You’ve been waiting for months and all the ice is finally melted. What is happening on the lake? Where do you start? Waste less time by understanding the fish and their habits around this time of year. The fish don't eat much during the winter and the temperature change sends them in to a hyper-aggressive feeding frenzy state. Keeping this in mind, here are some key early spring fishing tips for all of your favorite game fish.
Where to Look: Northern Pike
Pike are usually the first to spawn. They’ll leave the lake as soon as the rivers first start flowing. They’ll migrate pretty far upstream to find suitable conditions. They prefer shallow, marshy bays that warm faster. These areas will usually have lots of old weeds.
Where to Look: Walleye
The walleye start spawning when the northern pike begin returning to the lake. The type of environment they usually seek out consists of rock, gravel, and clean sand, preferably with a strong current going through. If they don't have a current to work with, they will usually seek out shoals (sandbars or gravel bars) which can provide protection from predators.
As the pike and walleye are starting to think about procreation, members of the sunfish family (which include bass and crappies) are looking to go on a feeding spree for a few weeks until the lake warms up more. Early spring fishing is the one time of year when a surface temp gauge is a godsend. Find the warmest water in the lake and you’ll more than likely find them all in the same area. The food chain in any lake starts with Phytoplankton, the smallest of plants produced by heat and energy from the sun and nutrients in the water.
For this reason it’s crucial to check wind-protected bays, boat canals, and harbors, as they are good places to start looking for warmer spots. They warm up faster because they're exposed to more sunlight and protected more from cold prevailing winds. Dark-bottom muddy bays warm faster than ones with bright, clean sand. The muddy bays often start to produce insect larvae sooner as well, which sets up a similar food chain. A perfect bay would have deeper water in the center (8 to 10 feet), and the shallows would eventually fill in with lily pads.
Where to Look: Bass
When looking for bass, try a three-eighths to a half-ounce head spinner bait, with a single size 6 or 7 hammered copper blade and a purple, white, or blue/chartreuse skirt. Use this to cover water quickly while looking for an area holding aggressive fish. After the ice is melted, there might only be one or two spots that warm faster than others. Those spots would be the best places to start.
However, two weeks after the ice is melted might mean an entirely different story. Always keep a very passive bait with a one-sixteenth ounce mushroom head jig and a six-inch tequila shad-colored worm rigged up on a spinning rod. If they are in a negative mood or want something slow-falling, this is my go-to rig. Your Babe Winkelman Fishing Sunglasses will be extremely helpful in this situation. You oftentimes won’t feel the strike, and will have to rely on physically seeing the line twitch or the fish take your bait.
Where to Look: Crappie
While looking for crappie, try starting with a horizontal jig. Use a one-sixteenth ounce quiver jig. I recommend either one with an orange head and chartreuse body, or pink head and white body. Also make sure to have an adjustable bobber. Keep a second rod rigged up with a size 8 short shank hook, tied directly to the line with a bobber. Usually you will find them in shallow water only a foot deep, and if that's the case then stick with the first rig.
When fish first come in from the shallows, or after they’ve already been in, use the second rig. The fish will usually come in after a weather front comes through and slows the bite down. Cast it out with a few feet of line below the bobber. When it lands, the minnow will slowly descend. Let it sink for a minute or two, then sweep the rod forward, bringing the minnow back to the surface. Rinse, repeat. The plankton is being produced at the surface, and this is where the minnows and crappies come up to eat. Watch this video on How to find seasonal crappies with Babe Winkelman for more tips and tricks!