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Early-season Tips for Pursuing Ohio’s Gamefish

By the time most of you read this, most Ohio anglers will have already undertaken their spring boat maintenance and prepped and readied gear for the upcoming open-water season. We are all anxious to field test our boats and try out that new tackle we’ve accumulated in the off-season. Here, alphabetically by species, are some tips to maximize your chances.

Largemouth bass

This species is a tough assignment indeed, the first few weeks after ice-out. Lethargic largemouths will become increasingly susceptible to soft and hard jerkbaits as the water warms. These baits imitate baitfish, which fail to survive sudden water temperature changes.

Top choices: warm-water discharges like Summit Lake in Akron, and those on the Ohio River.

Smallmouth bass

Bronzebacks are a little more adaptable to cold water than their larger-mouthed cousins. They will tend to seek out depth ahead of warmth. Again, jerkbaits are a viable option with slow-dragged tube baits a close second. Blade baits are not to be overlooked.

Top choices: below the dams of the Muskingum Watershed and atop points leading to deeper haunts and at lakes like Berlin and Milton.

Bluegills (including redear, warmouth, sunfish and pumpkinseed)

Productive ice fishing spots will still remain as reliable an option as any until water threatens the upper 40s. Getting on top of these spots to vertical jig them is fun and nothing tastes better than ‘gills out of cool-to-cold water. Use a sensitive rod and reel combo with 2-pound line, if possible. Many savvy panfishermen will continue to use their ice fishing rigs into mid-March or later.

Top choices: LaDue Reservoir and Punderson and Mogadore lakes.


Crappies are an early-biter that will gradually be migrating toward its shoreline cover-spawning locations. Bites this time of year will often be subtle, so a sensitive touch and light line are major plusses. Live minnows will often “outfish” your favorite artificial crappie baits for at least a while.

Top choices: Mosquito Creek Lake, farm ponds and deeper sides of fallen timber.

Northern pike

These exciting “water wolves” are the first species to aggressively feed, often spawning under the ice. Larger-profile jerkbaits and in-line spinnerbaits will call up voracious northerns. Using a braided line on heavy-duty, levelwind reel outfit is essential to any serious pike hunter.

The state’s once “most productive pike waters” through Cuyahoga Falls are now gone due to some increasingly regrettable dam removals in that stretch, but there are still some viable options Ohio northerns.

Top choices: upper Cuyahoga River from Hiram Rapids to Munroe Falls to Mosquito Lake.

Yellow perch

Few are aware the just how early perch initiate their spawn. In fact, on many waters they are first in this reproductive procedure. Just after ice-out, perch will be in the shallowest waters here more than the entire year. Fishing the shallow water off points is a late-winter/early-spring tradition for some. Small minnows are a great bait, with red worms a close second.

Top choices: Milton, Mogadore lakes.


The steelhead are active now and have been throughout this mild winter. Snowmelt will keep them active in tributaries from Huron to Conneaut. Just make sure you factor in the variables of water clarity and levels.

Top choices: Lake Erie tributaries, Punderson Lake and at Lake Hodgson.


Some ‘eyes will still—for a time—be susceptible to shallow-water jerkbaits in the water off breakwalls and shorelines from Erie’s Vermilion to the Huron stretch. Other early-season points of interest are below the aforementioned Muskingum River Watershed dams; try jigs and minnows first.

Top choices: Lake Milton, Lake Seneca, Berlin Lake and the West Branch Reservoir.

It is especially critical in these cold-water calendar periods to make safety and caution a given. And a “dry” non-fishing boat run is always a recommended way to start the year.

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