Updated: Apr 23, 2020
Every year as March rolls around, I get very excited to be able to fish more frequently, and with more success. The days are getting warmer and longer, and it finally feels like winter is at it's end. It is a very transitional month for all freshwater fish species (but what month of the year isn't transitional, am I right?). Largemouth bass will actively feed throughout the winter, but they are very selective, sluggish, and their slowed metabolism keeps them from feeding every day. Some bass trips in the dead of winter can provide steady action from decent fish using a variety of finesse tactics (see my article on Winter Presentations). March is different. The fish know the world outside the banks of their confines is changing. The water temperature is slowly rising into and through the 40 degree range. Bass will start moving shallower to warm up. This helps keep them comfortable, helps prepare their reproductive systems for the upcoming spawn, and this all results in needing energy. Fish will be fattening up at this time, and larger, slower moving meals are what they are looking for. They don't have to give chase, and the return on investment is higher with a nice sized prey.
Largemouth, if given the option and proper habitat, will likely winter on the north side of a lake, with the most possible sun exposure. When water temps begin to rise, which happens faster in a smaller, shallower body of water, the bass will start to move up and position themselves to get warm and feed up. Bass are not their most comfortable in 40 degree water. They can be sluggish, they are usually tight to cover, sometimes even laying on the bottom, but if something that appears to be a worthwhile meal comes crawling across their noses, they'll most likely go for it. The jig, to me, is a great representation of a large crawfish crawling or hopping across the bottom and through cover. There are no shortage of crawfish in places like the Connecticut River, Candlewood Lake, and Lake Lillinonah. As water temps start to climb, crawfish will start to unbury themselves from the mud they hibernated in. They will waste no time to find a suitable piece of cover such as brush, wood, or rock to take refuge in. Crawfish are also feeling sluggish at this time, making them an easy meal for a hungry bass.
The jig is just about the perfect tool for targeting largemouth (and smallmouth) bass in rock, wood, or weeds, or any combination of two or all three of those elements. Paired with a soft plastic craw style bait as a trailer, you've got a big meal in a compact, easy to vacuum up package. I don't drive myself crazy with color choices. Black, black/blue, and green pumpkin are always safe bets. Scent is something to consider adding to a jig, also small rattles. These will help if fishing is especially tough, or if the water is murky. I usually fish a jig very slow at this time of year, with occasional hops and pauses. I've found that a lot of my hits come right after bringing the jig up over a submerged tree branch or knocking it around in some rocks. That unmistakable "thump" is such a rewarding feeling on a cast where you've flawlessly presented a jig through some sticky wood or rock cover.
As bass anglers, we either love or hate jigs. Those that love them know how to use them, and with confidence. Those that hate them, simply don't. Fishing the jig does take some practice. It requires the angler to be completely tuned in on what he/she is "feeling" on the bottom and at the end of the line. A lot of people tell me that they have a hard time telling the difference between a hit, a snag or bumping into a rock. Learning the difference will take some time, and result in some donated jigs. I still mistake bumping over a rock or branch for a hit from time to time, and yes I set the hook, and yes I get snagged. In my opinion, you are better off setting the hook than not, because the hits don't always feel the same. Hooksets are free, but unfortunately jigs are not. There are some ways to better detect a hit from a fish.
Keep your rod tip high:
This will ensure you will be able to feel more of what is going on down there. Whether you're bouncing over rocks, wood, or worming through weeds, keeping the rod tip at 10-11 o'clock or so will give you clues as to what you are feeling and what your jig is doing. If a fish hits, even a subtle hit, you'll likely feel it. When you feel a fish take the jig, lower the rod tip, pick up the slack, and SET THE HOOK!
Keep your line taut:
For me, keeping my line fairly taut is key for feeling bites. When my jig hits the water, I may let out or freespool some line to let the jig touch down on the bottom. As soon as I engage my reel, I pick up any slack and begin to bounce, hop, or crawl the jig. Combining a high rod tip with a tight line should take away a lot of questions about what is happening at the end of your line.
Use braided line:
There are many reasons to use braided line for various presentations, and also many arguments for why not to use it, but for fishing jigs, you will never change my mind about braid. A: The sensitivity is unparalleled, therefore you will feel more of what is happening. B: The fact that braid doesn't stretch makes it superior for getting good hooksets. C: Braid is tough and can stand up to a lot of abuse. With all that said, I do use a fluorocarbon leader with my jigs, especially around rock and in clear water, usually 20 lb. test.
Watch and Weigh your line:
Line watching is something every angler should be adequate in, no matter what species you are targeting. On a day with dead calm conditions, it is usually somewhat obvious when a fish takes your jig. You feel the thump, the line jumps, time to set the hook. On a windy day, or on a day where the fish may be sluggish and lightly picking up the jig (sub-40 degree temps for example), line watching may be your best tell as to what is happening down there. You will be looking for that "jump" or for your line to start moving away, seemingly unexplainably. As for weighing your line, if you get a sudden change in feel, or if it seems you've lost contact with the bottom, slowly reel tight and ever so slightly elevate your rod. If you feel more weight than expected, set the hook.
This is especially helpful when fishing around very sticky cover. If you feel what you think might have been a hit, just wait a few seconds. Bass will usually hold a jig in their mouths for a good few seconds before they figure out that it isn't actually food. This is where line watching and weighing come in. If while you are waiting your line starts to move off or you feel movement at the end of your line, set the hook. If it feels like dead weight, you might be snagged. I realize this contradicts the term "hooksets are free", but common sense should tell you not to set.
As for what areas to throw jigs in late winter and early spring and what style of jigs to use, I prefer rocky, sun drenched shorelines with the occasional laydown (Arkie style jig). Second best, I like brush and overhanging trees with some weeds (swim jig). Third, I like bluffs and steep drop-offs near wintering holes (heavy football jig). Every body of water fishes a little differently, and the bass are doing different things, but this time of year, I tend to focus more on water that is 8 feet or less. The style of jig all depends on the type of cover, and how easily the jig comes through that cover. Nothing more, nothing less. Barren shorelines with little structure or cover tend to be poor jig spots. Look for the nasty stuff you think you'll get stuck in, and don't be afraid of it. Wood and rock are your best bets for catching fish, and snagging up of course. The brushguard on most jigs helps us keep from snagging, but sometimes there is no avoiding it. Jigs can be rattled loose from a snag, but sometimes it means getting your kayak (or boat) over top of the snag, killing your spot for the time being.
The skirted bass jig is my number one producer of big largemouth in March and April. You will never catch me on freshwater during these months without a jig tied on. Having confidence in the bait you are throwing can be the difference between catching and getting skunked. Once you are confident with the jig and can feel what is happening down there, you will catch more and bigger bass in the late winter and early spring.