Weekend Angler: The Bounty of Spring Fishing

By D. Keith Bartlett on August 10, 2013 from Weekend Angler via Connect-Bridgeport.com

I’m not the type of person who complains much. I strive to keep a positive outlook and focus on the good things in life though occasionally I voice some dissatisfaction with politicians or personal hardships, but rarely in a public forum. That being said I’d like to go on record as saying this has been neither a good nor normal spring. Not that I’m complaining mind you, but May and October are my two favorite months of the year and the May I just lived through was anything but normal or favored. June was an evil twin sister. Excessively frequent and heavy rain, late cold-snaps and an endless procession of nasty thunderstorms trampled much of my normal spring activities and created more than a few personal hardships. The electrocution of a box full of bluebirds in the yard by lighting, the loss of my “Man Cave” surround sound system to same and the announcement by my mechanic that it was time to call in hospice for my pickup truck topped my list of unfortunate occurrences during  Spring 2013. However, with all the rain and cool weather my lawn grew beautiful, lush and green. If only my mower hadn’t been in the shop for a month, waiting for back-ordered parts. C’est la vie.
I wouldn’t say fishing has been more difficult than normal this spring but I will say it’s been a challenge to find good fishing at times. Local highland reservoirs along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains received so much rain and runoff they quickly rose to full pool and soon exceeded record levels. In response, TVA opened dam flood gates and downstream rivers became almost continually heavy flows, some roaring floods, of often discolored water. Most free-flowing rivers and streams also ran high and stained much of the time. With many reservoir water levels well into surrounding woodlands and rivers running well above normal, places to enjoy traditional spring fishing were limited. The threat of lightning, high winds and yo-yoing barometric pressure caused by a steady stream of weather changes further complicated planning fishing time. If you’d like to try some challenging fishing that will test your patience and skill, try casting minnow lures into a flooded forest at night for walleyes with the wind blowing 20 mph. At one point, I considered taking up bowling. 
Despite the extremes in weather, the fish were still out there doing what they always do during spring. Fish move, feed, spawn and otherwise go about their normal routines based on time of year and water temperature. However, fish move or change their activity during adverse conditions and knowledgeable anglers who want to continue to catch fish change with them. I use two approaches to find good fishing during periods of high, stained water; targeting species that are unaffected by or predictably active in stained conditions or searching for water clarity that is closer to normal. Spring spawners like crappie, bream, large and smallmouth bass are drawn to shallow shorelines when water temperatures approach spawning temps despite water clarity. Anglers who remain confident and make the necessary adjustments in location, lure selection and presentation can continue to enjoy good fishing for these species. Also, catfish, carp and a few others remain active and thrive in high stained conditions. However, my preference is to find places to fish where water levels, flow and clarity are closer to normal. In reservoirs, that means fishing the dam end where conditions are most stable and least affected by heavy runoff. In rivers, it means fishing tail-waters close to a dam where water runs clearest. 
 Trout fishing in local tail-waters has been an on-again, off-again challenge this spring. Much of the time, generation rates were so high and water so swift that tail-waters were unfishable. However, my friends and I caught some nice rainbows, browns, brookies and a few lake trout by moving further downstream and fishing channel bends, islands and shoreline structures that held eddies or spots with slower current. On those infrequent occasions when generation slowed or stopped, trout became so cooperative it seemed that they’d missed us as much as we’d missed them. Fishing for river smallmouth bass has been much the same. Further down rivers, feeder streams and other sources injected heavy runoff, creating poor and sometimes hazardous conditions. But during those infrequent periods when the water dropped and cleared, smallmouths were active and offered great fishing. So I’ve spent the last two months camped on weather reports and water generation schedules while making frequent scouting trips to local fishing holes to check water condition. When conditions developed that offered good tail-water or river fishing, we did our best to get there and reap the bounty.
