Well we've all got that early season fishing itch and the way the last two winters have gone we couldn't deserve relief more. This is the time to turn thoughts to that first excursion of the new year. For trout traditionalists its the last weekend of April. Bass enthusiasts used to have to wait until Labor Day, but luckily now we have an early catch and release season that opens April 25th. Some folks have been lucky enough to sneak out and fish for steelhead ( for me the last two years have been extremely challenging), but if you're like me, you have to pick and choose your adventures and life's curve balls have lowered the amount of winter steelhead hours I've been able to log. Gas, lots of snow, and home restoration have taken precedence.
That's all about to change. Warming trends and spring melt are just around the corner. And it's time to think about where and what you want to fish for.
Northern pike will spawn under the ice and right after ice-out; walleye will be running up our river systems to spawn ; and yellow perch and crappie will be spawning on nearshore shelves and flats.
For me though thoughts turn to rivers - trout and bass in particular. March and April typically mark our first significant hatches of insects. Early winter stoneflies are active, you'll see them emerging on what's left of the snow on the banks. Nymphs are an effective strategy this time of year. Trout actively feed in very cold water (32 and above). Streamers really start to produce and a warming trend can really get things going. Be careful to check the reg's on your local trout stream to insure an enjoyable trip to the river free of a ticket from your local Conservation Officer (CO). Around here on our inland streams, generally Type IV (blue) designated trout streams are all that's open. This will offer you a chance to test out that new gear and get your "wading legs" back. Some winters are harder on fish than others, and brown trout are fall spawners so there's no need to worry about interrupting reproduction. Cooler water temperatures aid in revival, but be mindful of a hard winter on the trouts ability to recover from a long fight. Lower water temperatures slow its metabolism and lower the amount fish feed during the winter. A fish can burn up most of its fat stores and a long hard fight can bring a spring fish to the brink.
Contrary to some peoples fool hearty belief bass FEED YEAR ROUND (if you don't believe me go ice fishing and if you're not able to pull that off ask an ice fisherman if he's ever caught a bass), but they can be hard to target effectively until temperatures climb into the mid to upper 40's. Bass are cold-blooded and presentations should be tailored to water temperature. Throw current in the mix and most experienced anglers don't know how to adapt. Current speed and depth should dictate how much weight you will need. Talking flies - this is accomplished by dumbbell eyes or lead wrapped around the shank. Clouser type flies or crayfish imitations are my favorite this time of year and allow a slower presentation. Casting slightly downstream allowing the fly to sink before short strip- pause retrieves or small "pops" of the rod which allow the current to move the fly slowly downstream into a waiting predators mouth. Another effective retrieve when things get real slow is to employ a "float" (bobber), by setting the depth to barely tick the bottom in likely holding locations in the tails of pools or next to structure, which have a lower current velocity allowing a large predator to expend less energy and still ambush with little effort or resources expended.
Repeated casts to likely lies and experimenting with weight and sink time is probably more important than covering water. Fish will be in the best of spots - holes, eddies or deep pools, or the best available. I've seen times where a fish didn't strike until about the 15th drift. Sometimes the fly has to be in that sweet spot for a lethargic fish to decide to eat. Fish aren't spooky this time of year. Very little fishing pressure and slower reaction times allow mistakes to go without consequence.
Sunny afternoons are usually more productive than early morning or evening. So make sure you get a good breakfast, don't forget any gear, and catch up on a little sleep on the weekend this time of year (we're all still a little sluggish and trying to shake off the winter blues). It sounds cliche, but it's real and it's something that mother nature puts all gods creatures through. Some have evolved different methods of coping ( hibernation, exercise, eating too much, drinking too much etc.).
Smallmouths typically spawn at lower temperatures than largemouth, mid-fifties to low-sixties (13-17 degrees Celsius - if your one of our Canadian friends or if you took for granted what your middle school science teacher told you about the US adopting European standards) but largemouth will spawn at the same temperatures but typically when water reaches and exceeds the 60 degree mark. Remember that shallow lake areas with darker sediment tend to warm faster than streams. Lakes can warm significantly faster than rivers. Snowmelt and cold rains lower stream temperatures. Extreme switches in weather patterns from cold to hot can stimulate a short spawning season so be sure to pay close attention to stream conditions. Some seasons have long drawn out spawning while others are very short windows.
Largemouth and smallmouth water is typically thought of as separate in rivers. But they're habitats overlap and I've seen them use the same areas to spawn as well as areas to overwinter.
Largemouths will actively seek out warm, sediment laden, coves and bays or eddies, and oxbows that can be 3-5 degrees warmer than the rest of the waterbody. On large rivers this tends to be in the lower river or delta areas. Remember that the sun warms the north shores faster due to the fact that we are in the northern hemisphere and the sun resides in the southern portion of our sky this time of year.
Pay attention to environmental visual clues. Vegetation can be a clue to water temperatures and stream conditions. Plants like yellow and white lily pads can clue us in. Just when they begin to shoot for the surface is usually the time fish flock to these incubating areas that help to speed the development of egg clutches developing inside the female. As pads start to unfold on the surface fish begin to progress throughout stages of the spawn and will most likely move to locations more suitable to make nests and to spawn. I like paying more attention to aquatic vegetation than riparian trees, which is a better indicator of water temperature compared to those old adages like "bass bed when the dogwoods are in bloom".
Females feed heavily up until they spawn. I've seen the spawn happen in early May and also saw it happen the end of May and through June. Of course nothing is set in stone when it comes to a fish and multiple waves of spawning is also typical depending on weather patterns. Keep in mind I am speaking of weather patterns and latitudes in southwest Michigan.
When the spawn happens fast it can present a short window. Two years ago on the Kalamazoo, cold weather, with unusual short-sporadic warm ups left fish and local anglers bewildered. I was excited and readily anticipated what I knew was going to be the "the perfect time to target big fish", but I had to sit out a week and a half because the river was "blown out". I also had to wait until the weekend, elongating my return to the river, when I had enough time for a float trip. When I finally returned, the river had come down and cleared up and I returned with high anticipation - all that was left was guarding males. If you've ever caught these fish they are some of the most aggressive fish you'll ever encounter, little tough guys- about 8-12 inches. But they are left to defend their young and if you find yourself in this situation it's best to give them a break, and float downstream and come back another time. Smallmouth fry are amazingly quick growing and I've found them to be much more elusive than largemouth fry ( maybe a reason they are so successful in moving water). No worries, this is a short window and before you know it fry will disperse and the males hormones and instinctive protection of young will subside.
Soon after dispersal males and females put their feedbag back on to recover from resources lost during the spawn.
One more thing to consider when fishing on moving water is higher spring flows typically position fish shallower. Dropping water levels will leave spawning beds abandoned on rivers with extreme fluctuations, luckily southwest Michigan streams typically only experience slight fluctuations compared to southern reservoirs and tail races.
Before long May will transition to early summer. This period will mean warmer air and water temps, leading to much anticipated top water action and faster streamer retrieves. Until then enjoy the early-springtime in- between-time! Take advantage of early season catch and release opportunities and Type IV designated streams.
While everyone else is out scouting turkeys and thinking about last years deer season I'll be out testing new flies, waders, and seeing how the rivers swift current and high flows have shaped my favorite streams and creeks. It just might come in handy in June and July when fish pick more aggressive feeding lanes and expose themselves. I would rafter wade through a newly formed fish holding depression in a feeding lane in April than June.
Enjoy the break in the weather and "live in each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth!" - Henry David Thoreau
See you on the water! And book a trip with that guide you've been wanting to fish with or on that river you've always wanted to fish.
The Fly Factor