May 15, 2020
As kids, we learned there are four seasons, but as we matured and got serious about bass fishing, we realized there are six. In addition to summer, autumn and winter, there’s pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn. Failing to break spring into those subsets means failing to understand the most complex—and potentially most productive—time of the year for bass fishing.
Some lures are tied to certain seasons, like jigging spoons in winter. But some baits defy the season, as long as the angler can adapt his approach to the conditions and mood of the fish. Swimbaits are like that. They come in all baitfish shapes and sizes, cover every level of the water column and mimic all manner of forage. Best of all, they’re often the most effective choice in the three phases of spring, as our triumvirate of experts can attest.
In a lot of western bass waters, state fisheries departments plant rainbow trout in the fall. Bill Siemantel, co-author with Michael Jones of Big Bass Zone (2005), refers to them as "Vitamin T," and he kicks off his pre-spawn swimbait pattern early in the year.
"Bass focus on shad during the summer and fall," Siemantel says. "But after the first of the year in the southern part of the country—later as you move north—they change over to bigger forage."
It's a great time to tie on a big lure, like his 6- or 8-inch SPRO BBZ-1 or a big boot-tail swimbait in a trout pattern. Siemantel throws the baits with an 8-foot, heavy-action Daiwa DX Swimbait rod and Lexa 300 or 400 casting reel spooled with 18- to 25-pound-test Maxima Ultragreen monofilament.
"By changing from floating to slow-sinking to fast-sinking baits and adjusting my retrieve, I can cover the water column top to bottom," Siemantel says.
The big bass specialist targets points—first on the main lake, but progressively shallower and toward the backs of coves, creeks and other likely spawning areas as temperatures rise. He looks for channels that lead to these points and spawning flats—the closer, the better—and he focuses on clear water, where swimbaits have their greatest drawing power.
Not putting a lot of stock in moon phases, weather patterns or other things he can’t control, Siemantel is serious about where he fishes and how he works his baits.
"Every good big-bass area has a spot on the spot," he says. "I'm looking for a different piece of cover, an irregularity or the sharpest break. When you locate the spot on the spot, you’ve found the exact location where you’ll get the most consistent action with the biggest fish, and where it will require the fewest presentations to cover it. Your goal should be to create a milk-run of such places."
Siemantel's last word on swimbait fishing is good advice for any method. "It's easy to think like a predator when hunting big bass," he says. "But that's the wrong approach. We should think like prey. That's what our baits represent."
Most anglers put away big baits when bass are relating to their spawning beds. Not Byron Velvick. The spawn is his favorite time to pick up a 6- to 10-inch Huddleston, Livingston Venom or Viper or Optimum Thumper Tail and start casting around the bays and pockets where big females lay their eggs.
Velvick stoked the swimbait craze in the spring of 2000 when he won a national tournament on California's Clear Lake with a three-day limit of 15 bass weighing more than 80 pounds. Today, the area where he caught those fish is known as "Byron's Corner," and Velvick's last will and testament calls for his cremated ashes to be scattered there after he's gone.
"During the spawn, I use a big bait to fire up the big females," Velvick says. "Nothing gets their attention quite like it, but you need at least three or four feet of visibility and a sunny day for it to work."
With a big swimbait, 7 1/2- to 8-foot heavy-action rod, stout casting reel and 20- to 25-pound-test Trilene Big Game monofilament, Velvick uses the lure as a search tool. Rather than target specific bedding fish, he fan-casts bedding areas, free-swimming the lure and watching closely as it nears his boat.
"Sometimes they attack the bait," he says. "But more often they just bump it or follow it away from the nest. If I see a fish following, I'll keep an eye on her and track her back to her bed. It's a great way to find deeper nests or locate beds without stumbling over them and spooking the fish."
Once a big bass shows herself, Velvick reevaluates the situation.
"I may stick with the swimbait, but change the retrieve to make it look like a threat to the nest," he says. "Or I might pick up a jig or tube and try to antagonize the fish into hitting.
"The power of this swimbait pattern is in the size of the lure. A big bait can intimidate a male bass during the spawn, but it will often trigger a giant female and cause her to reveal her location."
Tim Little is a California lunker hunter, co-host (with Matt Allen) of the TacticalBassin channel on YouTube and a former world record holder in the spotted bass category. In 2015, Little caught a 10-pound, 6-ounce spot from New Bullards Bar in California that stood as the all-tackle record for more than two years.
"Fishing for bass after the spawn is a lot like fishing for bass before the spawn—but in reverse," Little explains.
"Secondary points near the backs of creeks and coves are the first area where bass stop after spawning," he says. "From there, they gradually move out to main lake points and ultimately to their summertime holding areas. As they move out from the spawning grounds, they're recovering from the exertion of spawning and starting to feed more."
Targeting these recuperating fish, Little opts for swimbaits like the Huddleston Deluxe, River2Sea S-Waver and Storm Arashi Glide. He likes natural trout and baitfish patterns and lures that measure 6- to 8-inches long. His favored combo is a G.Loomis IMX-Pro 966 heavy-action swimbait rod and Shimano Tranx 300- series casting reel spooled with 20- to 25-pound-test Maxima Ultragreen mono.
"The big swim and glide baits represent a big meal to post-spawn bass—a chance to fill up in one efficient bite," he says.
Little cautions that post-spawn bass can be more wary than they are at other times of the year. They were heavily targeted during the spawn, saw lots of baits and can be skittish. For that reason, he recommends long casts that cover lots of water. He believes most would-be swimbait anglers fall short in their mental approach. They want to try swimbaits but give up on them too quickly.
"Unless you leave all your other gear at home and go fishing with only your swimbait rods and a few baits, you're not going to give the technique a fair shot," he says. "Most anglers will fish a big swimbait for a little while, then give up. They see other lures they have more confidence in and fish them instead. But you need to commit to the swimbait to develop the confidence needed to be successful."
THE VENERABLE SWIMBAIT
Ask bass fishermen—even serious swimbait aficionados—about the earliest swimbait, and they'll likely point to the A.C. Plug (mid 1980s) or Castaic Trout (early '90s). Those baits started the modern swimbait craze and produced personal best bass for hundreds of western anglers, but they came about 80 years too late to qualify as the first swimbait.
That distinction belongs to a jointed wooden plug made by John D. Kreisser. He started making lures with the same basic design features as today's hard-bodied swimbaits in 1905. In 1906, he applied for a patent on his design and got it a year later, by which time the K&K Manufacturing Company of Toledo, Ohio, was producing the "Animated Minnow."
Most of Kreisser's baits were single-jointed, but his patent referenced double- and even triple-jointed models. Advertising billed the lure as "The Minnow That Swims."
While some of today's swimbaits sell for hundreds of dollars, an original K&K Animated Minnow in good condition fetches many multiples of that. Original boxes are equally prized, but beware worthless reproductions of both.