Ice-Out Largemouths Bottom to Top
By Bruce Edward Litton
By early March, lakes and reservoirs of our region typically become ice-free, largemouth bass responsive to a variety of lure techniques. Last year was the great exception with ice-out complete near trout Opening Day. Shallow, stained ponds, especially those with a feeder creek open first. Years ago, a friend and I caught bass on the surface of a two-acre pond in Somerset County, four feet deep at most, on an 80-degree March afternoon. I got news later of ice fishermen doing well on Lake Hopatcong as ice melted rapidly. Nevertheless, the late winter/early spring fishing usually begins at bottom, and bass can be caught in a pond not yet entirely iced-out. The hotspot? Any edges of ice over some of the pond’s deepest won’t warm the water any, but may hold bass.
A crappie or twister tail jig cast on the ice and allowed to fall over the edge is more effective on descent than weightless plastics, but once on bottom, should be retrieved inches at a time by twitches. With water temperatures in the 30’s or about 40, bass don’t seem to notice a slow-sinking plastic as they readily do in summer, when bass metabolism is at peak, though slow behavior conserves calories. The senses of a summer bass are manic compared to winter’s slowdown, and they pick up on slow offerings immediately. During ice-out, partial ice creates a shadowline bass and baitfish respond to and hover near. If you’ve ever witnessed a baitfish in really cold water, you might recall a few inches of movement at a time along bottom by hesitant impulses. That’s why twitching a jig a few inches and then pausing works. Once we get those welcome warm fronts, things will get more interesting on waters of all sizes, but starting basic—at bottom—is sort of foundational to bass fishing in general.
Cold water gravel or hard bottoms of 8-20 feet in any bass environment invite an old standby, the Johnson Beetle Spin, and I bet a lot of bass fishermen have never heard of this spinnerbait with a detaching arm. Real spinnerbaits have a frame solidly attached to the lead, but the detachable metal of the Beetle Spin adds special effectiveness. I used to call the method “tick spinning” in my teens, because the second hand of my watch rotated around the dial almost as slow as the crank of my reel completed a turn. The cupped Colorado blade just waggles along, doesn’t spin and emit those regular vibrations. But here’s why this sort of very subtle, erratic motion implies the advantage of the loose blade and tie loop arm. Instead of holding a fixed place, as the jig head crawls over gravel or along hard bottom, the arm subtly moves about also. It’s not an issue of imitating a crawfish or any other sort of creature, but creating a presentation that the very slow metabolism of a bass responds to. The jerking about of that arm and blade worked for me consistently at Baker’s Basin, a Delaware and Raritan Canal basin pond. My son and I checked up on the fishing during fairly recent years and scored.
Tube jigs are proven effective in cold water by a great many more bass anglers. Plastic tentacles vibrate and sway when a shimmy is sent down the line, even if the jig head anchors the lure in place. For this technique, I recommend quality braid because unlike monofilament, its inability to stretch means less play in the line, imparting a trembling shake of the rod directly to the jig. A fast action rod is essential.
In a toss-up between the two, I would put my money on the Beetle Spin, because the cricketing metal seems just the ticket to getting the attention of metabolically deficient bass. Bass see enough tube jigs anyway.
Another old standby. In-line spinners achieve performance perfection early in the season for a number of reasons. The most obvious, perhaps, involves the lack of vegetation to foul those trebles. If you fish timber, a willowleaf spinnerbait will better suit, but residual weeds hold baitfish and bass. A Mepp’s Aglia Long upwards of size 3 or a C.P. Swing size 6 pulsing over diminished weeds is deadly. Another reason. In-line spinners possess a subtler appearance than the large profile of spinnerbaits. At most, the red tube on the treble of a Mepp’s is all you need, and perhaps it rarely serves as a plus. I never use Colorado or Indiana blades because, in my opinion, they emit too much vibration in cold water, so the standard Mepp’s or Blue Fox is declined. The willowleaf long blades hum along, attracting just enough attention with water temperatures in the low to mid 40’s or higher.
With water taking a warming trend, at least some bass venture towards the shallows, and a slow to moderately retrieved spinner finds them and provokes strikes. This is not pounding the banks and docks, shoreline brush or stickups, but plumbing the middle zones between the depths and the shallows. Baker’s Basin’s 12-foot belly features ancillary seven to four-foot depths, and fan casting the mouths of the two deepest corners, for an example, is effective. Lake Assunpink has at least a few submerged ditches or depressions leading off the main creek channel with structural breaks where bass stage. The massive stone faces of Split Rock Reservoir get warmed by morning and early afternoon sun, allowing bass a short expenditure of energy to move relatively shallow from depths beneath, spinners effective at intercepting them.
But don’t rule out crankbaits at slow to moderate retrieves with an occasional pause breaking the pattern, particularly in association with stone structure. A close cousin to crankbaits, suspending jerkbaits offer the advantage of remaining stationary in the water column when paused. They tantalize bass if nervous life is imparted to them. A number of suspending jerkbaits engineered to run as deep as eight feet can advantage critically, although the more standard varieties may be effective four or five feet down. Find sort of bowl-shaped depressions towards the backs of Spruce Run Reservoir coves, or cast while walking along the jetty at the mouth of Spruce Run Creek. Plug action appropriate to the water temperature, displacing its presence to bass’s lateral lines, can provoke a lunker nursing her eggs to clean up with vacuum jaws.
