When the warm breezes of spring first ruffle the frigid surface waters of winter, bass start to stir from their chilly lethargy, too. As they emerge from their cold-season doldrums, they begin moving toward the shallows to take part in their annual spawning rituals. This transition period, commonly known as the pre-spawn, can be one of the best times of the year to catch multiple quality fish and maybe a bona fide wallhanger as well.
Like most things in fishing, however, the pre-spawn bite is anything but guaranteed. Today’s 3- and 4-pounders that won’t leave your crankbait alone may well hunker down tomorrow and turn up their snouts at anything but a jig or plastic worm slowly crawled along the bottom.
We had a chance to check in with three of the top pros from the western U.S. currently competing on the national stage to get their thoughts on where to find these transition bass and what to throw to trip their triggers. Two-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Fred Roumbanis, 2005 BASS Angler of the Year Aaron Martens, and 2009 Bassmaster Classic champion Skeet Reese weighed in with their thoughts on the haunts and habits of springtime’s early bass.
Fred Roumbanis doesn’t mark the pre-spawn so much by the calendar as by signs from nature. “The days are getting warmer, the birds are chirping in the morning, and the leaves are starting to bud on the trees. Water temperatures get into the low to high 50s, and the bass start moving from deep water toward the shallows.”
Another buzzword of spring bassin’ is “staging area.” Aaron Martens defines that as a spot where the fish congregate on their path to shallow water. “During the pre-spawn, fish tend to school up,” Martens comments, “and they also move a lot.” Roumbanis thinks of staging areas as ledges, breaks or steps. “It might be a flat that rolls into a point. It’s usually something with a vertical drop to it.”
What are some typical staging areas? These pros state that they range from the obvious to the subtle.
Reese notes that their north ends will warm faster because of greater sun exposure and, as a result, their resident bass will turn on first. Dirty water will also accelerate the bite. Small tule points and entrances to manmade canals or creek arms can position bass. Martens adds that boat docks can also concentrate fish, although it can be a guessing game to identify the productive ones, as only one out of 20 or 30 may hold a sizeable number of bass.
Roumbanis favors the lakes or ponds that exist in these waters rather than their channels or sloughs. “If you can stay fairly close to the main river while remaining in a pond, and then find a ditch, you’ll have success.” On places like the California Delta, both Reese and Martens add that “peat beds,” which are basically large, submerged mounds of dirt, can be key holding areas. Although they can be difficult to find, Reese theorizes that their vertical edges are attractive to bass during the months of early spring.
These impoundments, generally with steep banks, multitudes of rock-strewn points and clear water through much of the year can be confusing to the novice. Martens likes to start his searches in the backs of their canyons. He concentrates on depths of 20 to 40 feet, looking for bass coming out of 50 to 60 feet of water. Roumbanis looks for washes — places where large quantities of debris have flowed into the lake during winter rains. He also finds that 45-degree banks usually hold spotted bass because the fish can readily move up and down in the water column. “When I’m on the Elite Tour and I need a fish, I’ll often work these banks with a plastic worm rigged on a darterhead. I’ll consistently pick up fish on this type of structure, and they’re often quality bass.”
All three pros note, however, that bass location is anything but stable during this period. “Consistency is the key to a good early-spring bite,” advises Roumbanis. “Look at the prior week’s weather and the forecast for the coming week. Pre-spawners can be very temperamental, and stability in the weather has a lot do with how predictable the pattern will be.”
Reese doesn’t feel that the bass move far despite changes in weather conditions, but he does caution that anglers have to be willing to make adjustments. “Wind is typically your best friend, creating current and breaking up the light pattern. Sunny, beautiful days during the spring often mean a tougher bite.”
THE PROS’ PRE-SPAWN PICKS
So we’ve established that the pre-spawn can be a dynamic time to go bass fishing. We have an idea of where to look for them and we know the bite can change on a dime. That being said — what are some high-percentage lures to throw at our finny friends as they emerge from their long winter’s slumber?
Reese picks the Lucky Craft Pointer 100 as his No. 1 bait for early spring. “I start throwing the Pointer if the fish are pre-spawn, water temperatures are in the low to upper 50s and there’s decent clarity. I use it with 10-pound Trilene 100 percent fluorocarbon. Long pauses can be the key to getting bit — I’ll sometimes wait as long as 10 to 15 seconds between jerks. If I had to pick one color, I’d go with Aurora Black.”
