7 Key Early Spring Fishing Tips

March 15, 2020 greg wagner

There are green shoots of grass growing in the front yard of my Omaha lawn. The sandhill crane migration is nearing its peak in Nebraska’s central Platte River valley. Wild turkeys are entering their breeding phase on our family farm in southeast Nebraska. Oh, and what about the fish that swim where I fish? Hmmm … Are they biting?

Emma Wagner-Nichols, your blogger’s daughter, caught this crappie in chilly, sunny weather in a private sandpit lake (Timberwood Lake) in Dodge County, NE. Photo courtesy of Emma Wagner-Nichols of Ames, NE.

Spring. It may or may not be here on the calendar just yet, but the time for early spring fishing has arrived.

Your blogger shows off a walleye caught in a northern cove of a larger sandpit lake in western Douglas County, NE on a nice day during a late March fishing outing. Photo by Rich Berggren/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

If there ever was a time for you to get outside and do some recreational fishing with all that is happening in this world (COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus), it is now. You may go alone provided you are healthy, carry a mobile device and file a plan; tell someone where you are going, when you are leaving and when you will be home. Wear your personal life jacket in a boat. Additionally, with fishing or any other outdoor activity, it is easy to practice social distancing and keep washing your hands. Nature is an outstanding place for social distancing, by the way. More information about COVID-19 / novel coronavirus is available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website here.

A late-March channel catfish is hooked on a worm in the waters of the Elkhorn River near Waterloo, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

All that stated, Daryl Bauer, Fisheries Outreach Program Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission based in Lincoln, offers these tips to assist you with your early spring fishing as waters begin to warm.

  1. Fish for Cold-Water Fish. Yes, that means trout! “Early spring is one of my favorite times for catching Nebraska trout, a very catchable cold-water fish,” remarks Bauer. Whether it is one of our trout streams or a stocked pond or lake, these fish are hungry and usually easy fooled. Fishing for stocked trout is a great way to introduce kids to fishing because simple and inexpensive equipment may be used. A basic light or medium action spinning or spin-cast rod and reel combo with a No. 6 or 8 hook baited with a couple brightly colored nibbles of Berkley’s Trout Powerbait of Gulp Bait will work well. Add a small to medium-sized split shot about 1 ½ feet above the hook, and fish just up off the bottom. If need be, pack a small bobber and set it a couple of feet above the split shot. Worms, salmon eggs, small spinners, small spoons and artificial flies also can catch trout.
  2. Some are Spawning. Bauer says northern pike, walleye and yellow perch spawn not long after the ice is gone. “If you target those species now, look for them to be on or near their spawning habitat; shallows with flooded or aquatic vegetation for pike and perch, and rocky dam faces or points near dams for walleyes on most Nebraska reservoirs.” He points out that the actual spawn can be a tough time to catch any fish because they have other things on their mind.
  3. Target channel catfish.  Channel catfish are not a cold- or cool-water fish, but Nebraska has some surprisingly good fishing for channel catfish right after ice-out on many lakes, reservoirs, pits and ponds and rivers, according to Bauer. Baitfish like gizzard shad and panfish such as bluegill may have perished under the ice during the winter. Once open water is prevalent though, those prey fish killed under the ice during the winter are pushed by winds toward shorelines and readily available for channel catfish to consume. Bauer emphasizes looking for your channel cats feeding rampantly on the dead baitfish along those wind-blown shorelines, especially on a warm afternoon immediately following a few days of steadily increasing temperatures. Again, if you see dead baitfish on the shoreline, it is a sure sign that channel catfish are most likely nearby. Remember, the dead baitfish can be for bait. You might even try a worm or two.
  4. Finding other species of game fish, think “warm.” For all the other species of Nebraska game fish to catch in early spring, think “warm,” stresses Bauer. “Any area where the water can warm a few degrees can be a key spot.” He says to seek sheltered bays and coves with darker bottoms, and pay attention to south-facing shorelines and corners where the afternoon sun can warm the water. Look for cover (e.g. fallen trees, brush piles or beaver lodges) as well, in those protected areas. Any inflow can be productive, too. Do not overlook the sunny sides of docks or boat storage sheds. Small waters, by the way, warm quicker than larger bodies of water.
  5. Fish slowly. Bauer recommends fishing slowly in early spring. “Generally,” he says, “you want to fish slowly or drift-fish with your presentation because the water is relatively cold and the fish are not active yet.” He continues: “Keep that ice-fishing attitude when it comes to fishing for ice-out bluegills, crappies, and largemouth bass and fish late in the day.” It is important to not only fish slowly, but vertically to give the fish a chance to react to your bait, especially if they do not seem to be active. “I love neutrally-buoyant crankbaits for a variety of bass fishing situations in the colder waters of early spring,” comments Bauer. With regard to catching crappies and even bluegills in the early part of the spring, Bauer says where allowed nothing is simpler and more effective than using a plain, old slip bobber, split shot weight, light wire hook, and a small, lively minnow. If you cannot use minnows, try a lighter-colored jig.  “Dabble that in front of a crappie or bluegill most anytime and they will strike it.”
  6. Keep moving! In the early part of the spring game fish can literally be at different places on different days even along the same shoreline. Just ask Daryl Bauer. He says a good tactic for any season, especially in the early spring, is to keep moving! An assertive, always-on-the-move approach, he adds, helps professional tournament bass fishermen be successful and helps those of us who enjoy sport fishing catch fish.
  7. Be prepared for the wild shifts in weather. There is no doubt that we will go through several wild shifts in the weather in the coming weeks. Early spring is truly one of the toughest times of the year to fish. Nebraska’s fisheries outreach program manager encourages planning your fishing trips around warming trends and stable weather patterns for better success. When a cold front pummels us or we experience a massive Nebraska weather swing, we have to take our lumps. Bauer reminds us that fish tend to move toward warmer water when the weather is nice. “But,” he added, “Obviously expect them to drop back into deeper water when the weather turns cold once more and the winds howl.”
Here is a Lake Wanahoo northern pike not pulled from nets, but caught by Daryl Bauer of Lincoln, NE with rod-and-reel in mid March. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Get information on fishing rules, regulations and public waters by accessing the Nebraska Fishing Guide.

Your blogger’s son, Noah Wagner, displays a largemouth bass caught in late March from private Kuester’s Lake in Grand Island, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

For details about the Take ‘Em Fishing challenge, click this link.

Daryl Bauer’s Fishing Forecast (for top places fish) is on this page.

COVID-19 / Nebraska Game and Parks Commission news.

Good fishing! GW.

Your blogger shows a nice, pan-sized rainbow trout caught at the Two Rivers State Recreation Area Trout Lake Waterloo, NE, and destined for the grill. Photo by Noah Wagner of Omaha, NE.

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