Bass fishing the shallows is a big attraction at this time of year. But you might find more fish if you just back off a bit.
By Joe Albert
There was a slight chill in the air, but the sun was high overhead, its rays warming the shallows and rendering sufficient the hooded sweatshirt I wore.
There was a wide array of lures attached to rods and reels of various actions spread across the bow of the boat, and I rotated them as I worked my way down the bank, intent on catching the largemouth bass I knew to be shallow, their annual spawn having commenced not long before. The action was fast, but not furious; the fish good-sized, but not huge.
The water was clear so I kept the boat well away from the bank, opting instead to make long casts and be as unobtrusive as possible. Eventually I came across a piece of timber that extended out from shore. Given it was different from the cover that surrounded it, and thinking it may be a prime spot for a big bass to spawn, I picked up a rod adorned with a blue and black jig-and-pig.
I fired a cast and worked the lure back along the wood, unsuccessful in my attempt to coax a bite from a fish I was sure had to be there. My concentration lapsed on the second cast and the line on my baitcaster erupted in a tricky backlash.
I shut off the trolling motor and set to work on the bird's nest, pulling loops of line until finally I worked out the tangle. By that time I'd come around a point and the wind from which I'd been sheltered pulled me away from the shoreline.
I reeled in the jig and engaged the trolling motor, heading back for the shallows. As I did I glanced down at my depthfinder, mostly because I was interested in the water temperature. I couldn't tell you today what it was because I was transfixed by the arches hovering just above the bottom. They obviously were fish, so I backed off the trolling motor and pitched out the jig, letting it fall to the bottom. I'd hopped it perhaps twice when I felt a tick on the line and set the hook.
A short fight later, a beautiful largemouth appeared at the side of the boat. I didn't weigh the fish, but it was larger than any I'd caught to that point. And it reinforced something I knew, but that is sometimes easy to forget when bass are stacked in the shallows.
Not all bass in a given body of water â€“ and certainly not over a broad area â€“ spawn at the same time.
Rather, they do so when the water is between about 55 degrees and 62 degrees, with steady waves of fish moving into and out of the shallows at any given time.
Yes, that means for weeks there is an abundance of bass in the shallows. While some bass live shallow throughout the year, there's never more of them in skinny water than when the spawn is under way. And yet some of the smartest and most accomplished fishermen around routinely ignore the shallows and focus instead on the deeper-water transition areas during the spring spawn.
For some, it's a conscious decision that comes down to personal ethics. They simply don't feel good about catching bass off beds. For others, however, it's about taking advantage of a unique opportunity to target fish that can be bunched up in fairly predictable locations and that are relatively easy to locate and catch.
UNDERSTANDING BASS MOVEMENTS
Bass spend the winter months in deep-water areas, where they're generally not particularly active. As the first hints of spring warmth emerge, bass begin their migration toward the shallows. Again, this doesn't happen all at once.
In moving between their wintering areas and their spawning areas, bass follow creek channels or the main-lake dropoff â€” depending on the water body. Bass spawn in shallow bays and other hard-bottom areas where they can escape from the wind. Keep in mind that northwestern portions of lakes and reservoirs warm first, so these areas likely will see the first of the year's spawning activity.
As bass move to their spawning grounds, it isn't a straight shot from Point A to Point B. Rather, the fish stop at structural elements such as points and humps to rest and feed. Then they'll head for the shallows to spawn, and the smaller males will stick around longer than the larger females, which tend to be in and out of the shallows fairly quickly.
As the fish leave the shallows, they head back out to the creek channel or main dropoff as they migrate toward their summer locations.
This knowledge means bass anglers can encounter both pre-spawn and post-spawn fish in deeper water. The former are easier to catch, given they're often actively feeding so they have energy to spawn, while the latter are more in recuperation mode. While they may not have voracious appetites, they can be coaxed into hitting.
The easiest way to locate likely fish-holding areas is to closely monitor your electronics. Follow the edge of the creek channel or dropoff by boating in a zigzag pattern, moving up onto the flat at the top of the channel or dropoff as well as off into the open water on the other side.