Shallows and Surface
How is bass fishing complete without surface catches? Any sort of shallow water action seems to comprise most of what bass fishing is about, and as a rule, when water temperatures reach and surpass 50, bass invade the shallow flats of Bedminster Pond, or begin to pay the docks of Lake Hopatcong visits. Bedminster Pond is considered poor fishing by everyone I speak to who knows of it, besides two guys who helped get me interested enough to catch bass in numbers and up to three pounds. Other ponds—Burnham Park Ponds, Colonial Park Pond, Ghost Lake—also present a real problem with weeds after April, but none of these is as bad as Bedminster Pond with its scum algae. Some might associate this pond with Trump National Golf Course, since the ugly appearance, once weather warms, may suggest a Jurassic backwater that became part of a modern-day oilfield, but in fact, Bedminster Pond is on public land in the same township as that golf course. And since Trump’s golf course is privately maintained, I would assume any pond on the property would enjoy better conditions. This said, however, I like Bedminster Pond as it is. To destroy the substandard—and the pond is substandard—because it is substandard, would be tantamount to an unforgivable violence that reduces itself beneath the level it seeks to eradicate. Regarding another pond with difficult but better appearing warmwater conditions, I’ve caught Colonial Park Pond bass by reeling weedless plastics over the duckweed in June, but will never bother at Bedminster, although, as things turns out, I know a local teenager, Tom Slota, who did just this at Bedminster Pond—after this article more and less as it now stands got published in The Fisherman magazine last February—and caught bass last summer. On a warm day in March, Bedminster Pond can result in a few good bass, and I’ve heard the unlikely story of a six-pounder. Nevertheless, this pond is abundantly fertile, and while carp-choked and mud bottomed, enough forage may be present for a few bass to reach lunker size.
Fifty degrees isn’t really a magic mark. Whoever got us all in the habit of the reference point, it makes plenty of sense, but bass get caught on the surface in water as cold as 47 at most. In my opinion, there’s a specific way to do it, and I bet no bass has ever hit a hula popper chugged along in water this cold.
First, the conditions. Steady sunlight throughout a mild or warm day, so the water warms to 47 or so just as evening approaches is the ticket. Secondly, the stage. If a pond—like Bedminster Pond—has a northeast corner with enough fertility and proximity to deeper staging points, that sunlight will have warmed the corner the most. Whatever the temperature difference, even if slight—it’s in your favor. Surface must be dead calm.
Now how to fish a Rebel. This plug is of that lone lure company providing fish-catching minnow plugs for decades, a floating jerkbait unlike most others, although perhaps other companies make lures that work about the same. The plastic 2 ½-inch Minnow sits on the surface at an angle, rear submerged, only head and shoulders breaking surface tension. By twitching the plug only enough to raise that rear, and then let it sink back, enough of a message is sent in all directions that something like food is there for the taking. Give the lure no excess in the form of jerking or popping. You can wait as long as a full minute between twitches. This truly is an exercise in slowing down and exploring patience you’ve completely forgotten since those idle hours and minutes of adolescence. During the 1970’s, I caught a lot of bass this way in Baker’s Basin. If a bass comes up and sips the plug as subtly as a trout taking a dry fly, it’s something you may never forget.
10 Top New Jersey Picks for Early Largemouths
1. Lake Assunpink, Monmouth County, accessible by I-195, is a favorite for tournament clubs this time of year. Fish the rip-rap of the dam dike (holds heat) with crankbaits. Pinpoint structural breaks and fish in-line spinners, suspending jerkbaits.
2. Manasquan Reservoir, Monmouth County, by I-195, is another club favorite. Small, snagless jigs in the timber don’t only catch crappie. Allow spinnerbaits to flutter on descent beside timber.
3. Lake Hopatcong, Morris and Sussex counties, by I-80. Opportunity for in-line spinners over residual weeds. Weedless tube jigs.
4. Split Rock Reservoir, Morris County, by I-287. Johnson Beetle Spin, Jigs crankbaits and spinners in relation to rock faces.
5. Baker’s Basin, Mercer County, by U.S. 1 and Carnegie Road. Johnson Beetle Spin, in-line spinners, Rebel Minnow—bottom to top.
6. Bedminster Pond, Somerset County, by U.S. 202/206. In-line spinners, spinnerbaits, Rebel Minnow. Don’t bother unless on a warm day, only March and April. Or so I had published in The Fisherman. Tom Slota proved me quite wrong.
7. Hainesville Pond, Sussex County by U.S. 206. In-line spinners, Rebel Minnow. Notoriously weeds-in after April.
8. Ghost Lake, Warren County, Shades of Death Road. Weedless tube jigs, in-line spinners, suspending jerk baits, Rebel Minnow.
9. Merrill Creek Reservoir, Warren County by I-78. Johnson Beetle Spin, Jigs, In-line spinners, crankbaits. Rocky shorelines tend to absorb heat.
10. Shepherd Lake, Passaic County, by Sloatsburg Road. Weedless tube jigs, in-line spinners, suspending jerkbaits. Fish the slight coves.