Out of breath and capacity to continue, butt-sized rock looks like a swell place to recoup as I ponder the ascent of Rooster Comb Mountain:
Our hearty Adirondack blanket of thigh-deep snow isn’t going anywhere soon . . destined to be a late thaw this year at my new latitude. Wonder how my friends back in Ohio are dealing with this anomaly of winter. I’m positive the visions of free-flowing streams giving way to the warming rays of Midwest sunshine have them absolutely stir crazy.
Gathering my thoughts and stamina, I reflect upon my youthful, early springs in Ohio as feet program the slippery slopes of the next ascent:
Gosh, if I only knew then what I know now! So many missed opportunities as winter waned and we waited for “spring” to arrive. The very act of inexperienced waiting costing me hundreds of quality smallmouth bass over the years…..”
We’ve all the heard the old adages, “when the Forsythia are blooming the crappie are biting” or “when the Red buds are blooming the smallmouth are biting.” I’m here to tell that waiting until Red bud trees are ablaze along the stream corridors can be a fatal error as you’ve probably already missed some of the best fishing for robust adult smallmouth that the entire season provides. Let me share some of my experiences exploring many of Ohio’s creeks, streams, and rivers as floodplain soils explode with emerging life, and smallmouth quickly recharge their batteries.
Understanding that many Ohio streams are low in slope and gradient, the uniform depths of lazy pools mixed in with, and fed, by slightly descending reaches of riffles and runs. Southern Ohio streams waking up a week earlier than some jewels in central Ohio. Flows to the north a week or so behind the bass’ battery recharge in the central portions of the state. Most of this metabolism recharge takes place around March 1, give or take a few days. Odd and enhanced February thaws may entice smallmouth out of wintering habitat above and below the pools, but they won’t move too far. They seek shallower confines that allow full light penetration. Sunlight penetration that is increasing daily. Objective #1 is to simply warm up and bask in a portion of the water column that may only be 1.25 degrees warmer than the wintering habitat. And this can be very short lived. A raw cold front ushering significant air temperature inversions and these bass will swiftly retreat back into the wintering habitat, awaiting the next warm-up period. The process starts over as another pulse of migration into warming, slack water areas takes place.
There are many variables to consider when seeking these post-winter smallmouth. Forty-degree water temperatures are certain to coax the migrations, and don’t wait too long for the battery recharge to take place. I recall one day fishing with Mike Utt on a sunny, crisp late February morning, followed by deteriorating conditions in the afternoon. Ice shards still lined the banks in many slack water areas of this little creek, but that 45 degree sunshine sure warmed the soul. Fishing ahead of Mike a good portion of the way, I witnessed many larger smallmouth slowly navigating upstream into sandy-cobble areas with full light penetration and minimal current.
The reach of stream that we fished happened to run due south from a vast northern segment. And these larger smallmouth were seeking the slightly warmer habitat of the eastern side of the channel as the western leafless wooded corridor allowed a full dose of increasing light penetration as the days grew longer. I couldn’t get any of these fish to strike that day; they seemed very content with expending minimal energy. In fact, they appeared very focused on just trying to reach these exposed sunny reaches as if the expenditure of winter reserves was taxing enough just to get there. We enjoyed 3 more days of this late February thaw, and I returned to this stream reach about 1 p.m. on the third day. No reason to get an early start on these early season bronze. Wait until the sun is directly overhead and you’ll up your odds, and stay warmer, by fishing the afternoon hours. At any rate, just 72 hours later, I took many of these adult smallmouth in the very same reaches they were just moving into 3 days prior. Water temps had reached 41 degrees, and 3 days of metabolic battery recharge were enough for them to slide over and nip the orange sculpin hair jig.
Naturally some stream reaches are better than others for this battery recharge to take place. I have found that a predictable, early season stream reach for early season smallmouth bass battery recharge and initial feeding offers these positive attributes:
- Minimal current
- Smaller stream substrates like sand, marl, or gravel
- Provides good absorption and storage of the increasing light penetration
- Leaf litter & woody debris a big plus in these radiant energy “sinks”
- Depths of 1 to 5 feet
- Inflow and infiltration of immediately adjacent seeps, springs or fens a big plus
- Available food – namely fish forage species
Remember that most of the crayfish population has not made a mass exodus from the chilly stream floor just yet. At any rate, if you can find a stream reach with some of these positive features near apparent wintering pools, you are in the early season bronze game. The availability of increasing, westerly light penetration is critical.
On a more casual note, I would simply stay very tuned into the floodplain floor as I walked along the Ohio creek or stream of choice that day. Many Ohio floodplain soils within the forested corridors are very permeable, and are poor for heat storage. It’s March 5th, on the heels of another 3-day warm-up, and I can’t help but notice luscious, vascular shafts of the earliest wildflowers popping up from these rich deposits. Trout Lilly or Spring Beauty, perhaps the odd leaves of an early Trillium. These warming floodplain soils are directly and hydraulically connected to the stream channel. With these harbingers of spring visible at my feet, I need not fool with taking a water temperature or undertake any other weighty mental process. Mother is speaking loud and clear, and I’m listening. I know that this gift of floral presence means it’s early season bronze time, and in a big, big way. Regardless of the latitude affording the exploding floodplain bounty.
My only task now is to make the long and deft cast with the correct presentation. No tawdry skirts or double tails, or vertically crazed action imparted by hand or equipment. Subtle and slow, swum and glided near the bottom with something appealing that looks like chilly, vulnerable food. Ready for the telltale tap or slightest tick of the line after tuning up in February? You bet I am!