Tackle & Techniques – Cold Water

Tackle & Techniques – Cold Water

Mar 17, 2013

Three Killer Baits for Early Spring

 By Mike Pehanich

Anglers hail spring as a time of plenty, a stretch of halcyon days when bass come off their winter fast and bite every bait in sight.

Well, maybe not every angler sees spring that way…

This "last cast" bass weighing 12 pound, 13-ounces fell to an XCalibur XR Rattle Bait 100 at Dream Lake in Livingston, Alabama

“Everyone always talks about the great fishing of spring,” says bass fishing legend and popular TV host Bill Dance. “Well, spring sucks! Spring is one of the hardest times to fish because of the constant fluctuations and weather changes. Barometric changes, rising water, falling water, muddy water…always something!”

Given his druthers, Dance would prefer the generally more stable conditions of autumn over the vagaries of spring. But, hey, spring is spring! The ice is gone, bass are on the move (at times, at least), and…heck, we have all had enough of winter already, haven’t we?

Besides, good things can and do happen in spring, Dance admits. When conditions are right, bass can be gluttonous and make almost any bait in your tackle box look like angling’s greatest invention.  But most days, the angler’s challenge is to match his bait and presentation to the dictates of the bass’s mood and metabolism, which can slow to a crawl, especially when a cold front kicks activity back a couple notches.

Bass fishermen struggle in spring for two fundamental reasons: 1) they are often working their lures too fast, or 2) they aren’t covering enough water.

If that sounds like an order to “slow down but move fast,” well, like it or not, that is often the challenge. When you’ve found the bass concentrated in a relatively small area, a jig or the simple “Senko” solution may find you thinking you have solved spring bass fishing finally and forever. But, if fish are spread out, as they usually are, you’ll want to have several tools and techniques in your arsenal to strain water, draw strikes, and help you determine a pattern fast!

Here are three.

Jerkbaits can be incredible on Great Lakes smallmouth. Consider deep diving models, too.


If your own fishing experience hasn’t convinced you of the beauty of an artfully presented jerkbait in spring, perhaps the highly publicized success of the pros can!

Cliff Pace, the Elite Series pro from Petal, Mississippi, rode a jerkbait bite to a half-million-plus in first place prize money at the 2013 Bassmaster Classic on Grand Lake of the Cherokees in February. Pace worked football jigs for deeper fish and for all of his fish on Day Three, but when bass moved up on the flats during the first two days of the event, he fooled them with two jerkbaits, the Jackall Squad Minnow and the Jackall Soul Shad.

He wasn’t the only one jerkin’ in that 39 to 42 degree water either! Two anglers scored big with tried and true “Old School” jerkbaits: Mike Iaconelli (4th place) with the Rapala Husky Jerk, and Jason Christie (7th) with the Smithwick Rogue. Brandon Palaniuk twitched a Storm Twitch Stick on his way to a runner-up award. Two others used their own designs to Top 10 finishes — Mike McClelland (5th) with his Spro McStick 110 and 85, and Kevin VanDam (8th) with his Strike King KVD Jerkbait.

Jerkbaits offer the advantage of covering water with an "in-your-face" pause that bass can't stand.

Jerkbaits give a spring angler the best of both worlds – the ability to cover water yet deliver a slow in-your-face look to lethargic bass.

My angling buddy, In-Fisherman writer Cory Schmidt, tells the story of fishing jerkbaits with Ron Lindner one spring. That day, Cory had such a hot hand that it compelled the Hall of Fame fisherman to put down his rod and come in for a close-up view to study every detail of Cory’s presentation.

Finally, with his eyeballs only a foot or two from Schmidt’s hands, Ron found what he was looking for.

“It’s all in the cadence!” he barked.

Vary your cadence and – even more importantly – the length of the pause between jerks. Suspending jerkbaits often thrive in cold water, and serious jerkbait anglers often add Suspend Strips or implant split shot in lure bodies to keep the baits suspended in the strike zone for a longer period.

If fishing cold, clear water saps your confidence in spring, a jerkbait just may be the antidote to your condition!

Lipless crankbaits

While the jerkbait shines in clear water, the lipless crankbait may be your all-around workhorse for most water conditions we face in spring.

Lipless crankbaits lure giant bass in spring. Don't pass up transition areas from deep water into potential spawning bays.

