Early season can be gold for bronzebacks

Bass anglers should get a start now on their southern Idaho fishing.

Special to the Idaho StatesmanFebruary 27, 2014 

Randy Starr and Nate Crofts, of Star, show the results of getting on the water early for bass fishing.

PROVIDED BY RANDY STARR

The sharp bite of cold wind stung at my fingertips as I worked my boat around a long, tapering point at Brownlee Reservoir and into position for the first cast of the day.

It was late February 2013, long before most fishermen had considered taking their boats out of their garages for the fishing season.

Late February to early April provides a unique window of opportunity on the Snake River and its reservoirs. Black bass, which include the smallmouth and northern largemouth that we have in Idaho, make seasonal migrations from deep to shallow water.

Many anglers prefer to wait for those perfect warm, sunny days in April or May to start fishing for them, but by then, anglers may have missed their best opportunity of the year to catch giant bass.

On this February day, the sky was clear and the sun beginning to crest over the water, which meant good weather conditions for early season fishing. I aimed toward a small pile of rocks in 10 feet of water and made my first cast.

I made five quick cranks of my reel handle followed by a short pause in my retrieve, and suddenly my line jumped forward. I set the hook on a 4-pound smallmouth, worked the fish to the boat and quickly released it.

I repeated the method for the next 30 minutes and managed to land eight fish with a total weight of 26.5 pounds.

But as quickly as the bite started, it was over. Ten consecutive casts brought no more action, and it was time to move upriver to the next long point leading to another flat.

There is a reason why I fished during what many would consider a slow time of the year for bass fishing.

The fish follow underwater structures, called “break-lines,” much as deer and elk follow the snow line and new plant growth up the mountain during spring.

Water temperature and food are primarily what cause bass to move into shallower water, and as most fishermen learn, changes can happen quickly and without warning. That’s why it’s good to be ready earlier than when you would normally fish.

Bass move along points and river channels in search of crawfish coming out of their winter hiding areas. It allows large bass to pack on extra weight necessary for an earlier spawning cycle than their smaller counterparts.

Spawning early provides a longer growing season for their offspring, and a longer growing season typically means larger young fish and better survival.

It’s also a good time to practice catch and release in your newfound fishing areas. Each fish you release restocks the area and will hopefully provide you with more good fishing down the road.

Although deep-water fish can be caught year-round in water as cold as 34 degrees, the temperature for early smallmouths to begin their migration is about 43-46 degrees, depending on the weather. Ideally, sunny days are better than overcast skies, but three consecutive days of either condition will usually coax smallmouth into biting when the water temperature is warm enough.

A variety of lures can be used to catch these hungry, early season monsters. Medium running crankbaits such as Norman’s “Deep N,” Storm’s “Wiggle Wart” or Rapala’s “DT-10” tend to work best. Use a variety of natural crawfish colors such as red, brown or green.

If the fish won’t bite, try switching to a No. 5 or No. 7 Rapala “Shad Rap,” also in natural crawfish patterns.

Make long casts 10 to 15 feet beyond your target to allow your lure to reach maximum depth by the time it hits the strike zone. Typically, slower retrieves are needed in cold water, but don’t be afraid to speed up a little when fish begin to bite.

As with any fishing technique, it is always good to have a backup plan in case the fish won’t cooperate.

In such cases, try dragging a weedless jig, such as a Strike King Casting Jig or a Booya Football jig baited with a plastic crawfish imitation for built-in action.

Cast to the target and allow the jig to fall to the bottom. For best results, pull the lure slowly by lifting up your rod tip. Start in the 9 o’clock position and slowly work to the 11 o’clock position.

Drop your rod tip back to the 9 o’clock position, reel in your slack line and repeat. If you feel resistance, pop your rod tip back to either set the hook on a fish or hop the jig over unseen structure.

Information about conditions, water temperatures and reservoir levels for Brownlee are available at idahopower.com, and maps of local reservoirs that show bottom contours are available at Sportsman’s Warehouse, Cabela’s, Howard’s Tackle Shoppe, or online at topoquest.com.

So get on the water earlier than usual, and remember that conditions and fishing can quickly change at unpredictable times, so dress appropriately.

Fish any of the Snake River reservoirs and focus on long, tapering points adjacent to large flats or coves. Look for isolated piles of rocks in 8 to 12 feet of water and watch for water temperatures in the mid-40s, and don’t forget your crankbaits.

If you remember those basics, you could land the biggest bass of the season on your first trip of the year.

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