“With a little bit of water color creating visibility of 3 to 4 feet or less, the spinnerbait is a great way to catch them, especially if there’s some current,” comments Reese. “Blades really start to produce in water temperatures of 55 to 60 degrees. I like the Lucky Craft Redemption in 1/2-ounce with a tandem combo, gold and silver blades, and a chartreuse-shad skirt. I throw spinnerbaits on 15-pound fluoro with an Abu Garcia Revo Skeet Series reel and a Wright & McGill Tessera S-curve rod.”
3. Lipless Rattler
“I use this bait more on shallow waters than on typical spotted bass reservoirs,” the married father of two remarks. “I’m usually looking for 8 feet of water or less with some grass left on the bottom. I really like the Lucky Craft LV 500 in Spring Craw. For fishing the 2- to 4-foot zone, I’ll go with an LV 100. You do have to play with your retrieve to figure out what the bass want. Often in the spring, you have to get it on the bottom, and then hop it and pop it. Other times let it fall, and then rip it upwards.”
1. Dropshot Worm
“I don’t know of another way to catch more fish on plastics,” the 10-time qualifier for the Bassmaster Classic states. “I throw 4.5- and 6-inch Roboworm FAT Stra
ight Tails in MM III, Aaron’s Magic and Martens Madness.” Martens also notes that water clarity makes a big difference in the color of worm he selects. “When you get the color right, you’ll notice a difference right away, not only in how many bites you’re getting but in how hard they’re hitting it. Two other colors I like a lot are Bold Bluegill — it’s one of the best colors Roboworm makes — and Red Crawler.” The winner of over $2 million adds that it’s important to experiment with dropper length, often starting with one of only 4 to 6 inches, and if that’s not producing, increasing it to 12 inches or more.
Martens runs a single hook through the center of unweighted Roboworms and Yamamoto Senkos on 8- to 14-pound-test Sunline fluorocarbon. “A wacky-rigged worm moves more water than a dropshot because both ends of the worm are flapping and really gets their attention.” Rather than using a nail-weight embedded in the worm, Martens adds split shot to his hooks, although he notes anglers can buy pre-weighted hooks that are just as effective.
“This is one of the most productive baits I own,” confides Martens, who currently makes his home in Alabama. “I throw it mostly in the 3/16- and 1/4-ounce sizes. In the spring, I drag it on the bottom a lot, like you’d fish a jig, but it’s also a really good swimbait. Most of the time, I dress it with a Zoom Fluke or Lunker City Fin-S Fish.”
“Swimbaits can get you bigger bites during the pre-spawn,” says the 30-year-old pro who now resides in Oklahoma. “I like the Optimum Titan for working deeper water. I’ll bump bottom and drag it as though I’m fishing a plastic worm. This approach is really effective when fishing timber. At times, I’ll even let it hit bottom and deadstick it.” Roumbanis notes that the bait’s weed guard helps to reduce hang-ups with this bottom-bouncing approach. For working shallower water, Roumbanis often chooses the Optimum BLT. “I rig it with a treble hook on the bottom and fish it 2 to 3 feet deep. Usually during the spring, I’ll start getting bit on this bait in the afternoon, when the fish move up in the water column.” The five-year pro notes that swimbaits produce everywhere. “As long as you have visibility, you’re going to get bit on them.”
“You can’t go wrong with a jig,” Roumbanis comments. “I use a football head for deep water and a swim jig for shallower stuff.” His presentation style with the jig matches his overall approach for chasing pre-spawn bass. “I’ll generally start deep, and then move shallower as the day progresses. If you start shallow, you can end up spending the first several hours of the day catching the smaller males that have moved up. On lakes like Amistad in Texas, I usually go real deep first thing in the morning — sometimes starting in 30 to 35 feet of water.”
“A Zoom Super Fluke rigged on an extra-wide gap hook is a great springtime bait. I like to throw it weightless and work it with a stop-and-go retrieve, like a jerkbait. It goes great through cover.” Roumbanis also notes that a critical part of getting the most action (and most bites) from a Fluke is to put a bend in its back when rigging it on an EWG hook.
Roumbanis cautions that pre-spawn bass are fickle biters and can throw even a seasoned pro for a loop. “The best tip I can give weekend anglers is to start opposite of what you’d do later in the spring, summer or fall. Look for them deep, then go shallow. That will keep you on active fish. They will move as the day goes on.”