More spring bass tips
While bass often will be hunkered close to the bottom, it's also possible to find them suspended in open water. Take note of areas where there are rocks or other hard materials, or where there's vegetation. Other likely areas where fish will congregate are points and inside turns. Basically, if you see something that looks different from its surroundings, it's probably not a bad idea to check it out more closely.
There are a couple of ways to approach these deep-water areas. Either you can work long stretches of creek channels or dropoffs, hoping to bump into fish, or you can mark likely spots on your map or GPS and then fish the areas more thoroughly.
TIME TO FISH
You can learn a lot about an area by looking at it with your electronics, but there's no better way than by actually fishing it. Start off with fast-moving search baits such as Carolina rigs, deep-diving crankbaits that dig along the bottom, or heavy jig-and-pig combos. Sensitive fishing rods are a big help because these baits not only generate strikes, but they also transmit back to you more information about what's on the bottom.
It's entirely possible that during your search with electronics you missed an individual boulder or brushpile that's holding fish. Even if you don't catch a fish, make a mental note of where those elements are (or better yet, mark the waypoints on your GPS unit) because they're good spots to come back to several times throughout the day.
In addition to helping you learn more about the bottom, search baits also can put you in contact with fish. Pay attention to where you're getting bites. Are they all from the same area? Or do the fish seem to be a bit scattered?
Sometimes, fish will be scattered out and away from cover during low-light conditions caused by wind and rain, while other times they're scattered simply because there's not a particular cover or structural element that concentrates them.
When the sun is shining and the water is calm, bass are more likely to be concentrated on a particular piece of cover or structure. I've encountered situations where a single large boulder held dozens of fish and making precise casts to it helped me hook several of them.
In general, I'll continue with a deep-diving crankbait or Carolina-rigged plastic for as long as I'm catching fish in a particular area. And before picking up another bait, I'll change casting angles several times, working the bait up, down and along the dropoff. Depending on how the fish are positioned, they may be more likely to hit a lure that's moving from shallow to deep water than one that's moving from deep to shallow, for example.
Pro Tip: Bass in the Grass
Once the fish have stopped responding to fast-moving lures, or I've identified specific areas that are concentrating the bass, I'll slow down and throw saturation-type lures that allow me to fish more slowly and a little bit more methodically. One of my favorite lures in this situation is a relatively light jig â€” 1/4- to 3/8-ounce â€” coupled with a 3-inch grub.
Wherever you're fishing, black and blue is always a good color combination choice. Colors that imitate the prevalent bait species in the water body always are good choices.
Cast the jig-and-pig to the fish-holding area and work it back to the boat. Sometimes, the fish respond best when the jig is crawled along the bottom. Other times, they hit aggressively when it's hopped up and down. And don't be afraid to swim the lure just above the bottom, jerking your rod tip every now and again to mimic an injured baitfish.
Other good saturation lures include tubes, worms and creature baits. Make a few casts with each and let the fish tell you what they prefer on that given day, or even during that particular hour of the day.
When you've pinpointed where the fish are located, a vertically presented offering such as a drop-shot rig can be super effective. Rig a straight-tailed worm with a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce drop-shot weight and a 12- to 18-inch dropper. Drop down the bait and work your rod tip such that the worm moves but the weight remains on the bottom.
Q&A with AOY Brandon Palaniuk
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The beauty of a drop-shot in this situation is that aggressive, pre-spawn fish will blast it. But if you happen to be working sluggish, post-spawn fish, eventually the undulations of the straight-tailed worm will be too much and they'll bite it more out of irritation than anything else.
The temptation to head for the bank when you know the fish are spawning can be strong â€” very strong! After all, often you can see beds and even individual fish in the shallows, and so there's really no question of whether you're fishing the right area. But this season, make it a point to stay away from the bank. It may take some trial and error, but the opportunity to find concentrations of good-sized bass away from the banks and shallow water makes it all worth the effort.