Spring Crankbait Tactics

Depending on when the ice breaks up good spring trolling can start any time from early March on. Some years there are still icebergs floating around in early April. Regardless of when the ice comes off some of the best early spring trophy fishing is on crankbaits. It's similar to fall fishing, but spring fishing locations and tactics deserve their own article. Peak pre-spawn trophy time usually runs mid March through early to mid April. Beyond mid April you can still catch plenty of big fish, but they will usually be post-spawn and will weigh less.

In my mind the biggest difference between spring and fall is that the fish are in a completely different activity pattern. Fall fish seem to travel in loose packs and at times are probably herding baitfish and feeding heavily over short periods of time. In fall youre usually looking for baitfish, finding the tightest schooled balls of bait on your depthfinder, and then working the area over especially if you catch even one active fish. Spring is different. Fish have one thing on their mind. They are programmed to spawn and eating is secondary. Not only that, but the best areas may not have any bait, or at least very little bait. The western basin and islands are stacked with big adult spawners and they don't care how much food is around. It's the one time of year that specific areas have more predators than the local prey base should support. That's not to say that there isn't enough to eat, it's just that the fish are seeking spawning areas out, not foraging areas. I focus on two types of areas, migration routes to and from the spawning reefs of the Camp Perry firing range and also staging areas where fish are holding before spawning. Most of the areas that I fish are west of a line between Catawba and South Bass and as far west as Toussaint Reef. Check out the sonar screen capture below from late March. Notice the lack of any bait with a lot of big fish. This was in 28' of water between Green Island and "F" can of the Camp Perry range.

(click on the picture for a larger version)

Generally what I'll do is hit one of my favorite pre-spawn spots and if there are fish there I will roughly mark the bounds of the area that holds the most fish with waypoints. The areas can be large at times and it is important to get new waypoints in each time you get even just a hit, and then also get waypoints in where you come out of the fish. You can usually get the best area narrowed down within a few hours based on your own on-the-fly waypoint mapping. When you hit the right areas your screen will light up with big hooks better than any other time of the year. You'll see screens that make your knees weak. You'll notice that 95% percent of the fish that you mark are in the bottom half of the water column. PLEASE don't put your lures down there! I know that it's counter-intuitive, but you'll miss the most active fish and most likely will end up frustrated and confused. I almost never run a crankbait deeper than 15' below the surface in the spring with most being from 6 to 12' feet down. I'm not talking about feet of line out; I'm talking about how deep the bait is running. Most of my line-out amounts end up being something like ripsticks 60' or less back, reef runners and deep husky jerks less than 40' back, and rogues or husky jerks from 20 to at most 100' back. If you look up the dive curves stay shallower than 15' of running depth. Don't let the deep marks tempt you. They are inactive. I have caught fish within one foot of the surface while free-spooling a rogue to let it out. You can't go too high until you narrow down the magic depth of the day.

Generally for speed I'm running from 0.8 to 1.5 mph on my GPS. Spring is a prime time to vary speed. Run at a consistent 1.2 or so, and then come to a complete stop. Put your motor in neutral for as long as 30 seconds (time it on a watch, it's longer than you would think). Then after your planer boards have sat there for a while hammer the throttle to jump forward and then pull back to around 1 mph again. The hits will usually come as the boards stop or when they surge forward. If that doesn't work try exaggerated S-turns. Many times the hits will come on the stalled planer boards on the inside of the turn. You will definitely miss some fish that don't hook up because the bait is motionless, but if you increase your number of hits compared to a straight troll it will produce more fish (I promise).

Also pay attention to temperature in the spring. Spring is the only time of the year that I stomach fishing in stained to dirty water if it means that you gain a few degrees. Many times the warmer water will be the muddy areas. I guess that the sediment absorbs heat, or maybe it's just a function of warmer Portage River input. Either way the most active fish will be in water that may be as little as one degree warmer than the water around it. If you find distinct transition zones between clean and dirty water fish both sides of the transition and see what works. Sometimes you'll mark the most fish in muddy water, but the few takers that you find are just into the clear water outside of where most of the fish are holding.

As far as specific areas I really like the contour line that runs off of the tip of Catawba, dips south towards Port Clinton, and then turns back north over near the firing zone. I believe that it is a major migration route. You'll also usually find fish staging in open water between Green Island and Toussaint Reef, with "D" can of the range being a good area. Open water east of Niagara Reef and the water just north of "A" through "C" cans are other productive areas. There are a lot of places to check and the open water fish can move a long way each day. That's why I mentioned that waypoints are so critical to keep track of where they are from hour to hour.

Colors are pretty straight forward. In clear water tend towards whites or naturals like wonderbread, mooneye minnow, white purple hot tiger, bare naked, pink lemonade and blue Hawaiian. In stained to dirty water try clowns, firetigers, dark purples (like purple demon or glass purple perch), Tennessee shad and texas red. Just remember to keep them in the top half of the water column. Dont overlook running deep divers up high. Sometimes the wider more erratic wobble of a deep diver is what they want, but if they are up high you need to keep the lure above the fish. One other trick is to clip a one ounce snap weight 20' in front of the crankbait. That gives the bait vertical swim when your speed changes and will get you a few extra hits.

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