The First Migrants: in Search of Spring Schoolies

By Zach Harvey


The operative phrase in early bass casting is “early and often…”

My appreciation of many things in fishing is tied to their seasonal timing. Spring schoolies are a prime example. Show me an 18-incher on October, and I’ll show you a yawn that threatens to disconnect my jaw hinges. But, show me that fish in mid- to late April and I’ll start preparing an acceptance speech, maybe do a quick victory lap around town. Rhode Island’s first schoolies are a big deal—a rite of spring, in fact—every April when that celebrated first bright fish takes a tiny bucktail or Cocohoe Shad at the West Wall in Jerusalem.

I feel compelled to come clean, though. I have never been and will never be the first guy out chasing schoolies in places I don’t like to fish. I fish often in late April, but with no real sense of immediacy, no particular to see an instant payoff for my casting hours. Usually, I fish in ten-cast installments—more than that if it’s a particularly swell evening. Humble Beginnings
Last season, I took my first schoolie of the season at the Great Island Bridge in Point Judith. It was in the first week of May. I saw him darting in and out of the shadow line against the bulkhead, and made a series of short-range casts up-current of him, and changed the angle of the little Storm Shad’s approach until I got the bump I’d been imag- ining since February. The fight lasted about 15 seconds. I unhooked the little fish, gently sent him back, walked back to my car, guided my light rod in the passenger-side window and headed for home.

Some fishermen are numbers guys, and feel compelled to catch schoolies until lipping them has worn all the skin off their thumbs. I prefer to catch them one at a time, largely because—after years of fishing for work—I need to constantly remind myself to appreci- ate every fish I catch. I also don’t like to fish in crowds, and so don’t end up in the spots with potential for 100-fish days—the West Wall or Carpenters Bar in Matunuck, for ex- ample. If you want numbers, those two are good bets. Otherwise, you can find schoolies lots of places.

Handle With Care
As a bit of a side note—an important one, even if it’s obvious to 90-percent of the folks reading this—gets back to the numbers thing. An unfortunate side-effect of catching
100 schoolies in an outing is that some guys seem to lose sight of the value of one fish. Too many times, in spring and fall fishing, when triple-digit days are a possibility, I’ve watched glutted anglers stop paying attention to the way they handle fish. The good news is that cold water slows fish metabolism way down, improving schoolies’ odds of surviv- ing release. It’s still critical, especially when you weigh in overall stock stress factors and trouble signs like the near-20-year-low spawning stock indices for the Chesapeake last year, to handle each fish, the first and the 32nd you catch, with equal care. Be sure to wet your hand before gripping the fish, and try to get it by the lip for unhooking. If you use a rag, don’t use a dry rag, as that will damage the protecting coating of slime on the fish. Release them gently, head-first, and try to send them back from the lowest spot you can reach. Enough said.

No matter where you go looking for bass one, the good news is that schoolie fishing is tailor-made for the spring shakedown. Rusty casting skills, bad knots and the line you thought maybe you could get another season out of all get worked out with little danger of a fried drag washer or a lost $80 wooden plug purchased from plug-builder friend at what he called the “friend price.” The light rods are easy, lures are brain-dead simple, and you won’t need to test your drag setting with a digital hand scale.

Simple Gear
Unless you’ll be casting from a high perch, there’s no real need for leaders—just a short header of light 10- or 15-pound fluoro to top off a spool of braid. The three main lures I use are the ones everyone uses: Cocohoe shads in white, small, quarter- to half- ounce bucktails or Storm Shads (the latter are my favorites; I favor the 4-inch modes in Bunker, Shad or Pearl White colors). The only real trick is to retrieve as slow as your cranking hand will allow. Fish are still way sluggish in the cold water, and can’t be both- ered with fast-moving targets. We all know the rest of the story.

One thing I’d offer, if you haven’t done much early-season schoolie fishing, is that it’s better to go constantly for short outings, rather than trying to put in long hours. Especial- ly up until the fish settle into some kind of semi-predictable pattern, a lack of fish after a handful of casts is often your cue that you’re casting into empty water. Subtle increases in water temps can switch fish on abruptly, so you want to keep going until you hit them. If you hit a night that’s raw and miserable, stay home: it’s only schoolie fishing.

Fresh or Not, Who Cares?
With all of this said, identifying our so-called “bright” or “fresh” migratory schoolies can be tricky business. Contrary to popular belief, the presence of sea lice is not a reliable indicator of migrant linesides. There are just-mobilized hold-over fish in the mix—fish that wind up along the flanks of the West Wall having just dropped out of Potters Pond, or perhaps even the Thames River system. I’d argue that in the third or fourth months, I don’t really care whether the fish in my fore have arrived via the Hudson and the open ocean, the Providence River, or wherever else. The fix I’m after is a solid bend in a rod that hasn’t seen duty in four months that felt more like six. I’ll take what I can get, then keep looking for more.

An unusually warm spring last winter had the first schoolies in gear by the tail end of March—and even earlier by some accounts. Even though it’s evilly cold as this heads off to the presses, our New England weather tends to turn on a dime. Within a period of days or a week, water temps can skyrocket, spurring fish out of their winter zones. I f we get any real stretch of toasty air, it’s worth some preliminary recon. If your hands hurt and your nose is running after five casts, there’s no reason you need stand in the dark becoming a human popsicle. But by all means get out early and get out often. Before you know it, these first schoolies we count on to shake the cobwebs loose will be reinforced by the first waves of keepers, probably hot on the tentacles of the squid. The manic episode we call fishing season will be cranking along. Best we can do is wring ever last fishable day out of an unforgiving calendar.