Anything Fly Fishing

The Firsts of Spring

4 Mins read

Alex was waiting for me at the pull off when I arrived. I quickly grabbed my rod and a small box of essential gear stashed in my car and we made our way down a wooded hill to the cart path. Through trial and error, he’s figured out that Mondays are groundskeeping day on this particular golf course, which means that we could fish hole eight’s water feature unbothered by sliced drives and course attendants.

It was mid-February, but a southerly breeze gifted us with warm air that carried a lingering chorus of songbirds. Mild weather had persisted for several days, and nature reveled in the promise of the coming spring. Daffodils and crocuses emerged seemingly overnight and splashes of blooms now dotted the landscape. Bluebirds, Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Robins, and other early migrators continued to arrive with each passing day, rushing northward as the vanguard to the millions of birds to follow. Tree limbs that were stark bare last week glowed softly purple in maturing buds, burning fuses to the impending explosion of green growth.

Spring is my favorite time of year.

A colorful green sunfish caught in a small pond.

While the best way to spend a spring day is on a trout stream (ideally after hunting turkeys in the morning), the realities of life often confine trout fishing to weekends. But unlike trout fishing, perfect spring days are not confined to weekends. Therefore, to enjoy the jubilances of this season as much as possible, during any mid-week free time from the first warm snap until the oppressive heat of summer takes over, you are liable to find me prowling the shorelines of my local ponds targeting bass and sunfish.

I routinely fish ponds in parks, neighborhoods, farms, and golf courses, all of which are within a 15-minute drive of my home. Their shorelines are easier to navigate on foot than larger lakes and reservoirs, which offers distinct advantages for a shore-based angler such as me. Fish-holding structure and cover are much more accessible, and there is often ample room to unfurl a lengthy back cast.

Another advantage of fishing smaller bodies of water in the spring is the speed at which their water temperatures rise. It takes less thermal energy to change water temperatures in ponds than in less intimate bodies of water. A few consecutive sunny days with air temperatures in the mid-50s are typically enough to knock the winter doldrums out of a pond’s piscatorial inhabitants. I have had banner days fishing ponds in early spring when larger bodies of water were still locked up in ice.

An early spring bass caught in Clemson, South Carolina

My pond tactics change as spring progresses. Fish will still be sluggish during the early part of the season when water temperatures are first creeping up from winter lows, which means that slower retrieves are often necessary to coax bites. When targeting sunfish, I fish a nymph size 12-16. I favor patterns with some coloration or flash to help draw attract attention, but we’re not after persnickety trout- anything in this size range that sinks will typically produce just fine. I’ll suspend the nymph a few feet below a screw-on indicator commonly used for trout fishing. This allows the fly to probe fishing-holding cover much slower than striping it would, which I’ve found elicits more bites in colder water. The excitement of watching a big sunfish pull down the indicator always prescribes a healthy dose of nostalgia for me, as the experience is very reminiscent of catching these same fish on worms sunk below bobbers as a kid.

For early season bass I like to fish a streamer 2-to-4 inches long, depending on the average size of the bass found in that specific pond. I prefer a streamer with a neutral buoyancy. This allows the fly to be tantalizingly suspended in the strike zone, where I work it with a slow retrieve. Black wooly buggers are a personal favorite, but any of the standard streamer patterns should produce.

My pond tactics become more aggressive as spring progresses. Shallow bottoms transform into a moonscape of panfish beds when water temperatures creep into the mid-60s, offering an exciting sight fishing opportunity. Switching out the indicator for a bushy dry fly or small popper, I’ll twitch the dry fly around spawning flats or drop it over individual beds. The fly is often intercepted by an eager slurp when it intrudes on the fishes’ personal space. I will usually attach a dropper nymph for the more bashful sunfish unwilling to commit to the dry fly as well.

Sunfish beds are great places to prospect for bass too. Before their own spawning, bass will gorge on the distracted sunfish to gain the energy necessary for their reproduction. During this prespawn stage I’ll fish a streamer around any protective cover adjacent to the sunfish beds, now working it faster and more aggressively than I did when the water was colder. Bass often lie in the deeper water adjacent to spawning flats as well, ready to intercept any sunfish that stray too far from the shallows.

While certainly not the biggest game fish, sunfish make up for their small size through their spunk and colors.

When water temperatures reach the 70-degree mark, I turn my attention to catching bass on topwater poppers. While streamers are still very productive during this time frame, there are few things in fishing more exciting than watching a big popper disappear in a toilet-bowl-flush of a strike. Evenings and early mornings are the prime time for fishing poppers, as sunlight is less intense, and winds are often lighter. I experiment with retrieves and patterns to gauge the mood of the fish. Sometimes the bass are more responsive to a deer hair popper softly twitched so that it barely ripples the surfaces. Other times sharply popping a hard-bodied popper is necessary to attract aggressive bass on the prowl. Experimenting with different popper styles and retrieves is part of the fun. Weed beds, downed trees, rock piles, and any other underwater structure or cover are all viable to produce.

As for our golf course adventure, Alex and I plied the entire length of the pond that Monday afternoon for a little over an hour, landing several bass up to a pound for our efforts. While it was certainly enjoyable to feel the hearty tug of a bass again, the other firsts of spring stood out most. Spring peepers chirped for partners from the surrounding swamp, mating kingfishers reeled overhead before splashing after baitfish, and sunning turtles gracefully slipped off logs at our approach. All signs that another wonderful year spent on the water had just begun.

© Shane Behler

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