March 14, 2016
Largemouth bass anglers who frequently fish in big bottomland rivers don’t usually have trouble finding their quarry. Working favored lures around visible cover along banks, islands and prominent mainstream structure usually produces plenty of fish. When spawning season begins, however, things change dramatically. Bass seemingly disappear. It’s as if the fish migrated to the Gulf of Mexico.
That isn’t true, of course, but the bass do, indeed, leave their usual mainstream haunts. Here are places they often go when it’s spawning time.
Bass begin spawning in water that’s 62 to 68 degrees, and they leave cooler water as soon as possible. So early in the season, one key to bassing success is finding warmer water. Bass may move from the main river into a warmer tributary, for example. Or they may move to water that’s a little muddier, because silty water warms quicker than clear water. Scout to find likely locales, then use a temperature gauge to determine if it’s warm enough to make a difference.
Narrow channels, or run-outs, connecting a big bottomland river and adjacent oxbow lakes or backwaters often attract loads of bass, especially just prior to peak spawning time when bass put on the feed bags. Shad and other baitfish are drawn to faster-moving water in these cuts, and bass congregate to gorge on the bounty. Baitfish imitations quickly garner strikes. Anchor in the river near the run-out and cast into the lake, retrieving the lure naturally with the current. Chunking and winding shad-imitation crankbaits will nab large bass and small. To weed out lightweights, I use a 6-inch swimbait on a weedless jighead. When hawgs see this, they beat the little pigs to it every time.
If a river is high and muddy due to heavy spring rains, try scouting to find areas previously unfishable. High water lets you get back into chutes, cuts and backwaters off the river you couldn’t fish before. Water in these areas often is clearer, making topwater chugger plugs like the Pop-R especially effective. Other topwaters work great, too, including Zara Spooks and buzzbaits. Work the lures around cover like cypress knees, timber, rocks and pilings where bass are likely to be bedding or feeding.
Many bottomland rivers overflow in spring, inundating the floodplain with shallow water. Areas previously high and dry become flooded, including adjacent woodlands. Many bass spawn in these inundated forests, but catching them may require fishing in locations difficult to access. You may have to push, pull or motor your boat far back in flooded woods to reach shallow, firm-bottomed spawning sites. Large boats may not make it. Instead, you may need a smaller craft such as a johnboat or canoe. Or you may have to don some waders and wade to hotspots.
Bass in flooded woods feed heavily on crawfish, so give them similar enticements. I especially like crawfish imitations that stand up in a defensive posture so bass can quickly see them and strike. These are excellent go-to baits for woods bass.
A few spawning-season bass will be reluctant to leave their main river haunts. You’ll often nab these stragglers by fishing points where the river channel joins the mouth of a backwater area. Points covered with riprap seem especially productive. Work them with crankbaits or spinnerbaits. Or try flipping shallow cover with a soft-plastic lizard.
If there’s dense brush on a point — an ideal spawning site — try working it with a jig/pork frog combo, positioning the boat just upstream and using the current to drift the rig into the cover. Pitch the lure, drift it in, then twitch it while letting out more line. Each twitch allows the current to wash the jig farther back under the cover. In fast current, try a 1/2-oz. jig and a size 11 pork frog. In slow current, a 1/4-oz jig and a size 1 frog may work better.
As spring weather heats up, wing dikes often figure prominently in a spawning-season game plan. Dozens of these long, rock walls may be placed to alter current and reduce erosion, especially near dams and river bends. If backwaters behind the dikes warm early, many ready-to-spawn bass will cruise the dikes, feeding heavily. Crayfish and shad are common forage here, so artificials imitating these baits are among the best bass-catchers. Bounce them off the rocks on the retrieve and hang on!
Secondary willows can be river bassing hotspots in spring. These are willows that grow out into a backwater as the backwater silts in. The water rises and falls, year after year, depositing more silt. And as the silt piles up, the willows take hold farther and farther from the bank. If the current isn’t too strong, largemouths often spawn in the shallowest willows in a stand, and among the best lures for catching them are spinnerbaits. Dark colors often work best in spring’s muddy waters. Cast the lure as far from the outer edge of the trees as possible, and bring it in with a slow, steady retrieve that carries it close to shallow cover objects such as rocks, logs and stumps where bass may be guarding a nest or lying in wait to ambush supper.
As the water temperature rises toward the end of the spawning period, many river bass come off their nests and gorge on threadfin or gizzard shad running in schools near the water’s surface. Find the baitfish and you’ll find the bass. You may need to use your fish-finder to pinpoint the shad schools, but early and late in the day, you may see active schools disturbing the water’s surface at tributary mouths, the seams of water between backwaters and the main river, and along the edges of secondary willows. Lipless crankbaits such as Bill Lewis’ Rat-L-Trap and Cordell’s Spot Minnow closely imitate shad and can be fished with a “shotgun” approach that will nab these “run-and-gun” bass that are quickly moving around as they feed. Fire long casts beyond the places where you see a surface disturbance and reel the lure back with a steady retrieve and high-held rod that keeps the lure near the surface. When feeding bass sound, let the crankbait sink and work it back with a pumping retrieve so it jumps and flutters through the school.