Sunny, warm spring weather arrives and your favorite river starts flowing high and the color of chocolate milk. Sound familiar? It often happens when the mountain snowpack melts, but don’t fear. While some rivers may be difficult to fish during spring runoff, many lakes and reservoirs are coming into their prime.
Most lakes and reservoirs have ample shore-fishing opportunities, and using a motorboat or a small craft propelled by paddles, oars or fins gives you access to more fishing spots and productive water.
Whether you prefer bank fishing for trout, casting crankbaits for bass or poppers for bluegill, Idaho’s lakes and reservoirs offer a great variety of fishing opportunity during a beautiful time of year.
Choose your water
Many of Idaho’s low-elevation reservoirs are in peak season during April and May when warmwater fish are feeding actively as they prepare to spawn. That includes bass and panfish, such as crappie and bluegill. Most reservoirs are full in the spring, which makes prime habitat in shallow bays and coves available for anglers.
Fish and Game also ramps up its trout stocking program during spring and delivers fish to most lakes and reservoirs. Fish and Game is stocking “magnum” rainbow trout in many places, and those fish are typically stocked at 12 to 14 inches long. Some lakes also have “carry over” trout from previous year’s stocking. Those can grow to trophy sizes within a few years with good water conditions.
To see where fish have recently been stocked, go to fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/fish/stocking, and to learn about lakes and reservoirs to fish in your area, check out http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/fish/guides.
Bass and panfish are not stocked by Fish and Game, but F&G crews occasionally move them around when needed to jump-start a new population (like city ponds). These fish usually naturally reproduce enough to sustain populations and provide plenty of action, as well as an opportunity for anglers to bring fish home to eat. Bluegill, yellow perch and crappie typically don’t have size or daily bag limits.
Bass grow slowly in Idaho’s colder waters, so they usually fall under a minimum-size limit, and they also have a bag limit. Some lakes are managed for big bass, which will have restrictive rules to give bass a better chance to reach larger sizes.
Most trout lakes are managed under the “general rules,” and they are open year round. Some spots fall under special rules, so be sure to check the regulations. You can find the details on rules at fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/fish/rules.
Choose your quarry
There are more than a dozen species of game fish you can catch in lakes and reservoirs, which makes them interesting places to fish. Each provides something a little different in terms of what you might catch and what tactics to use.
Here are some basic tactics for the most popular fish for springtime in lakes:
Trout: Trout fishing near shore is best in spring before the shallows get too warm. This usually happens earlier in lower-elevation lakes that warm up faster. Once the shallows warm up, trout move farther offshore.
You don’t need specialized tackle to catch trout. Dangling a worm beneath a bobber, or sinking it to the bottom and using a piece of marshmallow to float it above the weeds will usually catch trout, and possibly other species. Casting and retrieving spinners and spoons will also catch trout, and there are dozens of them available at tackle shops and sporting goods stores.
Panfish: A school of bluegill can provide some of the most action-packed fishing an angler can ask for, and the same goes for crappie.
Panfish are a great way to introduce kids and novices to the basics of angling. They’re often found near shore and in large schools. Panfish can be caught with basic, inexpensive tackle. Try a small soft plastic tube jig rigged on a weighted jighead. You can also catch them with bait, such as a small piece of earthworm, mealworm or manufactured baits.
Bass: Many Idaho lakes and reservoirs less than 5,000 feet elevation have bass, and as a rule of thumb, the lower in elevation, the more likely you are to find them. Bass are very abundant in the Snake River and its many reservoirs. Smallmouth bass are the most common, but you can find largemouths in many lakes and reservoirs as well. Smallmouths like to hang around rocks and boulders, while largemouth prefer to hide near flooded plants and trees.
Bass move into shallow water in the spring to spawn, and they are an exciting fish to catch. There’s a variety of ways to catch them. You can cast bait, let it sit and wait for a bass to take it, but most anglers prefer to take advantage of bass’ aggressive nature. Try casting and retrieving, lures like spinner baits and crankbaits. Or, try bouncing synthetic worms on a jig head (commonly known as “soft plastics”) along the bottom. Both methods are effective and exciting.
Choose your craft
If you want more options than shore fishing, small, human-powered craft are handy because they are relatively inexpensive compared to a motorboat.
They’re easy to haul around in most vehicles and are great for young anglers. Even if you barely leave the shoreline, they still open up lots of water for fishing. Remember many fish are found close to shore, so you don’t have to venture into the middle of a lake or reservoir to catch them.
Many anglers use motorboats for larger lakes and reservoirs, but small boats also work if you look for safe places to fish like the leeward side of points or bays and covers and other areas protected from the wind. Another strategy to beat spring wind is to fish early and late in the day to avoid windiest times, which are often during late morning and afternoon.
Here are some options for small craft:
Canoe/kayak: These have been around forever, but in recent years, kayaks designed specifically for anglers have become more popular. They’re easy to paddle, stable and have lots of storage for your fishing gear.
Float tube: These are the cheapest way to get on the water, and the most portable. They’re inflatable, so they can easily fit in the trunk of a car, or the back of an SUV. They’re stable, and since you propel and control them with fins, both your hands are free to fish.
Pontoon boat: These typically have two inflatable pontoons bridged by a frame with a seat and a set of oars. You sit higher in the water than with a float tube, but your feet are still in the water so you can use fins to hold them in position.
Stand-up paddleboard: These are fairly new to the fishing world, but they’re becoming more common. Fishing models come with rod holders and a variety of attachments to secure gear and a cooler that doubles as a seat. You have the advantage of standing while you fish, which often gives you better vision into the water and allows for sight fishing.
When you start seeing how much fishing variety and opportunity there is on Idaho’s lakes and reservoirs, it might be time to step up to a motorboat. It opens up more opportunities, and a motorboat with modern electronics can help you locate and catch more fish.
Motorboats also let you troll in those larger lakes and reservoirs and access even more fish. As a bonus, they let you bring family and friends along to share the experience.
Most lakes and reservoirs provide good fishing well into June. Ponds and small reservoirs at low elevations can warm quickly and become too warm for trout by summer, but bass and panfish remain active.
When the waters become too warm for trout, Fish and Game stops stocking them for the season.
Higher-elevation lakes are a better bet for summer trout angling, so keep that in mind when planning a July or August trip. Like most streams, lakes turn on again in the fall as the water cools and fish feed aggressively to prepare for winter.
Don’t let runoff and high water get you down this spring. Just think of runoff as your invitation to explore your local lakes.