“No-lips” enable you to cover water quickly. However, if you take a run-and-gun approach to fishing them, you will be missing out on more than half the fun.

In late winter two years ago, I caught a 12-pound, 13-ounce largemouth at Dream Lake in Livingston, Alabama, on an XCalibur XR 100 Rattle Bait. Two days later on different water, I caught the second 10-pound-plus bass of my career, followed by an eight-plus, seven-plus, and six-plus in rapid succession on the very same lure. My partner that day caught a 9-3 on a one-ounce Rat-L-Trap, too!

The key to our presentation was keeping the bait in the strike zone and working it at a pace that suited the bass in these coldwater conditions. Most of my fish came on a lift-and-drop presentation – with nearly all the fish hitting the bait on its descent!

A season earlier, I had fished with Mark Davis of “Big Water Adventures” television fame on a windy day when the thermometer sank to the low 20s at 6:00 a.m. and didn’t climb above the freezing mark until 1:30 in the afternoon. One of the two presentations that finally brought us fish that day was a lipless crankbait worked just above bottom on 8-pound fluorocarbon and a spinning rod. Once Davis dialed them in with that presentation, 19 more fish followed with nary a runt in the bunch!

Patrick Sebile schooled me in the use of the Sebile Snagless Flatt Shad on southern waters two winters ago.

The lipless category is loaded with good baits. In addition to the XCalibur Xr and its One Knocker Xrk cousin, I like Sebile’s Flatt Shad and Snagless Flatt Shad, Rapala’s Clackin’ Rap, Jackall’s TN 60 and 70, several of the new lipless baits from Rat-L-Trap, including the Zombie Shad and High-Def series. I will also be trying Spro’s AurkuShad, Kopper’s Live Target lipless baits (especially the golden shiner model), and probably a half dozen others this season.

I also mix low-resonance rattle baits with high pitch baits and carry silent lipless baits as well.

These baits can work magic. Once you shake the chuck-and-wind habit and learn to adapt your presentation and speed of retrieve to conditions, your catch rate will soar.

I carry a ton of lipless crankbaits in a wide variety of sizes, colors and shapes. Contrary to popular belief, they are versatile four-season baits that will prove their worth under a variety of conditions. But they truly have earned their reputation as coldwater winners.

Hair and marabou jigs

Savvy North Country anglers often start the early season with hair jigs.

Great Lakes smallmouth bass expert Joe Balog likes bucktail jigs after ice out on his home waters of Lake St. Clair and the Western Basin of Lake Erie, and he works them along the bottom with great success.

A marabou jig counted coup on largemouth and this smallmouth bass on a Brainerd-area lake in May.

I like the versatility of marabou jigs, which can work almost anywhere in the water column. My Northwoods fishing partner John Crane, calls the pulsating quality of these baits “the secret within the secret.” Marabou seems to breathe as the fine particles of its feathers puff during a pause in the retrieve or from current or even the slightest “coffee shake” you impart. What’s more, marabou resembles a wide array of foods on the bass’s menu, from leeches to baitfish to crawdads.

Now, do you cover water quickly with a light marabou jig? Not in terms of distance. But marabou jigs are great for straining the water column. The water resistance provided by these unique feathers allows a light jig to drop slowly. With subtle reel and rod action, you can keep the bait working within a fairly tight band of water throughout the retrieve. Just track the relative depth of your bait by counting it down after the cast. Note the speed of your retrieve so you can duplicate it once you have dialed the fish in.

Prime choices are the Marabou Finesse Jig from Northland Fishing Tackle, a Johnson Beetle Bou marabou jig, or a Lindy Fuzz-E Grub. Some anglers pull out the fly-tying vase and craft their own.

Under tough conditions, I’ll go with a very small jighead of 1/16 ounce or lighter. To cast such light jigs, you will want to go to a relatively long spinning rod of 6-6 or longer and a light superline of 10-pound test or less, with a line diameter equivalent to a four-pound or lighter monofilament. Berkley Nanofil has worked great as has Northland Bionic Walleye Braid, both of which are available in hair-thin lines of four-pound test and lighter. Sufix 832 also gets a nod.

Cory Schmidt holds hair jigs and marabou jigs in high regard, especially in early spring.

In earlier features, I’ve discussed blade baits and finesse jigs with compact pork trailers.

Add these to the three bait categories offered here, and you’ll be loaded for bear come cold water!

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