I can’t remember an earlier spring. It’s as if the entire world awoke from winter’s slumber in unison. I recently had daffodils, tulips, redbuds, dogwoods and a lone brave tomato plant at the corner of my house blooming at the same time, an unusual though welcome explosion of spring. A similar mass awakening has occurred in lakes and rivers across the region because fish are shallow and active everywhere. If you haven’t been out to enjoy it, call in sick or take an emergency vacation because fishing is hot now for most species. During normal springs, good fishing opportunities unfold in a reasonably predictable order based on time of year, weather and water temperature. As examples, cold and cool water species move shallow and become active first so trout, walleyes and striped bass offer good early spring fishing. Prespawn crappie and smallmouth bass soon follow. As hillsides turn green, largemouth bass and bream begin cruising warm shorelines. However, by late-March this year the shallows in this region were teaming with all these fish.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve fished several of my favorite early spring fishing spots with good results. A trip each to two local tail-waters with a friend produced seventy-three rainbow trout up to sixteen inches, all released. We lost track of the number of double and triple hookups we had and many fish were lost as lures were retrieved and lines moved to prevent tangles. It’s difficult to relax and enjoy the scenery when fish are so cooperative. A recent trip to an area lake for bass produced several quality-size large and smallmouth bass. I began the search by fishing deeper water on structures near prime spawning areas. I didn’t catch a fish until I moved into shallow water where both species were roaming in water less than six feet deep and receptive to a 3 1/2-inch swimbait rigged on a 3/8-ounce jighead. I scanned a couple hundred yards of sun-baked shoreline before I left and saw many big largemouth bass suspended around cover. I’ll return to visit them again soon when conditions are best.
Of all the species I’ve checked, walleyes are following the normal calendar schedule most. The walleye spawning run on the Holston River above Cherokee Lake has already occurred. A friend and I fished the Holston a few times to harvest some fish for the table and caught sixteen walleyes, all long slender males. The heavier females have already been there, dropped their eggs and moved back downstream toward the lake. Because good shallow-water fishing for walleyes is less common than for many fish, I’ll remain focused on them until my wife and I get our fill of fresh fillets. When walleyes are shallow in good numbers I often hear, “Why are you sitting in front of a computer when you could be walleye fishing?” or “I’ll mow the lawn, you go walleye fishing.” I earn a lot of brownie points with walleye fillets. If you’d like to enjoy a fresh walleye dinner, a similar spring spawning run occurs above Douglas Lake in the French Broad River, Norris Lake in the Clinch River, and South Holston Lake in the South Fork of the Holston River in Virginia. Further north in my home state of West Virginia the Elk River below Sutton Dam, the Tygart River below Tygart Dam, Kanawha River below Kanawha Falls, and others offer fine early season fishing for walleyes. Trolling floating minnow lures in various sizes and colors in depths from four to six feet is my preferred method for finding and catching spawning walleyes. Shad Raps, Tail Dancers, Flicker Shads and other similar deep-diving crankbaits are better choices in deeper water. Pick up a copy of my book for specifics on the tackle, lures and methods of presentation I use to catch walleyes in rivers during spring.
Healthy river systems offer good early spring fishing for a variety of species. It’s not unusual to catch smallmouth bass, white bass, hybrids and others in rivers when fishing for spawning walleyes. Swarms of shad and other baitfish are also attracted to the warming river water created by spring rains so larger predator fish follow. Where dams, waterfalls or extensive shallows concentrate fish, fish density can be high with many species present. Find such places on a river system close to you and you may find exceptional fishing. Because walleyes prefer low light, I fish for them most at night, even in early spring. Where you find concentrations of fish, trolling can produce good catches, variety and occasional surprises. As an example, my good friend Andy Barnes and I were trolling for walleyes in the Holston River recently on a warm night. The air was full of insects and we could hear fish swirling the surface in many places. As we trolled slowly, quietly along in the darkness we watched our lines under the soft glow of black lights. Suddenly I heard Andy shout, “It’s a fish!” My first thought was his rod had bowed under the weight of a strike. But before I could turn my head, the back of the boat erupted with the sounds of splashing water, crashing equipment, and a scrambling fishing partner. As Andy was lounging in his seat, a smallmouth bass spooked and jumped in the boat into his lap, I kid you not! In the chaos that followed, the fish was finally pinned and captured with no damage to fish or Andy, other than a sudden jolt to Andy’s nerves. There’s no question you’re in the right place when fish start jumping in the boat. So exciting spring fishing is underway in lakes, rivers and ponds close to you. Pick a species, grab some lures, and go fishing often on your favorite body of water.