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The Bronzebacks Heat Up in May

May means black flies in New Hampshire, but anyone who fishes for smallmouth bass is more than willing to put on the insect repellent and hit the water. By the middle of May, the lakes, ponds and rivers have begun to warm enough for bass to be on the move in the pre-spawn. Smallies swim into shallow water and feed voraciously.

The Granite State is famous for its smallmouth bass fishery. The rocky lakes, ponds and rivers provide the type of habitat favored by so-called bronzebacks. The Squam lakes and Winnepasaukee are prime destinations for anglers who travel from all over the country to pursue smallies.

I fished Squam and Winnie for years until I discovered the same quality of fishing may be found in smaller lakes and ponds — places that don’t suffer from overcrowding and fishing pressure.

Around the Upper Valley, we are lucky enough to have many choices for smallmouth, including the Connecticut River (Vt. and N.H.); Mascoma Lake, Crystal Lake and Grafton Pond (Enfield); Pleasant Lake (New London); and Highland Lake (Andover). The New Hampshire state record for smallmouth bass (7 pounds, 14.5 ounces) was set at Goose Pond in Canaan.

During the spring pattern, bass can be found in places where they won’t be later in the season. Last year on May 19, I fished the western shore of Mascoma Lake where I have rarely had luck in June and July. I was counting on conventional wisdom for early-season bass fishing — since the sun rises in the east, the western shoreline of a lake warms first, attracting smallies.

I kept my boat close to the bank, tossing a Tiny Torpedo over the sandy shallows.

Fishing with a surface lure is my favorite technique for bass. Seeing the fish roll on the bait adds to the excitement. It didn’t take long for a bass to attack the frog-colored Tiny Torpedo. I stopped counting at 15 fish, all released.

As soon as a smallie realizes it’s hooked, the fish will immediately take to the air. They somersault, backflip and shake their heads, trying to dislodge the hook. Smallies fight all the way to the boat, never quitting until they’re landed.

I don’t use a net. For me, the great challenge is to lift a fish from the water by the lower lip. This immobilizes the bass and makes it easier to handle.

When a lure has two sets of treble hooks, caution is imperative. Smallmouth can still thrash even if you have them by the lower lip. I never took a hook in the hand until I began fishing for smallies.

As May progresses, smallmouth will begin to spawn. The female uses her tail to fan a bed in a rocky or sandy area. She will stay on the nest until she deposits her roe. After that, the male swims in to fertilize the roe and guard the nest from fish trying forage on the eggs.

These nests are easily spotted in clear water. They are round and sometimes have a reddish-brown hue. The ghostly gray figure of the nesting fish is visible as it hovers there.

Bronzebacks are at their most vulnerable when they are nesting. They will remove anything that is dropped on the nest, including a lure. They are easily caught, but regulations mandate an immediate return to the water.

I have mixed emotions about catching bass when they are nesting. It’s best to leave them alone to do what nature intended. But it’s hard to resist dropping a soft plastic jig in the middle of a sandy circle where a three-pounder is suspended.

Bass will also congregate in the early part of the season. I was fishing from the shore on Pleasant Lake in late May. My first cast yielded a heavy strike on a surface popper.

The fish, a legitimate three-pounder, threw the hook during the first leap. As soon as the dislodged popper hit the water, another big bass grabbed it. I lost that one, too.

I had two more strikes, finally landing a smaller fish. The action subsided after I released it. Smallies actually swim back to the school and release a hormone, sounding the alarm that the pressure is on.

Catch and release is another reason why the fishing in New Hampshire is so good. Most bass anglers will photograph their trophy and then let it swim free. Returning a three-pounder to the lake preserves the gene pool of big fish.

If you want smallmouth for the table, keep the little ones. This helps with recruitment so the big fish can get even bigger. Taking a few juvenile bass out of the ecosystem doesn’t hurt.

Of course, perch, sunfish and rock bass are also active in May if you’re in the mood for a fish fry. There are liberal limits on these species, including no limit on rock bass. Taking these fish from the water is also beneficial to the smallmouth bass population since all of them are competing for the same forage.