Because tail-waters and rivers weren’t often fishable, reservoirs have been my most frequent fishing destination this spring. The lower one-third of most lakes in this area remained clear to moderately clear most of the time although excessive surface debris caused by above-full-pool water levels created hazardous expanses of surface litter in some sections. However, with an ever-watchful eye on wind direction we avoided the worst-affected areas. Where water clarity was acceptable and surface debris light the greatest hindrance to finding good fishing most days was fishing pressure because an army of anxious anglers were pushed into the same limited “fishable” water. So we made one more adjustment and changed our focus to reservoir night fishing. As I said before, it’s been a challenge at times to find good fishing this spring.
Several trips to local highland reservoirs produced limited success for walleyes. If you’ve read my book, you know I’m a big fan of nighttime walleye fishing in spring and early summer. But water levels in highland reservoirs in this region remained above full pool so the waterline along which walleyes cruise for spawning baitfish in spring was well into shoreline undergrowth. Dense surface debris and frequent high winds another thousand feet higher in elevation made night-walleye fishing on these lakes difficult work. So, fresh walleye dinners have been infrequent at my house so far this year. However, our search for good fishing produced some exciting encounters with one of my favorite fish; the hybrid striped bass. Hybrids, like striped and white bass, are open-water wanderers that follow alewives, shad and other baitfish throughout reservoirs. In spring, when surface temperatures reach 60-degrees, alewives move to shallow shorelines at night to spawn. As water temperature rises further, shad also begin spawning, producing an extended period of plentiful food along shallow shorelines for hybrids and other game fish. So when reservoir surface temperature reached 60-degrees and rising, we scheduled our first nighttime trip to check on the hybrids. 
The first place we found fish was on a steep bluff along a main-lake river channel. Small Red Fins and Jointed ThunderSticks produced jolting surface strikes from hungry hybrids when lures were cast close to the bluff face and retrieved parallel to the edge. Then, one night when the fish didn’t show along the bluff, we moved and found a hybrid mother-load. In each of the next half-dozen trips to this spot, a friend and I caught more than a double limit of hybrids. The fish were mixed sizes ranging from three to seven pounds with an occasional small striped bass mixed in. The times the hybrids arrived and began feeding each night varied between about 10:30 p.m. and midnight depending on when baitfish started surfacing and moving into shallow water. However, there was never any question when the hybrids arrived because baitfish schools would suddenly surface everywhere, accompanied by scattered surface swirls and an occasional explosion. The hungry predators would charge in, feed aggressively for a brief time, scatter the schools of minnows, then everything would become still. Soon after, the hybrids would again push the baitfish into tight schools, herd them back into the shallows and the feeding binge would resume. So when the hybrids first decided it was time to hit the supper table, action became hot for several hours, interspersed with occasional lulls; good times to check line condition, retie or change lures. 
Rat-L-Traps are among my most dependable tools for hybrid fishing at night but we caught fish on several others. Topwaters are personal favorites so we tried minnow lures, walk-the-dog baits and surface poppers. Red Fins and Thundersticks continued to attract an occasional strike but larger surface poppers produced best when the hybrids were up and feeding. I always keep a popping lure rigged and ready when fishing for schooling game fish because I believe the sound they make often attracts feeding fish or encourages continued feeding. But without question, the most productive lure we used was one I tried this spring for the first time. I had learned from several good anglers that it was a deadly choice for hybrids and other game fish and knew it was the hottest lure on the bass tournament scene, so hot it had raised much controversy among tournament organizations and state fisheries agencies. Technically, it’s not a lure but an array of lures called the Alabama Rig, aka the A-Rig.
A-Rigs have been around for a long time but until recently were best known by anglers as umbrella rigs; trolling tools for open-water fishing in fresh and saltwater. But when tournament professional Paul Elias used a casting version to win a major FLW event on Lake Guntersville, Alabama it turned the bass fishing world, and traditional perceptions of the umbrella rig, upside down. Anyone who fishes much for large and smallmouth bass knows about the A-Rig. Most have used them, have friends who use them, have read about them or have seen them on television fishing shows. Through many sources, I also had learned about them and become convinced of their effectiveness. After we found that large concentration of  hybrids, I remembered a friend had given me a locally made version of an unrigged A-Rig so I decided dig it out, load it with soft plastics and do some testing. 
