By Nick Simonson
I can recall my first smallmouth bass as clearly as the blue skies of the late spring day on which it came to my jig. Sitting on the shoreline casting the eighth-ounce ballhead out over the small muddy point on the Sheyenne River just a few days after school had let out for the summer, an endless supply of slime-covered bullheads came to the nightcrawler-tipped offering I dragged up the break. In the middle of the two dozen or so spiny creatures was the odd sensation of a non-circular dash by the small bronzeback that bit, and after an impressive battle, I released the orange-eyed fish back into the flow and wondered how I could make more of that happen as I sorted through the continued selection of brown and yellow barbed denizens.
While the answer would evade me for several more years as other activities took precedence in my teenage life, when I returned to fishing in earnest I found that keeping things simple was the key to best connecting with smallmouth bass, especially in spring. It was true not only on my home flow, but everywhere I would go in the future. From northern shield lakes in Minnesota, to fertile southern prairie waters, three lure types have paid off with consistent spring action since those early days, despite my experimenting with multiple lures, baits and plastics with more variations than a tackle aisle could hold. For those trying to make the leap into exclusively using artificial lures for bass, I’d offer that advice again: keep things simple to get the most action and enjoyment out of spring smallie fishing.
An Old Twist
I wasn’t far off in that first encounter from the combination that would be my go-to for river smallmouth on my home flow, and that pairing of a jig and twister tail has worked on every water I’ve fished for big bronzebacks. Whether it’s an eighth ounce ballhead and a three-inch curlytailed grub, or a quarter-ouncer loaded with a little longer payload, a selection of tried-and-true jig and twister components allows for inexpensive versatility while on the water. They can be fished low and deep along breaklines to mimic darters and gobies, up shallow in the rocks to imitate crayfish, or ripped in the open like a fleeing baitfish to trigger the predatory instincts of brown bass on just about any water. Twenty dollars likely buys enough for the season and provides an assortment of colors that work for bass in any lake or stream.
Turn on the Tube
The one downside to an exposed hook on the jig-and-twister combo is that it tends to snag on the structure that smallies love in springtime. My lessons in tube fishing began at the forefront of the big bass bait expansion, and through all the soft plastic offerings from simple sticks to crazy creatures during the last two decades, a four-inch tube has made up the bulk of my bait bag for bronzebacks. In colors that match the hatch: browns, greens and olives, with perhaps a hint of red or orange for crayfish, and blacks and whites for forage on special waters, I found that Texas-rigging tubes and tossing them up into those spaces where other lures may not come back from has helped open a world of smallmouth-holding structure and increased hooksets, season after season. Relatively inexpensive, and able to be worked around those places that hold fish without the fear of snagging, these baits are a key part in putting together a simple arsenal for spring smallies.
Stick It To ‘Em
Finally, my fiscally conservative side gave way when I saw a fishing buddy slaying smallies all around me in the warming waters of spring, while my plastics paled by a three-to-one margin. As he ripped his stick bait through the shallows, aggressive bass from 16-to-20 inches slammed his offering as he paused, jerked and slashed it where the fish were staging. Now I don’t leave home without a selection of sticks in my tackle box, and I work them like a puppet master – slower with long pauses after a cold front along the deeper edges of a staging area, and quickly with shorter pauses in the shallows on warm days – setting smallies off and bracing for explosive strikes. Offerings like the Rapala X-Rap, Floating Minnow and Husky Jerk remain relatively affordable for anglers on a budget and get the job done when erratic action is what it takes to invoke the ire of pre-spawn smallies.
While these baits might not be as simple as the hunk of nightcrawler on the slightly bent jig hook that landed my first smallmouth, they’re a great starting point for anglers looking to make the leap into bass fishing with artificials. Stock up this spring with these and similar simple baits to convert hard-charging bronzebacks making their seasonal moves and get ready for fast action that can be even more memorable than that first smallie you might have caught so many years ago.
Featured Photo: A dandy bronzeback bashed this watermelon-red tube Texas-rigged on a 4/0 offset worm hook. Simonson Photo.