I’ll admit to being shallow. Very shallow even. In fact, sometimes I’m so shallow I surprise myself. And at no time am I shallower than in spring. Of course, I’m referring to where I fish; if I was really referring to my character, that very shallowness would prevent me from recognizing it! But anyway…
I’m of the opinion that the reason spring fishing’s reputation is so good is that many fish move shallow, thereby making them easier to catch for most anglers. Whenever the gap between the surface and bottom is narrowed, so too is the area that the angler must consider when trying to get his bait in front of fish. It doesn’t hurt that shallow water is most often associated with the banks, thereby giving us a backboard so to speak; we have their back almost literally against the wall. But just because fish are shallow doesn’t always mean they are easy to catch; in fact they can be tricky at times. As with any angling situation there are a few key points that will make a huge difference in our catch rates.

Let’s first look at a few of spring’s shallow fish and we’ll consider mixed species of course. After all, that’s how we roll around the Fishful World Headquarters. Then we’ll also look at spring conditions that can move all fish shallow.

Rainbow and cutthroat trout are spring spawners. In reservoirs (where they’re widely stocked around the West), they’ll often move to shallow inlets and gravelly banks in an effort to spawn – even if they are not effective at recruitment in reservoirs. They’ll also congregate around shallow gravel bars and runs in rivers as opposed to the deep pools they may reside in the rest of the year. For the record, brown trout will often follow them shallow looking to dine on their tasty eggs, a bonus!

Walleyes are also spring spawners. They’ll move to rocky areas like rip-rap or inlets where they’ll suspend in deeper water adjacent to the area they want to actually spawn on. They’ll get very shallow in those areas late in the evening when “the mood” arises. Aw, how romantic.

Small and largemouth bass will move shallow in early spring as a pre-spawn ritual. They stage outside spawning areas, occasionally making forays into the shallow water to feed and soak up some solar energy. In early spring, often the shallowest bite is best in the afternoon hours when the lake has warmed slightly. Along the same lines, the sunfish (bluegills, pumpkinseeds, crappies and others) will be among the first to take advantage of the sun’s power. They can often be seen in very shallow – like inches – of water in early spring. In fact, their presence is a great indicator of bass likely inhabiting slightly deeper water, typically the first subtle drop-off adjacent to the shallow sunnies.

Pike will move into the first green vegetation in the warming shallows, wipers will run shallow inlets and rocky areas, and the list goes on. But beyond the fish behavior itself, spring’s conditions can drive fish extremely shallow. A classic example of this is spring snowmelt. It makes rivers run very high and dirty and fish will then climb on the banks almost. Reservoirs become the recipient of this cold muddy water, which leads to very shallow fish in them as well. Another is the aforementioned sun-warmed areas. Shallow, flat banks, especially those with firm dark bottoms or cattail edges) often soak up enough sun to warm significantly and draw fish in. Ponds are notorious for this.

Ok, so they’re shallow so they must be easy to catch, right? Sometimes, yes. Shallow makes them easy to find, and also opens the window to a huge range of possible lure choices, but it also makes fish very spooky and spooky fish require a delicate touch. Here are some keys to success.

First and foremost, be quiet. If you’re fishing from the bank, walk softly and speak quietly. Also consider their visibility; nothing runs a fish off faster than looming overhead shadows. If you can see them, assume they can see you, and even if they don’t vacate, you’ll have your work cut out for you to get them to bite. Sneaky is a good antidote for spooky.

The same concept applies if you’re in a boat. Use your electronic trolling motor judiciously and on lower power settings. Low power and constant on beats on-off-on type position corrections and higher power. The boat itself displaces water, thereby creating pressure waves; the shallower you’re casting into, the farther away you should try to keep the boat. In small boats, avoid rocking it much; those waves will alert fish, too.

The problem with keeping the boat far away is that you can’t make as accurate of presentations and therein lies the real key to skinny water catching. We always preach that accuracy and line control catches more fish than fancy lures; well in the shallows, it’s the whole shooting match. Shallow water almost always involves fishing around cover of some sort and hitting that cover with your cast is a sure way to fail and maybe loose a bunch of lures in the process.

From stream banks, to cattails, to flooded wood, shallow cover is a great place for fish to find food and shelter. Casting as close as possible to it is a great way to catch them. Casting into it, well, not so much. Along with accuracy, gaining instant line control (read; closed bail, no slack, visual on the line) is vital to success. Since your bait may only have a foot or two to fall before it’s on the bottom, many of your bites will be immediate, reaction-type strikes. If you’re prepared by having line control, your hooksets will be much better. Even with horizontal retrieves like you might have with a plug or spinner, some of your bites will be immediately after the lures lands. Besides, line control will help prevent snags.

So, I’ll admit to a propensity for being shallow and sneaky and whole-heartedly recommend that you consider it, too. There is no better time than the next month or so. You may find that shallow is not a bad trait after all!