The A-Rig I’d been given had five wire arms so the first thing I had to decide was how and where to attach two attractors. In the State of Tennessee, A-Rigs may have only three hooks of any type, though five-arm A-Rigs are legal if two of the arms hold only attractors. A drawing in the state fishing regulations booklet shows a five-arm A-rig in which two arms hold willow-leaf spinner blades. I considered adding blades to my test version but decided it would be easier, and less expensive, to cut the hooks off a couple soft-plastic rigs. So I grabbed a pair of needle-nosed pliers, my tool box of curly-tailed grubs, some jig heads and went to work on my newest fishing tool. I bent the longest arm on my A-Rig at a downward angle and added my primary lure; a heavy-duty, 3/16-ounce pearl/glitter-colored jighead with chartreuse eyes. To the jighead, I added a four-inch pearl-colored curly-tailed grub with a chartreuse tail. Because predators often attack schools of baitfish from behind or below, I wanted this bright-colored bait to be slightly larger, below and behind the “school” I was presenting. This lure was also heaviest, acted as a keel and helped keep the light-weight A-Rig from turning or spinning during the retrieve. I bent the next two arms in opposite directions angled outward, added unpainted 1/8-ounce jigheads and three-inch pearl curly-tailed grubs. I bent the remaining two arms up and outward and added small unpainted 1/16-ounce jigheads to hold my attractors. To these I added white two-inch curly-tailed grubs; slightly more visible in the limited light but smaller. Before mounting these two, I cut the hook points off at the center of the bend then super-glued the grubs in place on the remaining portion of the shank. The first time I pulled the A-Rig through the water at boat-side, I was impressed with what I saw.
The awkward looking A-Rig casts surprising well using a heavy flipping stick, baitcasting reel, and braided line so after a few casts I was comfortable with my newest fishing tool and settled into a routine of long casts followed by a slow, steady retrieve. After less than a dozen casts, a nice hybrid struck hard. When a much larger fish smashed the rig on the next cast and began ripping line from my reel, I was hooked for good on the Alabama Rig. After catching another fish or two, I cut the rig off and handed it to my fishing partner so he could do some testing with his heavy spinning combo. His first hybrid on the A-Rig was a line-screamer that weighed more than six pounds. On several follow-up trips together, we used the same A-rigs and continued to enjoy some productive fishing for one of my favorite fish. Though I missed the great spring night fishing for walleyes this year, and those fabulous walleye dinners, hybrids provided plenty of exciting action and some fine fillets for a few of my favorite fish recipes. Many anglers don’t eat hybrids but they’re missing some fine dining. Bleed the fish you intend to keep as you catch them, then throw them in a cooler or livewell and cover them with ice. Remove all the red flesh from the fillets during cleaning and you’ll be impressed with the firm, beautiful meat. Hybrid fillets are mild-tasting and good choices for grilling, in sauces or any recipe calling for mild, white-fleshed fish. 
So it’s been a challenging 2013 fishing season so far but I can’t complain because I’ve caught some nice fish, enjoyed a bounty of fresh fish fillets and added an exciting new tool to my fishing toolbox. And I did finally get my lawnmower repaired and the grass under control so if it stops raining at least one day each week I should be able to keep it looking beautiful. Furthermore, after an extended trial of patience I bought a new boat-hauling vehicle, though it took the dealer two tries to get the correct one brought in from a distant location. It could happen to anyone. I’m convinced the rain will moderate soon since we’re already more than 14.75 inches above average on rainfall and approaching the all-time record. When the weather finally returns to normal, tail-water and river fishing will become very good so I’m going to remain patient, retain my positive outlook, repair the rest of my broken fishing equipment and chip away at my Honey-Do list. And I should have plenty of time to get ‘er done because it’s supposed to rain four of the next five days. 
Editor's Note: Bartlett, a 1971 graduate of Bridgeport High School, is a published author with the book “The Weekend Angler’s Guide to Good Fishing.” The book is available for purchase at The Country Peddler in Bridgeport. Follow his fishing exploits on his Blog at http://theweekendanglersguidetogoodfishing.wordpress.com/or contact him at theweekendangler1@gmail.com.

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