a slow reel and repeat. By increasing or decreasing the time that you pause the bait, you can figure out how they want it. At first it could be a painfully-long pause of 20 seconds or more to get a strike after the follow and pause.
As water temps rise, activity will increase and pause times should decrease before you feel a hit. Jerkbaits work very well in clear water and are deadly on suspended bass. Once smallmouth push in on the shallows, just before prespawn, they gorge themselves.
Fishing flats for these aggressive fish with a jerkbait is the way to go. That is why it is a top three bait of mine for ice-out because of how productive it can be. Just keep in mind that if you are not finding fish, keep moving. Flats are where you will find fish cruising as they chase schools of baitfish around, but not every area will be productive so don’t get too caught up in any one location.
When choosing rod, reel and line for ice-out, a lot of anglers use braided line with a fluorocarbon leader. The water is very clear just after ice-out, and transparency is the key when trying to fool big fish. I myself, like to use mono with a fluorocarbon leader. You can definitely get more bites if your presentation is stealthier. For rods and reels lighter gear is always fun. A lot of my spring gear is all ultralight rods and reels with 4-pound mono, but you also need the right rod to fish certain lures properly. For a jerkbait rod I fish a 6’6” medium Carrot Stix Wild Orange rod paired with a Shimano Sahara 2500 spooled with 6- to 8-pound mono. These rods are sturdy but also super light and extremely sensitive—even when the bite is tough, and it’s a subtle bite. It’s the perfect rod for my spring time bass fishing.