A Plan For Spring Bass
April 06, 2011
When it's time to catch bass, it's best to have a plan. Here are some tips and strategies that you can employ in that ongoing effort to get more fish on the end of your line.
While the spring of the year can be downright inhospitable, it also provides one of the best opportunities to catch a lot of bass. Including the biggest fish of the year.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The key to finding and catching bass in the spring is directly influenced by surface water temperature. Even though the phase of the moon and length of day can play a part in determining exactly when the bass actually spawn, it's water temperature that opens the door.
In spring, the water is just starting to warm. And bringing the shallows up to the temperature that facilitates the spawn can be a slow, maddening climb. So it really helps to have some sort of surface temperature gauge handy. Mother Nature is notorious for throwing curve balls in the form of nasty cold fronts, wind and rain that make patience a spring mantra. Monitoring the water temperature in the lakes and rivers you fish will help you focus on what the bass are doing, and where they are doing it.
If you're a fan of both largemouth and smallmouth bass, and if you have access to several different bodies of water, you can up your odds on catching fish all spring long. Rivers and flowages warm early. Shallow lakes also warm fast, but they are very susceptible to spring fronts and can turn on and off rather quickly. Deep lakes are the waters least affected by cold fronts, but they are also the last waters to warm.
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Both types of bass prefer to spawn on hard bottom. But, not every lake has ideal areas. Being adaptable, bass can literally excavate through several inches of silt to form a bed, or even clean out a large area of vegetation to build the bridal suite.
Both need slack water to spawn successfully. Largemouths in rivers tend to use the backwaters and channels. Depending on how large a lake is, the bass may follow the time-proven tradition of spawning in northwestern bays, those sheltered from the wind and wave action on the main body of the lake. Those bays warm quickly and offer shelter. They also draw baitfish. If the lake is big enough to have those protected northwestern bays, fine and dandy. However, not all lakes fit the "ideal" geographical profile. If there is a good bass population, especially of largemouths, you could find spawning fish on nearly every shoreline.
On small, deep lakes, the fish may live most of their lives in a fairly small area, moving out to deeper water and filtering into the shallows to spawn as the water warms. Again, the shoreline they spawn on isn't normally direction specific.
Both species prefer to spawn near objects. It can be a rock, a log, a stump, in a large clump of vegetation or near a dock. If they can find an object to relate to, it gives them one less direction they have to watch after the eggs hatch.
For smallmouths in current, the object serves a dual purpose. In addition to providing one less direction to monitor, it also deflects the current flow and creates slack water. It can be a sheltered crevice, a boulder, or even manmade structure. The key is that the object must block current at various levels of the flow. So, if the water goes up or down, the fish still has the protection and water depth it needs to complete its spawning.
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Though you're chomping at the bit the first hint of warm weather, don't get fooled. Just because the water is at a temperature conducive to spawning, it has to stabilize before the fish will cooperate. Water that has been at the preferred temperature for a few days means a whole lot more than water that has just warmed to the right degree.
Also take into consideration the size of the fish. Generally, big fish spawn deeper than smaller fish. And spend less time on the bed than the nest-building and protecting males. Smallmouths generally spawn earlier than largemouths, usually when the water temperature stabilizes around the 60-degree mark. Largemouths normally spawn between 62 and 65 degrees.
The spawn is the final act of the spring bass play, but as you monitor temperature it should give you an idea of where the fish are in the overall process, and what you need to do in order to up your odds of catching them.
Smallmouths get active earlier than largemouths. And, the pre-spawn is when both fish are most catchable and are willing to chase baits. It's the period between what has become known as "staging" -- the movement to the holding area where the fish wait to go shallow -- and the actual spawn. When the females do move up and drop their eggs, the males fertilize them and assume guardianship.
Most experts pin
down the pre-spawn water temperature for smallmouths at about 50 to 58 degrees. For the largemouths it's about 55 to 62 degrees.
On lakes, smallmouths can be found at the dropoff nearest the spawning flats as they stage before moving shallow. In general bass prefer areas that offer protection, and deep water is the ideal security. Usually they are staging when the water temperature hits 46 degrees. Once it gradually climbs near 50 to 52 degrees, they'll come shallow.
After 53 degrees, the males start building nests. The nests are fairly easy to spot, as they are usually much lighter in color than the bottom around them. When the water stabilizes, the spawn commences. Using polarized sunglasses cuts down on the glare on the water, and they are a big help for spotting beds.
Largemouths are usually staging near the spawning grounds when the water hits 55 degrees. After that, they are actively feeding and chasing. When the temperature stays in the low 60s, they will begin nesting.
Throughout the spring, being versatile is the key to catching fish.
When the smallmouths are staging, a suspending jerkbait, or a deep-diving suspending jerkbait like Rapala's Husky Jerk is a proven winner. With water temps in the 40s, the bass are sluggish. So, if you can get a bait down near where the fish are holding, and let it just sit there for 10 to 30- seconds, a lot of the times the smallmouths will finally take note and hit it. That's where the fish's aggressive nature pays dividends.
