“March,” my grandfather used to say, “is mean and miserable.” In his view, the month saw the woes of cabin fever at their worst, and even though spring lay only a few weeks distant, the time of greening up still seemed an elusive dream. Then, offering homespun philosophy from his favorite perch, a fireside rocking chair, he would elaborate. “Hunting season has come and gone,” Grandpa would comment, “and most folks think it is still too cold to do any fishing. They are wrong, because those who don’t mind lousy weather and have some gumption can enjoy some of the finest fishing of the year.”
The better part of a half century has come and gone since a starry-eyed youngster absorbed every tidbit of wisdom Grandpa Joe had to offer, but his thoughts on fishing on the cusp between winter and spring remain as true as ever. With that in mind, here are some insights on strategies that might be the perfect spring tonic to help shake off the hardships of cabin fever.
Before getting into tips and techniques though, a word of warning is in order. Fishing in chilly weather has potential hazards, and we ignore them at our peril. Specifically, be keenly aware of the dangers associated with hypothermia, which can come on in a hurry should you take a dunking while wade fishing or fall out of a boat into chilly water. Similarly, betting caught in a sudden, soaking rain without the proper gear can put you in trouble in a hurry. The answers are obvious. Take all proper precautions – wear life jackets when fishing from a boat, have a change of dry clothes available, take along good rain gear, and always let someone know your precise plans.
Small Water, Hot Fishing
Now let’s turn to some of the many sorts of fine fishing you can enjoy early in the year. Probably the most overlooked of all opportunities, when it comes to catching a real “wall hanger,” is bass fishing in farm pond. Small bodies of water warm up appreciably earlier than big lakes, and after the lean, mean times of winter, lunkers are on the prowl. They are hungry, and the urges of the prespawn movement bring bass into the shallows.
Concentrate on areas that receive the most sun exposure, and if there is a breeze (as is normal at this time of year) fish the shoreline toward which it is blowing. This is where the baitfish will be pushed, and the bass will follow. When it comes to lures, slow-rolling a spinnerbait, working a jig-and-pig around cover, or offering minnow-imitating crankbaits are among the time-tested techniques. Or, if you have no problems using live bait, give some thought to a hefty minnow or maybe a spring lizard.
A Crappie Start To The Season
For those without access to farm ponds (although I can’t imagine too many places where an angler can’t get permission to fish a few of these), or individuals who enjoy big lakes, keep crappie in mind. These tasty, cooperative panfish traditionally begin moving toward spring bedding areas when dogwood buds start to swell.
As they leave their deepwater winter haunts and head toward the shallows, the keys are (1) finding the preferred depth of the fish on a given day and (2) knowing the whereabouts of suitable structure. Crappie are highly structure-oriented, with sunken brush, docks and piers, logjams in the back of coves, and similar sites being the sort of places they frequent as the spring spawning period draws near.
One good approach is to fish several rigs at different depths until you locate the depth at which the fish are holding. Then adjust accordingly. Since crappie are a “school” fish you can often take a bunch of them from a single location. Small jigs, jigs tipped with a minnow, or minnows by themselves are the preferred ways to go. However, it you don’t mind frequent “hang-ups,” small in-line spinnerbaits worked slowly can also be productive.
Earning Your Stripes
Another option on big lakes over much of the country is striped bass. They thrive in cold weather, stocking up on baitfish that become less mobile as water temperatures lower. Indeed, in the South, January and February are two of the finest striper months, but good fishing continues into March and early April in many areas. Drifting with live bait is a standard approach, but keep a rod ready with a butterbean jig or some sort of minnow imitation just in case you spot schooling stripers smashing bait on the surface.
“Stream”-line Your Approach
Along with fishing still water, whether it be a sprawling reservoir or a small farm pond, don’t overlook streams. Wade fishing can open up some fishing doors that are too often ignored. We tend to associate fish such as trout and smallmouth bass, at least in creeks and rivers, with warm weather. Yet they can be caught in much colder situations, and as a rule you will have the water all to yourself. Just bundle up good in your long johns and neoprene waders, make sure you have the sort of boots that offer secure footing, and go for it.
For bass in streams (not just bronzebacks but largemouths and spotted bass), crankbaits that imitate crayfish are hard to beat. Or try a fly rod, and you will find out why a Tennessee novelist by the name of Caroline Gordon once describe a hooked smallmouth as “chicken hawk and chain lightning.” Streamers in colors such as white and chartreuse are ideal for the long rod and whistling line, and remember that slow is the way to go when water temperatures have just begun to creep upward.
A Flying Start For Trout
Speaking of fly rodding, this type of equipment is typically associated with trout, although ultralight gear works well for trout as well. In trout water, nymphs (Pheasant Tail or Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear patterns work well most anywhere) weighted with a split shot or two and tight-line while bouncing along the bottom work well, although if you see a hatch coming off on a warm afternoon there may be some surface action on patterns such as Blue-wing Olives or Midges. Also, the same types of streamers you use for bass, in smaller sizes, can be productive on trout, along with patterns such as Muddler Minnows and Matukas.
In short, there’s no better time than the present to get a running start on spring. As my grandfather used to say, “it beats sitting around and bothering the womenfolk, and the fresh air and exercise never hurt anyone. If you catch a stringer full, that’s just the cherry atop your angling sundae.”