So what do you look for? You are looking for water that does not have a high exchange rate with the ocean. The ocean is much slower to warm than the bay, and warm water is the primary factor you should look for early in the spring. The whole food chain will wake up first where the water is warmest. It happens every year this way.
Several factors cause water in the bay to warm. Shallow water on the flats will warm quicker than deeper water, with flats having dark sand or mud bottoms warming the fastest. Flats bordered by sod banks that get covered during high tide are also good locations that warm quickly, as do the many drains that criss-cross them. A couple days of warm sun can raise the water temps quickly in areas like these, especially if is not accompanied by wind, which tends to wick off the heat from the upper water column when it gets to blowing.
Lastly, I prefer to have a channel near by. I like flats that border boat channels (or natural channels) because I believe both the bait and the bass use them as highways. This is not a new concept by any stretch, but it is one that seems to hold true for me year after year.
All of these conditions / locations / factors are present in many locations on the northern sides of south shore bays. All you need to do is find them and figure out access to them. What I will say is that there are many prime locations that get completely under-utilized by local fisher-persons, as they travel off to far distant locations to fish. In the west end, there are many local parks on the north side of the bay that are very productive in early spring. Then there is that well known park in Lindenhurst that gets a lot press every spring. Other bays have a multitude of streets that end on the water, little local marinas or dock spaces with parking, abandoned lots, the list goes on. All of these spots can be very productive in the spring, but it takes some investigation to sniff these little gems out, and sometimes it takes a little cat & mouse, or stealth fishing night maneuvers to uncover their true potential.
I’ve always fished almost exclusively at night, but in the spring, this will have no bearing on location. The location is always deep in the bay for me. That’s not to say you can’t catch fish on the beach in the early spring, it’s just that I don’t consider that fishing to be dependable. The beach changes from storm to storm, the structure and bait is never in the same place twice, it just doesn’t repeat itself year-to-year the way bay locations can and do. The conditions and structure in the bay remain fairly stable, year after year, so the bite is far more predictable. And that’s what you want, right?
So let’s put together the factors that get the bite going. The main three things are water temp, bait, and structure, in that order. As the water warms, the microorganisms that fuel the food chain start to bloom. The local resident white bait becomes active and begins to feed on the microorganisms, and the bass shake off the rust and begin to chow down on the white bait. The bass may nose around the mud flats also as a host of bottom fodder wakes up and sticks it collective head out of the mud. This gives rise to two possible approaches to how to catch them. Regardless, warm water is the factor that triggers the whole event and the warmest water will occur during the outgoing, especially late afternoon or evening.
If you fish days, the easiest way to find out if fish are feeding on bottom fodder, or are simply in the area, is to throw out the trusty clam/worm/chunk on a fish-finder and wait a spell. Bait is a tried and true approach to catching early season bass, especially when they haven’t fully recovered from their winter stupor.
Night is my favorite time to fish for spring bass, or any bass for that matter, because there are many times where you will only need your ears to know if the fish are around. If you fish bait at night, you will be very surprised at just how shallow bass will go in search of a meal. I’ve caught them off flats in 3 feet of water, maybe less, with nothing more than underhand lob and was taken off guard at how fast they tracked down the bait. This is “quiet” fishing, so keep the lights and noise off.
Once the spring gets going, let’s say around late April, the fish are actively feeding and have long since shaken off the rust. The white bait bite kicks in around this time in many of places I fish, and when the bass are on white bait, your ears will let you know if they are around. The reason for this is that warm water is lighter that cold water, with the warmest at the top of the water column. And this is where the food chain will be. The white bait can be varied in size at this time of year in most locations. I don’t know what governs this for sure, although it probably has to do with breeding cycles and whatnot. What I do know is that sometimes the forage is small and other times, not as small.
So if you are hearing a lot of happy slappy’s, put the clam away and break out the small profiles. Bass on a spring white bait bite can get pretty specific in what they’ll hit, so bring a variety of small slender profiles to the party. This is teaser territory and there have been many nights when it was the only profile they would hit. I almost always start a 5 ¼” SS needlefish or Bomber Long-A, and the bass’ preference can change from night to night. A small bucktail with #70 rind is also a good choice as is small slender rubber bodied baits, but for the simple reason of how they cast, and how well they catch, I mostly stick with the SS needle. And if I move to teaser, I’ll go to a larger SS needle as the launch vehicle.
Although bunker show early in the spring, there are usually not too many good-sized fish around at that time. Bigger fish show up en-masse by the end of May and into June. By then, the bunker have typically settled into many of their traditional spots and will draw those bigger fish to them. But that is a different story for another time.