Pre-spawn bass tactics

The catch and release bass season has changed the world of bass fishing in Michigan forever. Used to be that by the time the regular bass season opened in late May, the spawn was well underway or in many instances complete. Because the season was closed anglers never had an opportunity to catch pre-spawn bass.

Today with the catch and release bass season opening on the last Saturday in April in the Lower Peninsula and May 15 in the Upper Peninsula, the opportunity to catch and release bass prior to the spawn awaits anglers who know what to look for.

The tactics used to catch bass in late April vary from those commonly used in late May. By making some simple adjustments in mind set and the places fished, early spring bass angling can be some of the best action of the year.

Think Shallow

Both smallmouth and largemouth bass love to hunt for minnows, crayfish and frogs in extremely shallow water immediately following ice out. When the majority of the lake is icy cold, a ribbon of warmer water forms along the shorelines where the water is shallow and the sun can quickly warm water temperatures. The north shore gets the best sun exposure and is usually the first to warm and attract fish. Dark bottom areas warm quickly and start to attract fish just a few days after the ice melts. Gradually other bottom types like sand, gravel or clay warm up and start attracting fish.

For several weeks these fish feed actively and spawning is the last thing on their minds. It’s not until the water warms into the upper 50’s that the urge to spawn kicks in and bass start to seek out preferred spawning habitats.

Weightless Soft Plastics

When bass hit the shallows following ice out, shallow can mean water so skinny the back of the fish is nearly exposed! Almost always when a fish strikes, I can see water on the surface swirling! Fishing in water this shallow forces the angler to cast a fair distance to avoid spooking the fish before you can present a bait.

Unweighted soft plastics are ideal for this style fishing. Wacky rigged worms, Texas Rigged Flukes, action tail grubs, paddle grubs and beavers are great baits for pitching into the shallows. A seven foot medium light spinning outfit equipped with six pound test fluorocarbon line is the ideal way to fish these lightweight baits. Heavier line simply won’t allow the casting distance needed to consistently fool these fish.

While these fish are shallow, they aren’t typically found just setting out in the open. Bass like to snuggle up to cover when possible, and use these spots as ambush sites. Sunken wood, rocks, dock posts, sea walls, clumps of cattail or other vegetation are all great visual targets to fish.

Cold Fronts Kill The Action

When bass move into super shallow water, the bite is best on sunny days when the wind is modest. The sun helps to warm the shallows quickly and usually the afternoons are better fishing than the mornings. Windy weather tends to push cold water from the main lake into the bays and shallows, killing the action.

A substantial cold snap will also send shallow fish scurrying back to the closest deep water. A cold night will drop the water temperature in shallow water up to 10 degrees. When faced with cold days and frontal conditions try fishing along the first break with a weedless jig tipped with a plastic craw. Fish ultra slow and a few fish can be dredged up this way.

Fishing during a harsh front is always tough, but in the early spring bass will simply get lock jaw if the water temperatures take a sudden dive. Smallmouth seem hit especially hard by these fronts, but even the more aggressive largemouth will get tough to catch.

Timing Is Important

The best bite generally occurs in the afternoon after the sun has had a chance to warm the water a few degrees. During stable weather when the evening is calm and warm enough for the spring peepers to be singing, the following morning can be red hot as the water temperature doesn’t drop overnight.

Other Baits To Consider

Small jerkbaits and shallow diving crankbaits can also be effective when the bite heats up. These hard baits are ideal for fishing over the top of emerging weed flats.

Largemouth vs Smallmouth

Sometimes I think largemouth would just assume craw up on the bank to warm themselves! Ultra shallow water doesn’t seem to bother largemouth, but smallmouth are less likely to be found in water only a few inches deep. Because smallmouth tend to be found more often in clear waters, they are much more likely to be hanging out in water ranging from two feet to about six feet deep.

Because smallies are often found in a little deeper water, a small jig tipped with a grub works well. Tubes are also a good early spring smallmouth bait. Spinning gear and light line however are still the only practical way to target these fish.


Fishing for pre-spawn and spawning bass requires anglers to exercise good ethics. The law requires immediately returning landed fish to the water. If you want a photo, keep your camera handy, snap a quick pic and release the fish immediately.

By starting in the south and moving north into the Upper Peninsula, anglers can tap into great pre-spawn fishing opportunities for several weeks. The catch and release bass season opens up a whole new realm of fishing opportunities. So long as anglers respect the resource, no harm is done to the fish or future fishing opportunities.