By Nick Simonson
While spring has just arrived and most of the region’s lakes remain ice covered, and only a few rivers have broken free of winter’s grasp completely, it’s hard not to think about the gamest fish that swims – the smallmouth bass. When the water warms, smallies become more aggressive, and with their acrobatic flips out of the water and hard charging runs, they are a thrill to catch. What’s more, the biggest ones of the openwater season often come in its early stretches. But to successfully target spring bronzebacks, an understanding of their preferred habitat and the structure that holds them is key.
In the case of springtime smallies that are either preparing to spawn, in the act of building nests, or later in the season protecting their just-hatched fry, structure can take many forms. From rocky points and boulder fields to sunken timber and docks, smallmouth bass key in on what’s available, with the biggest, most dominant fish taking the choicest spots and defending them against other fish.
In springtime, rocks are a magnet for smallies, and locating those areas where such a substrate or standout stretch of structure hosts these fish is a great way to start on the path to finding big bronzebacks consistently. Areas of rip rap, natural cobble deposits and scattered boulders, especially if shallow, provide not only cover and prey-attracting crevices, but also warm up quickly in the season’s growing sunlight, bringing pre-spawn fish into favored nesting areas.
In flowing water, rocky obstructions help break current and provide shade and ambush points. These areas are often easy to spot both above the water, as shoreline transitions are quickly picked out while floating along. Just below the water on rivers and streams, boils and riffles also easily signal the obstructions these fish often relate to. On sonar – whether side-scanning or vertical – picking up the wave-reflecting solid chunks is a simple task as well. Mark each one mentally, or drop a waypoint on the GPS, especially after a fish is caught, as they’ll likely be there again and again, if catch-and-release is practiced.
When targeting smallmouth bass, it’s important to understand how structure affects their behavior. Smallies are often more active and aggressive in areas with strong currents, as the current brings food to them and rocky obstructions provide a resting area, shade, and cover while they await an easy meal. Look for those places on a river where the water is flowing quickly, such as around rocky points or in riffles and rapids and pick out the eddies and slack water behind them. Cast upstream and bring an offering through the area where the two stretches meet, or carefully work the eddy from upstream edge to downstream to connect with a lurking smallie. Utilize jigs or tubes to probe those craggy spaces, and make them as snagless as possible, with pointed or conical heads for jigging options and a bullet sinker to snake tubes, lizards, craws and other soft plastics through the cracks and crevices of rocky stretches.
When other structural elements are added in – such as fallen trees, docks, culverts, bridge pilings and other natural and man-made obstructions – rocks help seal the deal for great spring smallmouth fishing. Identify those areas that are most attractive to these hard-fighting fish, and it’ll be another memorable season, no matter how much winter may have shortened it.
Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.
Featured Photo: The author caught this 18-inch smallmouth bass from a deep break along a rocky island early in the spring. Rocks concentrate warmer water, spring food sources, and often provide ideal spawning grounds for smallmouth bass in the spring. Simonson Photo.