Another good bait for early spring is a 5-inch Kalin grub on a plain round-ball leadhead. Use the weight you need to get the bait down, and then slowly swim the grub back. If that doesn't work, try varying the retrieve by either hopping it or dragging it with pauses in between. Consider crawdad colors with chartreuse as an option.
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Deep-diving crawdad-pattern crankbaits are another tool that you can use to cover water and make fish contact. Run that lure parallel to the dropoff to cover the most likely areas. Also, letting a lipless crankbait like a chrome Rat-L-Trap sink to the dropoff and then working a pumping retrieve near bottom can pay dividends. Sometimes the fish really key on the multiple rattles in the bait.
Once the fish move shallow, search-baits like spinnerbaits and Rat-L-Traps can find them. When bass do get up on the nests, 3 1/2-inch tubes are good go-to baits. The experts have come to the conclusion that tubes most closely resemble a crawfish that has lost its pinchers. In spring it's about removing a possible predator from the nest. Without pinchers as defense, from the bass' point of view, the creature is easier to deal with.
Although the largemouths come to the spawning stage a little later, they follow the same pattern. Stage, move shallow to feed and build nests, and then spawn.
One of the best spring largemouth baits is the silicone skirted bass jig, tipped with a No. 11 Uncle Josh pork frog, usually black. The pork frog, in essence, really resembles a crawfish more than a frog. It works best when used as the fish move to staging areas and during the pre-spawn, when the fish are more active. You can catch fish off the spawn beds on it, though largemouths in general are a little more difficult to catch off beds than the aggressive smallmouths.
For staging fish, the jig-and-pig, deep-diving crankbaits and tube jigs work fine. For pre-spawn fish, I add in Rat-L-Traps, white spinnerbaits with silver willow and Colorado blades, and a soft-plastic stick bait, like YUM's 5-inch Dinger, to the mix. There is not really a bad time to fish a Dinger, or one of the other varieties on the market. Normally, you can fish them Texas-rigged with a No. 3 Gamakatsu Z-bend worm hook without weight. Those baits sink slowly and the bass certainly are not shy about taking them. If you need to get deeper, use a sliding worm sinker on the front. Using a plain hook, or a weighted one, and rigging the stick bait by hooking it in the middle is one variation to try if the fish are not taking the weedless version. It's a wacky way to rig the bait, thus the "wacky rig" name. But it works.
When the fish are bedding, a 4-inch watermelon seed tube, Dinger or jig-and-pig can coax nest sitters to bite. A twitch bait like a floating Rapala over the nest can sometimes draw a strike when the bass are not willing to take a bottom bait.
If I had to nominate just one lure for spring largemouths, it would be the jig-and-pig, with black and blue as the main colors. Watermelon seed, purple and browns also work. It's a slower way to fish, but to me, there is not a better big-bass bait for spring angling. Some anglers prefer plastic jig trailers, like craws and chunks because they can match the jig and trailer combination better and because many plastics are now scented. However, Uncle Josh's No. 11 pork frog is supple in the colder waters of spring and they feel very realistic to the fish. Adding a scent, like Bang's Crawfish Scent makes it the best crawdad imitation I've seen yet.
The more you know about spring bass, the better prepared you'll be. So, here are a few other helpful tips that can add more bass to your bag this spring.
Big fish generally spawn deeper than small fish, and earlier. But, they don't hang around the area long. Staying on top of your favorite bodies of water as spring begins to take hold will give you the best chance of nailing that lunker.
Just to prove Mother Nature isn't a super-meanie, not all fish in a lake spawn at the same time. Last year I caught two 20-inch largemouths that had come up to spawn in a small millpond. But they were two weeks apart at roughly the same depth in two different areas of the lake. That adds a little more of a window to get a chance at that lunker.
If you find empty spawn beds, don't despair. You may have missed those fish this time, but take note of the location, since they probably will spawn in the same area in the future.
Shallow lakes have different staging areas than deeper lakes. While it might be a dropoff at 20 feet that works on a deep lake, the shallow lake move is more horizontal. On one lake where I saw male fish on
nests, a big female was lurking less than 50 feet away, near a weed clump a foot deeper, waiting to move in. Fish are limited by their environment, so keep that in mind.
Deep lakes are not hit by spring fronts as radically as shallow lakes are. While the temperature on a shallow lake may drop noticeably, fish 15 or more feet down in a deeper lake will not be affected as drastically. As a result, they can be more catchable. Shallow-lake fish have a tendency to burrow into cover when spring fronts hit and it's very hard to get a bait near them.
Overall, the best bet for success is taking stock of the waters you fish to determine logical areas and then making the right location and bait choices based on the prevailing conditions. Following this plan can help you enjoy spring bassin' at every phase, from cold water right up through the spawn.