For those who love winter, this is one of the best times to enjoy the outdoors. The sun is higher and sets later, temperatures are more moderate and yes, despite the blanket of white that surrounds us, spring is around the corner.
For many different species, the longer days and warmer temps trigger different responses. Deer will start to move out of their wintering yards, loons will begin their migration north and inland, and many species will feed more heavily after their lean winter diet as they prepare to give birth or spawn.
That’s why there is no better time to go ice fishing for big fish than in March. It’s as if daylight savings time flips a switch and activates a feeding binge in bass, pickerel, pike and perch.
Ice fishing for bass can be particularly exciting. Once the days start to lengthen, bass begin to feed more and offer ice anglers more opportunities.
“These fish are in pre-spawn mode, they are gobbling up as many calories as they can and they are putting that into the production of eggs and milt,” said Jason Seiders, a biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
With bass actively feeding, anglers can target these bigger feeding fish. Largemouth and smallmouth bass may winter together but as they ready to spawn, they go their own ways.
“They can be found in the same area, but more often than not you are going to find the largemouth in the weedy areas, and the smallmouths are going to be in the rocky structure in deeper water, many times at 20-plus feet,” said Seiders. “However it’s not uncommon to catch both in the same area.”
Both smallmouth and largemouths are more actively feeding, cruising to find more food. This time of year, bass are feeding on minnows, baitfish, crayfish, anything they can get their mouths around.
“If the fish are eating bugs, it’s only because nothing else is available. It takes a lot of energy to eat, and they don’t waste it on something small,” said Seiders.
For that reason, anglers who are targeting big bass ought to use big bait.
“For the bigger fish, you want to use bigger bait, especially with largemouth bass as they tend to go after larger prey. It takes less effort to chase down one big minnow than several small ones,” said Seiders. “Try a large golden shiner or a large smelt and you can’t go wrong.”
And when you are thinking of where to place that bait, think of where they spawn. Largemouth like shallow, weedy areas where they will make a nest by clearing off the silt down to the gravelly substrate.
Smallmouth like to spawn in the rocky shallows, the gravelly areas where there is just a fine layer of silt over the gravel. They also seek an area with structure nearby, near a large rock or stump that aids them in guarding their nest.
“With smallmouth, it’s more about finding the structure, not the bait,” said Seiders. “And usually when you find them there is a high density of fish in a small area.”
However, despite how heavily they feed, bass in Maine are slow growing.
“If you catch a 20-inch bass, it’s going to take the better part of 20 years to grow that big. Once they mature, their growth slows incredibly,” said Seiders, who recommends only keeping smaller bass.
“If you want to keep one to eat, take one that is 12 to 14 inches. Not only will it taste better, it’s beneficial to take those smaller bass as it will provide for more forage for those larger ones.”
And that will ensure that come next March, you’ll have a chance to catch that trophy bass again.
Mark Latti is a registered Maine Guide and the landowner relations/recreational access coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.