May 12, 2022
The apparently random move-ments of fish during the month of May can change the best bass-fishing patterns from day to day. Major League Fishing and Bass Pro Tour angler Jared Lintner doesn’t have to look far from his Arroyo Grande, Calif., home to see that.
"April through early June is the most prolific time to fish [around here]," he says. "The best opportunity to catch the most and biggest bass is May because you have the best of everything."
Bass start spawning in late April and continue through May across most of the West, though not all spawn at the same time, of course. A staggered schedule means there are opportunities to catch pre-spawners—Lintner’s favorite because of their aggressiveness and size—and recuperating post-spawners at the same time.
But there’s one thing that most Western bass anglers will encounter during May that can make it tough to catch even the most actively feeding bass: clear water.
Clear water allows bass to see danger better, so you, your boat, or things about your bait choice or retrieve that look "off" to bass can shut down their urge to bite. While a few lakes in the West get muddy for a while in the spring, the vast majority of them remain clear.
"It’s exciting because you can see a lot of big ones, but it’s frustrating because they can outsmart you," Lintner says.
Add the following tweaks to your approach, and you’ll eliminate some of that frustration.
ADJUST YOUR OFFERINGS
Bluegill tails are chartreuse in summer and crawdads turn orange in fall, but Lintner says most bass prey sport earth tones in May. Therefore, he primarily fishes lures in those hues, especially translucent ones such as watermelon, to match the hatch. Bass can sense the lures and can see that they move like forage moves, but can’t really see them in detail, so the aggressive feeders often simply bite them to find out if they are food or not.
Lintner matches his subtle colors to subtle lures. His clear-water favorites include wacky worms, drop shots, soft-plastic jerkbaits and topwaters. He saves big, boisterous lures that draw reaction strikes—lipless crankbaits, hard jerkbaits and buzzbaits—for windy and overcast days or when he’s probing heavy cover. On those occasions, even in clear water, you won’t see the bass, so you have to cover water in likely holding areas and hope for a reaction strike. The same conditions that conceal your presence put bass in a fog, which may cause smaller baits to go unnoticed, but big baits will be easy for fish to locate.
Out of habit, most bass anglers choose lightweight line because its thin diameter is less detectable by bass in clear water, but that decision shouldn’t be automatic. While Lintner has scored with 6-pound test and 2-inch lures when the bite was tough, he has done equally well with 65-pound-test braided line, which resembles rope in clear water.
Heavy cover, which demands strong line anyway, breaks up a bass’s line of sight, so you can get away with heavier braid. The old saying that "first, you have to get a bite" is true, but subsequent bites on light line don’t do you much good if you can’t land the fish. Lintner listens to tournament anglers lament about it every spring at Clear Lake, where their drop-shots are no match for big bass in tules. Any time you fish clear water around abrasive cover, whether that cover is grass, wood or rock, a heavier line can be an advantage.
"You can’t bring a knife to a gun fight," Lintner says.
Instead, he suggests a Bubba Shot—the same rigging as a drop shot but with upsized line, hook and weight.
When Lintner isn’t matching the hatch, he spends his time sight-fishing for bedding bass, but he radically alters his color strategy, employing soft-plastic lures in vibrant colors like white, pink and chartreuse to agitate spawners into striking.
Bright colors also help anglers see their baits. Bedding bass often pick up an offending bait, "kill" it and then spit it out. They can do this fast and without moving much, so if your bait blends in well with the bedding substrate, and the bass shifts slightly, it can be difficult to tell whether the fish is still looking at the bait or has sucked it into its mouth. On the other hand, a chartreuse bait is easily visible to you in clear water from a long cast away, so if the bass shifts and the bait disappears, set the hook.
ALTER YOUR APPROACH
The COVID-19 pandemic upended plenty of plans, including Lintner’s tournament schedule and schooling for his youngest son, Jayden, so the two spent a lot of time fishing around home.
But that extra fun came with some frustration: Jayden couldn’t catch every bass he saw in clear water.
Lintner notes that if you can see the bass, then the bass are also alerted to your presence. Not only that, but if the bass have been shallow for a while, other anglers have seen those bass and fished for them. A visible bass is probably one that has seen quite a bit of pressure as May rolls along.
Lintner says that noise from inside your boat or from a trolling motor puts clear-water bass on alert. Even your boat’s shadow crossing the bottom can freak them out. He keeps the sun in his face and uses his shallow-water anchors to hold his boat away from bass.
Lintner is always on the lookout for bass, especially largemouths, whose colors turn brilliant in clear water but still can be difficult to see against a green-and-brown background.
"My eyes are focused on the black stripe on the tail," he says. "It’s similar to the approach taken by successful deer hunters, who first glimpse a flicking tail or ear before the entire deer comes into view. It takes practice."
Seeing bass is key to catching them off spawning beds, but Lintner keeps looking throughout May, especially after spring rains raise the water level, flooding bushes, stumps and laydowns.
"[During pre-spawn, bass will] suspend in those spots to warm up," he says. "And once they’re post-spawn, they’ll use those same targets to guard their fry. I’ve seen as many as a dozen fish in one tree."
TWEAK YOUR RETRIEVES
Where casting and working baits is concerned, patience and planning pay off in clear water.
"I’ve learned the hard way," Lintner says. "You see a fish in a bush, and everyone wants to throw on top of it. That’s a big no-no."
Prey rarely falls from above, so Lintner leads the fish by casting a couple feet ahead. Bass are naturally curious, and most will swim toward your lure to investigate.
If you can’t see the bass, look for help in aiming your casts, which should be as long as you can comfortably make.
"If you see something hard in the water, there probably is a fish around it," he says. Holding cover could be as small as a branch or as large as a dock or manmade fish habitat.
Topwaters give bass, because of their eye placement, a better chance to find your lure. Lintner fishes them February through October. Work one to a piece of cover, then pause it.
"They get so angry," he says. "They’re territorial. They don’t like that."
Finding the best lure is just one piece of the clear-water bass puzzle. Lintner says the process isn’t a science, but there are a number of variables to consider.
"Pay attention to small details," he says. "That will increase your catches and your enjoyment of the day."
Six top lures for late-spring Western bass.
The following lures will cover the water from surface to bottom. Major League Fishing and Bass Pro Tour angler Jared Lintner rigs them up whether he’s on the road competing or fishing close to his Arroyo Grande, Calif., home.
- Jackall Lures Gavacho: Lintner labels this frog a multitasker: It walks, pops and is weedless. He rigs it on baitcasting gear spooled with 25-pound-test monofilament. Pay attention to bass that only follow it, and watch where they go after they turn away. “Then you can catch them with a different technique,” he says.
- Lobina Rico and Heddon Zara Spook: When faced with calm water and little cover, Lintner picks up a Lobina Rico popper, switching to the larger Rio Rico in a breeze or under clouds. As an alternative, he’ll try a Heddon Zara Spook. “It has caught [bass] every day since the day it was invented,” he says. He prefers translucent Ricos in shad or bluegill and Zara Spooks in baby bass, all of which mimic springtime forage.
- Swim Jig: Swim jigs come in myriad colors so you can match any hatch. Use 3/16- to 3/8-ounce jigs depending on cover density, and try different trailers, such as twin-tail grubs for action or swimbaits for speed, until you discover what bass want. Steady retrieves catch plenty, but don’t forget to stop it next to cover and let it settle.
- Jackall Lures Flick Shake: These worms feature a slight kink that creates a wriggling action. Lintner rigs them on the accompanying Flick Shake head or a Neko or drop-shot rig. He’ll throw the 4.8-inch size when conditions are clear and calm and the 5.8-inch version when they’re not. Favorite colors include sunburn melon and prism gill.
- Aaron’s Magic Roboworm: When he needs to put a bait on bottom, Lintner Texas-rigs this straight-tail worm in watermelon. He opts for the 4.5- or 6-inch version in calm conditions, stepping up to a 7-inch one when it’s windy or cloudy. Line is cover dependent. On Santa Margarita Lake, not far from his home, he uses 8-pound test on the lower end where cover is sparse. But in its tributary, where there’s flooded willows and bushes, he switches to 10- or 12-pound test.
This article on bass fishing was featured in the May 2021 issue of Game & Fish Magazine.